From Silkworms to Scarves - A Small Look Into the World of Silk Production

Of all the fabrics that exist in the world, silk is by far the most renowned amongst them. It has earned its place in almost every civilization as being the prized fabric to possess. In fact, in Middle Eastern traditions it is said the inhabitants of paradise will be adorned with silk clothing.

But where does silk come from? Is it really a tiny little worm that makes this expensive and precious fabric? Well the answer is yes and no.

It is not actually a worm but a caterpillar that makes the thread and it feeds on mulberry leaves intensively. Any serious gaps in the young silk worm feeding routine will have a detrimental effect on the quality of the finished product.

From their birth to that day in which they are ready to begin producing silk they are constantly feeding. At a certain point, approximately 45 days they stop eating and are ready to begin the process of producing silk. The silkworm farmer knows the signs that indicate this stage and what to do to ensure a healthy crop of silk is procured from the silkworms.

Once the silkworm stops eating it spins a cocoon, which is composed of a single thread. These 'cocoons' are then gathered and placed in a steaming room where as many as 2/3 of the worms die inside of the cocoons. Some are kept alive so that they are able to transform into butterflies, mate, lay eggs and keep the silk production continuing.

As for those cocoons that will be used for their thread they are next subjected to an inspection process, that checks for damaged or malformed cocoons.

Once they have passed this inspection they will be placed in hot boiling water to remove the gummy substance surrounding the cocoon. The removal of this substance allows the thread from which the cocoon has been spun to be unwound. Sometimes workers will use special brushes to help with this process.

Depending on the process being used, whether traditional or a more modern one, the threads are either woven together, some take 8 threads at a time, others use a singular thread, others a few at a time.

Next it is placed on a reel and then spun by a reeling machine. Sometimes more than one thread is joined together to form a thicker thread. After this process what is left behind is the remaining, albeit cooked, silkworm. In certain countries this cooked morsel is given to young children. This cooked silkworm is believed to contain many nutrients and a large amount of protein.

After the resulting threads are gathered together and the degumming process is finished they are then subjected to a bleaching process and set out to dry.

What comes next is probably one of the most important aspects in terms of the manufacturer and to some extent the consumer. That process is the dyeing stage.

In many place such as Thailand, Vietnam, and some parts of the Indian Subcontinent they are still using natural dyes. One of the main plants used, wild indigo is responsible for the bluish colors. Other plants are used for a variety of distinct colors and tints. Some examples of these are:

coconut - grey myrobalan - green bisea - orange sappanwood - red eucalyptus - blue-grey

There are of course artificial dyes and colors being used to achieve certain color schemes and designs. To the average person it is very difficult to ascertain whether a fabric has been created using a natural dye or not.

After the dyeing process is complete the threads are hung out to dry in preparation for the next step in the process, spinning. This is where the final product, such as a silk robe, a red silk scarf you can find online, or other piece of clothing begins taking shape.

One thing to keep in mind is that silk, i.e., the thread produced by the silkworms is extremely fine. Thus to obtain a significant amount of silk for the final product, anywhere from 2000-2500 silkworms are necessary to produce just 1 pound of silk.

Spinning is basically a preparation for weaving. The threads are gathered onto spools to ready them for the next step, weaving.

It is at this step, wherein the threads are interlaced, that a fabric is produced. This is either done by a hand loom or a power loom.

From these beautiful and diverse fabrics come the large assortment of fine scarves and other silk garments that are so beloved to silk lovers everywhere. And to think it all starts with a small, puny worm and some mulberry leaves.

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