Did you ever wonder where the silk for playsilks comes from? We did! So, we spent some time finding out. First we took a trip to China to chronicle the process from the Mulberry trees to the hemmed playsilks; then we came home and raised some of our own silkworms in our living room and in our son’s third grade class at our local waldorf school.
The trip to China involved quite a bit of travelling around in order to see the farmers, the silkworm raising, the spinning, weaving and finally the hand hemming of our playsilks. It was an exciting educational trip. We also visited the Chengdu Waldorf School, an oasis in a big city, quite similar to waldorf schools in the US.
Mike is interested in trees, so he was curious about how the Mulberry trees were grown. He found out that the farmers prune the trees back after the caterpillars go into their cocoons, they keep the trees low so it is easy to cut the leaves. New branches and leaves come out in spring.
Then farmers explained that chemicals can’t be used on the trees as the silkworms are sensitive, so they till the soil and use natural fertilizers. The farmers have to be careful that everything is kept clean; larvae are extremely sensitive to insecticides. It takes many trees to feed the silkworms. Mostly the worms are raised in homes. The women are feeding them and after school the children helped too.
The silk worms are kept in bamboo baskets and fed by hand. It takes many times a worms weight in leaves each day to satisfy them. They eat and grow for about a month at which time they spin their cocoons in the bamboo baskets. Watching the caterpillars spin is truly amazing. They make a figure eight-like motion with their heads and spit comes out of their mouths; as it dries it hardens. This is the silk thread. They proceed to winding themselves up in it, over 2-3 days.
The pupa spends about 3 weeks in the cocoon metamorphosing. Then they begin to emerge, making a hole in the cocoon, they come out and flap their wings to dry them.
The moths only live for a few days, they can’t eat or fly. They just mate, lay eggs and die. Some moths are allowed to emerge naturally, to lay eggs and mate, but some are not. Some of the cocoons are harvested whole, so the silk threads will be long and smooth. The cocoons are taken to be sorted and the eggs are then gathered, kept in a cold place for at least a month, until the cycle begins again!
To find the thread on a silk cocoon the women soak them in hot water to remove the sticky gum, and then brush it lightly to find the end. The end is attached to a spinning machine and spools are wound. These spools are taken to looms where the silk is woven into yards and yards of cloth.
We have the yardage sent to a small village near Suzhou China where women hem them for us by hand in their home. They are boxed up, put on a ship and sent to us, we dye them and send them to you!
After seeing the process we couldn’t wait to start; but wait we did, until the mulberry trees had leaves. We received our eggs in the mail from the Silk Worm Shop. The eggs are tiny and hard to see, but within a week we had little black squirmy caterpillars.
It was a fun exciting project and easy! The worms and moths are study creatures and can be safely handled by children. The whole life cycle happens quickly; watching them transform is educational. The hardest part for us is finding enough leaves to feed them as they grow! We drove around our little town, knocking on doors asking to pick leaves. At school many children brought leaves in from home. As they grew, the children changed their bedding every few days, dumping out the old leaves and pool into the compost. It is important to keep the caterpillars dry and fed.
After about 3 weeks we put egg cartons in the box with them and they began to spin! The holes in the cartons are just the right size for spinning. Each morning it was exciting to wake up and see the progress they were making.
Once they all cocooned we waited for about three weeks until one day we saw movement and one popped out, peeing a bit as she did. Each day a few moths emerged. We held and admired them and watched as they lay little yellow eggs. We put some paper towels down so we could harvest the eggs. We put them in plastic bags and refrigerated them for next year.
We had many cocoons so we decided to dye them with the kids. Using food coloring, white vinegar in warm water one can simply dip them. The colors are vibrant as silk takes dye very easily. Some of us made necklaces out of our cocoons; stringing them with ribbons. Some of the boys played table football with theirs!
If you would like to try raising your own silkworms this spring here are some places to buy eggs (make sure you have mulberry leaves first!):
Interesting facts about silk:
Silk produced by the silk worm, when compared thicknesses were equal, was stronger than steel.
Silk culture has been practiced for at least 5,000 years in China.
It takes 250 cocoons to make one playsilk.
Legend says a Princess, daughter of the Yellow Emperor in China discovered silk when a cocoon fell out of a mulberry tree into her tea one day. She saw the threads unravel and had the idea to spin it. Her name was Si-ling. To this day some silkworm farmers say a prayer to her each spring.
~ Ancient Chinese Proverb