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The New Silk Road
From Suzhou to Sonoma

Many thanks to Sarah and Mike Lee of Sarah's Silks for letting us know where playsilks come from.

By Mike Lee

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.

Suzhou (pronounced "Sue Joe") was founded over 2,500 years ago. It has been a city long noted for its Venice-like canals and remarkable gardens. The city, now an international tourist destination, has a bustling urban center with crowded streets and high rises.

That's what most people see when they visit.

Drive twenty minutes out and you will find villages that are considered part of Suzhou, but life there is a world apart. The homes have small gardens or fish ponds. Even the village or town center has a small town feel to it with low two-story brick buildings and only the intermittent car or truck passing by groups of people standing around talking and passing time.

Fan Su Jing has lived here in Tong An village all her life. Her house sits behind an expansive pond of lotus plants and has a curved, tile roof and large rooms. It has the look of being hundreds of years old. We're sitting in her spacious front room, which has a family banner on one wall and only a few chairs. At sixty-one, she is wiry and energetic. Her eyes sparkle as she laughs at my questions. Today she's taking a day off to work with her adult daughter and neighbors hemming playsilks.

On market days, she is off before dawn, driving to her neighbors' ponds to buy fish. When the markets open, she's there with large tubs full of water, weighing out live fish off the back of her truck. "The fish, how big?" I ask. She holds out her arms, like she's holding a huge watermelon.  She explains that when she had young children, she and her mother would sit in this same room and hem scarves. The family relied on her husband working in their rice fields for the main part of their income, but the hemming was a help.

I ask her daughter Chun Hong how old she is. "Guess", she says. "Eighteen, nineteen at the most," I say. The room bursts into laughter. I'm thinking that my pronunciation must have been really bad this time. No, her neighbor explains that she's twenty-nine years old and has a ten year old boy!  "What's your day like?"  She gets her son up, makes breakfast, packs a lunch and makes sure he has all his books and homework ready and then they "zai" to school.  There she loses me. Turns out that she means she rides her bike with him sitting on the rear rack. When she gets back home, she and the neighbors get together to hem. When school's over she "zais" him home. It’s time to make sure he does his homework, while she begins to make dinner. "Why do you hem scarves?" She gives me a look, as if now I've asked another ridiculous question. "I need the money, but if I take a factory job, I won't be home to take care of my son." Everyone in the room is nodding. "What does the hemming buy?" Chun Hong says that she spends it on a lot of family expenses, but she has just paid for new school clothes and food for the last week.

One recurring theme that was voiced by the women was their hope and pride for their child’s education. Some of the women had not finished high school and were proud that their children were going to do what they could not. These families lack the means to afford many of the after-school tutoring and music instruction for their children that others have. However, they are there for their children when school is over. They can make the family dinner and make sure that their children do their homework. Factory work can mean a time-consuming, standing-room only, bus ride across the city. Work days can be eight to twelve hours a day, six days a week. To these women, it is more important to be there for their children.

There are thousands of women in Tong An village that do hemming for many companies. Through a voucher system, we ensure that the women who hand sew the beautiful hems on our playsilks are paid at 25% above market rate.

With our own three children beneficiaries of a Waldorf education, we also feel a connection to the Waldorf movement in China. We have visited and support the Chengdu Waldorf School in Sichuan province. You may remember that the city of Chengdu suffered severe damage during the 2008 earthquake. With their own school in shambles, the teachers went out into the city to hospitals and parks to play games and tell stories to the children they would meet. The founders, Harry Wong and his wife Li Zhang, work tirelessly promoting Waldorf education to their parent community and organizing teacher trainings. Today, their school faces many of the same challenges that Waldorf schools face everywhere: communicating the relevance of Waldorf education in our changing world, training new teachers, building new classrooms, and finding a way to make their education affordable to Chengdu families.


Making Playsilks
From Caterpillars to Cloth

By Sarah Lee

Did you ever wonder where the silk for playsilks comes from?  We did!  So, we spent some time finding out. We took a trip to China to chronicle the process from the mulberry trees to the hemmed playsilks. 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 in California.

The trip to China involved quite a bit of travelling in order to see the farmers, the raising and care of the silkworms, 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.

In early spring, thousands of families in rural China trek into fields to strip the last mulberry leaves from the trees. Mulberry leaves are the only leaves that silkworms will eat. The leaves must be fresh, as silkworms will not drink water and the leaves supply all the moisture they need. By the end of April, silkworm trays fill homes.  The silkworms are at their largest and their appetite is truly immense. They are in their last week, and at this age, they can eat their body weight in leaves in a day.

Typically, the women care for the silkworms in the home. They must keep the trays clean, be vigilant for signs of sickness, and make sure that there are always fresh leaves to eat. Young leaves and buds are sorted for the very young. As the silkworms grow older (and bigger!), they must be moved to new trays to avoid crowding. This is all after making breakfast for the family, sending the children off to school, and working in the garden or fields.

While the silkworms and the people who raise them deserve much of the glory, I think the unsung heroes of silk-making may be the mulberry trees themselves. Once a cutting is planted and established, it requires no further watering. The trees can be pruned low, much like grape vines for easy picking. The farmers prune the trees back after the caterpillars go into their cocoons and they keep the trees low so it is easy to cut the leaves. Once cut, the trees will send out a flush of new shoots time and again every spring. The 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.

In some farms, the mulberry trees are planted along the edge of fish ponds and are enriched with the pond dredgings. When grown on hillsides, they prevent soil erosion. And they’re tough and undemanding. Where tea plants cannot be cultivated because the soils are too poor, mulberry trees can often be grown.

Both the flowers and leaves are eaten. They are people-friendly too. No thorns and their branches snap off for easy carrying. Since silkworms are very chemically-sensitive, mulberry trees are never sprayed, but are generally not bothered by pests and diseases.

I don’t really know how many mulberry leaves a silkworm eats in its life, but it’s a lot. And those leaves had to be grown by a tree. So when a child plays with a playsilk, he is playing with rays of golden sunshine, warm rain, and a mountain of mulberry leaves!

The silkworms are kept in bamboo baskets and fed by hand.  It takes many times a worm’s weight in leaves each day to satisfy the worm’s voracious appetite. 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 two to three days.

The pupa spends about three 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. It takes 250 cocoons to make one playsilk.

We have the yardage sent to a small village near Suzhou 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 Silkworm 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 and watching them transform is educational. The hardest part for us was finding enough leaves to feed them as they grew! 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 three 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.  Each day a few moths emerged. We held and admired them and watched as they laid 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 and 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 their cocoons!

If you would like to try raising your own silkworms next spring, you can buy eggs from the Silkworm Shop. (make sure you have mulberry leaves first!)

"With time and patience the Mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown." ~ Ancient Chinese Proverb

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