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Wednesday, 01 June 2011 18:33

The secret of silk

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For 3,000 years, the source of silk — shimmering, luxurious and terribly expensive — was a closely guarded secret. Silk worms, it’s lucrative little spinners, were kept jealously hidden by the silk makers of China on pain of death.

But today, 8,000 miles and a few millenia from ancient China, the very same worms are readying to produce another crop of precious silk, still one of the most pricey and sought after fibers on the market today.

Cassie Dickson has a tray of them sitting serenely on her dining room table in Sylva, munching on mulberry leaves, the sole diet of the Bombyx mori, the legendary variety of silk worms responsible for producing the lion’s share of the world’s silk.

“I have emergency trees, I have trees everywhere,” says Dickson. “I can spot trees just driving down the road.”

She’s been rearing the insects herself for 21 years now, after a magazine article piqued her interest.

She’d always been interested in handcrafts and fibers; she got traditional weaving and fiber spinning in the 1970s, and today she weaves historical pieces that have found their way into museums and private collections alike.

So she wrote to the woman featured in the article and got a response — along with some silkworm eggs as well.

She hatched them, and now she travels the region, giving out eggs and advice of her own.

The cardboard tray is teeming with a hundred or so worms, which are really more akin to caterpillars, with their knobbly bodies and tiny, sticky feet that make the sound of gently falling rain as they patter over the mulberry leaves.

In their short, month-long run as worms, they’ll grow to 10,000 times their original size, ballooning up from tiny eggs that are no larger than a grain of sand.

They don’t venture out of their cardboard homes, says Dickson, until it’s time to spin, when the fattened worms begin to get antsy for a dark, secluded place to create the hard, oblong cocoons that can eventually be turned into everything from couture eveningwear to wire insulation.

It takes more than just a few worms, however, to get to the prêt-à-porter phase. According to Dickson, it takes 1,000 cocoons to make an average-size ladies’ blouse, which might be why the gossamer threads are so costly. Each two-inch worm will produce one single filament that’s anywhere from 500 yards to a mile long, and it takes around 48 filaments to spin into a single silk thread.

Dickson, though, says she uses the fiber not only for spinning into yarn and thread, but also raw, unraveled and pulled from a cocoon.

Purchased from a factory, raw silk comes in thin, translucent squares that are unraveled from the hardened cocoons that have been softened in water. But rather than spin these, Dickson often just knits this silk straight from its original state, simply pulling it by hand to the desired thickness or space dying it with natural dyes or even Kool-Aid.

That’s a technique she takes into workshops and schools, to demonstrate how versatile the fiber can be.

“The boys always go, ‘that looks like fish bait to me,’” laughs Dickson, but her worms and their products have always proven pretty popular with kids and adults in her classes and workshops.

And, she says, while the month of raising the worms is very labor intensive, she’s never had a problem hatching the eggs, which she keeps dormant in her refrigerator for much of the year.

This year’s herd has about another week before they begin to branch out and spin themselves into their fibrous shells. And for most of them, that’s the end of the line. The majority of the blind, flightless moths that would naturally emerge from the cocoon will never see the light of day, as their chrysalis damages the silk threads. But Dickson will select a few of the most choice cocoons and let them emerge to lay next year’s eggs — “sort-of my selective breeding,” she says — while the others will be stifled, heated slightly to prevent their exit.

Today, most of the silk used in the U.S. comes from China, still a powerhouse in the industry it founded so many thousands of years ago. While domestic production has seen spikes throughout American history, large-scale sericulture died out in the 1930s, thanks to the Great Depression.

But the age-old tradition is alive in places like Western North Carolina, where natural fibers and natural textile techniques are seeing a new vogue. And the secret of silk is still hatching and spinning, year after year, as Dickson passes on eggs and expertise to a new crowd of silk spinners.

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