Friday, 29 June 2012

Silkworms Against Better Judgement

In spring of 1997 I met my potter friend Kiso san and told him that I was not just using indigo but was learning to weave silk from a woman in my town.  He knew someone else who was reeling silk from cocoons and making kimono and would introduce me to her. We met at a silk farmer in a nearby town and had a demonstration of cocoon reeling. My Japanese language speaking ability was pathetic at the time. Especially in a situation where I knew no vocabulary of the silk world. There was a group of silk enthusiasts breeding ancient varieties of silkworms and reeling the cocoons at an old farmhouse. I made it clear that I was very interested in raising silkworms. Sakai san asked me if I had mulberry...Sure I have mulberry. I honestly figured that a single mulberry bush was enough to feed several hundred silkworms for a month. A few days later she brought 7500 small silkworms to my house and basically said, 'Good luck we have too many and don't want to throw them away.' and she disappeared.

I was about to slam into a steep learning curve. Looking back 15 years I shake my head in disbelief at the insanity and hard work I got  myself into. My god. The third floor of my house at that time was a huge open space with broken floorboards, holes in the wall, no ceiling and a lot of dust and junk. About 150 years of dust and junk.  Amongst the junk there was a lot of silkworm raising junk as the house had been raising silkworms for over a hundred years. Borderline impoverished silk farmers throw absolutely nothing away. I lay down a few random sheets of plywood to cover the big holes in the floor and set up a makeshift silkworm refugee camp.

Those few branches of mulberry were gone in a matter of minutes and I had the equivalent of 7500 hungry babies wanting more. There were some great adventures knocking on local farmers doors asking to use abandoned mulberry fields. I have enough stories of those tea drinking leaf-negotiating adventures for a novel. Really. I remember ever moment and every gesture of the old folks in the town and every knarled and cranky mulberry stump I trimmed and nursed back into productivity. Silkworm farming had been dead for twenty five years at that time. That mini-culture of village silkworm cultivation's time stream  was being back-eddied, muddied and woken from a groggy deathbed by my hairy foreign feet. Stomping around with a dumb grin.

Those were the days. Everything I loved seemed to come together at once. Early mornings meaningful work in a field, cutting branches. The local history that was sleeping suddenly awakened with dozens of old timers excited about seeing silkworms again after so many years.  Their lives and their parents and grandparents lives had centered around these things for as long back as they could remember.  There were barns and storehouses I was invited into so generously to dig out old equipment the owners had cherished and yearned to see in use again.  All those memories I cherished and never shared...pre-Internet and blogging. Just some carelessly taken snaphots.

I kept it up for all these years. Last year I wanted to take a break from silkworms. The novelty was still there but I couldn't keep up the mulberry fields, the indigo field and the tea fields, teach classes, do carpentry work on the house and do creative work on my own. I vowed to take a year off. I didn't work out that way when a friend showed up with 5000 new born baby silkworms and begged me to take them. Against my better judgement I raised them and then their children several months later. So much for a year off. I did not breed the moths last autumn and vowed that 2012 would be my year off. Time to step back and reflect and think of what I really wanted to do with my silk farming/ thread making skills. Maybe even give it up if something else called stronger.

I have been struggling with a very burned out body and semi burned out mind these past two months. Forcing myself to go to bed early, take Sundays slow and say 'no' to just about everyone and everything. The past two weeks I've gained back some strength and am pacing myself carefully. The house needs some finishing up for the autumn workshops. Two or three hours a day for carpentry work is the limit right now. But something was missing.

And I am at it again... Isn't she lovely?

I will do silkworms again next year and am raising a batch now to breed for eggs.


  1. i hear your weariness, and then hope, all wrapped up in a worm. take care.

    1. You got it. But she has a few hundred friends....
      She was just striking a pose and was so photogenic!

  2. onesmallstitch30 June 2012 at 09:55

    yes, she's lovely and I imagine hungry! I'm waiting for the novel. Take care, stop and smell the roses.

  3. Passion is passion, you can not stop it.
    There aren't many people around with this kind of drive, it is a curse and a blessing at the same time. Good luck with the new family!

  4. I can't imagine you without a project of some kind on the go. I imagine you would find life very dull and boring, however, a break might be just the rejuvenating stimulus you need. Take care of you and the rest will follow.