Sunday, 5 June 2011

Silkworms Spring 2011

Most of the silkworms are now cocoons now. Some late bloomers still munching away on mulberry. The eggs hatched two weeks early and the weather is unseasonably chilly this year. The rainy season started a few weeks early as well. This meant keeping kerosene heaters burning for several weeks to keep the silkworms happy. The silkworms on the top three shelves started spinning a full two days earlier than their brethren on the lower shelves. This threw a bit more chaos into the system of getting 3500 (estimate) crawling critters from the rearing trays to the spinning cardboard frames. But the system in the chaos and the chaos in the system played out well enough.

A and B grade cocoons were separated and sold from the farmhouses for hundreds of years in Japan. The cocoons that were irregular in shape, making them hard to reel single filaments were rejects and the farmer's wife would use them to weave kimono for her family. These kimono are the real treasures. Infinitely more charming and warm than the city slick perfection of their urban relatives. Often two silkworms would become entangled and spin a double cocoon. These cocoons can be reeled a special way to get a shiny slab like thread.

This year's cocoons are going to become a single men's kimono and obi belt. The threads will be made three different ways for this project.

First: Fine threads made from reeling ten cocoons and then combining six of these threads to get a perfectly smooth lustrous warp thread.

Second: The above mentioned double cocoon (tamamayu ito) thread will be used every third or fourth thread of the warp for texture.

Third: Cocoons will be melted in a straw ash liquid and then stretched into floss and then hand spun for a soft weft thread.

To make the double cocoons you need some real perseverance. A silkworm will loosely spin and outside frame for the cocoon leaving a space to stick out it's tail. Then it gets rid of waste alkaline water and pulls it's tail back in and continues to spin it's cocoon for three days. The trick is to pull the silkworm out of it's slightly formed cocoon at this stage and put it in a box with another silkworm at the exact same stage and cover it with glass so they can't escape and hopefully they will spin a cocoon together. Very tricky timing. And they get kind of smushed faces when you put the glass on while they are trying to escape.

The pictures are a little confusing but you should get the idea.

It is impossible not to anthropolize the whole process. Forcefully putting two silkworms in a small frame forcing them to make a single cocoon
without even knowing their compatibility, sex...or if silkworms have a sexual preference...or even gender issues...or astrological compatibility. (Although they were all born within a few hours of each other.)

Fate throwing them two together until death do them part in the boiling water that awaits them. Some just refuse to have anything to do with each other and make two separate squished cocoons. One may die in the process making a complete mess of the others attempt at cocoon spinning.

The anthropolizing was truly getting out of hand today as I was playing evil roles of investment banker and the worms my helpless victims of my greedy investment schemes. If Paulson and Bernanke were silk farmers what would their roles be in relation to the helpless but potentially profitable silkworms? OK OK. Too much work on double cocoons. Time for bed.


  1. reminds me of wendell berry's mad farmer poems

  2. Thanks for the info regarding the double cocoons. I bought a silk filled comforter in Beijing several years ago and had always wondered what would cause the double cocoons that are used. I hadn't realised that they do it by force. That's very interesting.

  3. Besides a few real silk/cocoon fanatics, I doubt there is anyone out there purposely making double cocoons these days. The dried double cocoons available in Japan come from Brazil. I wonder if they make them on purpose?