Silk Makers

It was back in 2006 I watched a NHK TV program showing a man living in the mountains in Japan, raising silk worms and reeling silk from their cocoons.  He would spin silk threads then dye the skein with a brew of plum trees branches gathered from the mountain behind his house.  After days of toiling at century old loom, TV documentary explained, piece of silk was hand woven.  Viola!  A pretty co-host of the documentary appeared in a peachy pink silk kimono showing off the final product of the whole process.

Fast forward to 2013, I found myself meeting the man in the documentary.  Bryan Whitehead is a Canadian expat  who's been living and working as textile artist, silk, indigo and tea farmer in Japan for last 25 years.  It was a bit surreal to be at Bryan's old silk farm house I saw on that TV program.

By this time, I had been working exclusively with silk for 3 years.  I wanted to see where silk comes from, and how it was produced.  All silk, wether coming from industrialized mills or from smaller scale farm like Bryan's starts with silk worm and cocoons.  I knew from reading books and watching Youtube videos about silk production in macro or in micro scale.  During my stay at Bryan's silk farm house back in 2013, I got to reel silk threads from cocoons, work with indigo vat and tried my hand in weaving with old Japanese loom.

Early this month, I spent a week back at the farmhouse watching the silkworms slowly turning into cocoons.   Silk worms are tender to touch and slow to move.  But they're eating machines, devouring massive amounts of mulberry leaves in order to grow fast. It takes only about 45 days for an egg to develop into a fully grown moth.

I arrived at the farmhouse when worms were almost fully grown- they are at their last week of binge eating before they start to encase themselves in cocoons.  I helped Bryan to collect bagful of mulberry leaves from his mulberry field.  We fed silkworms three times a day.  At their full size, they are about  size of my pinky finger.  Suddenly they stop eating, and each worm instinctually looks for a place to settle and make a cocoon. "Mabushi" is a kind of grid structure designed as cocoon apartments.  Silkworms find his own niche in mabushi and spend a day making cocoon.  Thin, delicate yet strong silk thread combined with waxy glue comes out of worm's mouth and the worm slowly encase itself in layers of this thread - which eventually becomes a cocoon.

It's an impressive sight.  And it's hard to believe every single square inches of my silk clothes comes from (mouth of) these creatures.

It took sometime for me to get there, but I think it was important for me to see the origin of the material I work with day-in and day-out.  As if by osmosis, I think I will be more respectful of the material just by having being present during the process of silk-making by the original silk makers.  

Silkworms on bed of mulberry leaves.

Getting Mabushi ready for this year's cocoons

Mabushi, or apartment complex for silkworms

Apartment hunting.

Looking for a perfect spot.

Cocoon making in process.

Boiled cocoons, getting ready for reeling.

Reeling thread from cocoons
Making a skein from hand pulled silk thread.

This baby is ready for some color.


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