A Second Lesson in Silk

:: in which we discover how many is too many ::

In my first post about raising silkworms, I said I would come back with a second post about processing the silk. We’re not yet at that point, but I think it’s time for an intermediate post updating you on our progress. Here’s where things are now:

Imagine living in the middle of a steamy, cramped Thai silk factory. You’re surrounded by tray upon tray of silkworms, noisily eating mulberry leaves day and night and night and day. The air is heavy with the moisture of decomposing leaves and silkworm digestion. And you’re going crazy from the chewing sounds, and the mess, and the smell, and the ceaseless work of feeding these exotic monsters.

That’s my life right now. Except I’m not in Thailand, I’m in Michigan. And instead of a sensible outdoor shed, the silkworms are in my house. Every surface in my dining room is stacked high with trays full of hungry caterpillars. The dining table has been out of commission for over five weeks. We have no place to eat dinner. We have no table for doing schoolwork. All eight chairs have been turned into towering luxury silkworm condos.

stacked trays containing spinning caterpillars, and a tray of completed cocoons
stacked trays containing spinning caterpillars, and a tray of completed cocoons

Silkworms take about a month to go from egg to cocoon. If a person has a reasonable number of caterpillars, this month probably passes quickly. I wouldn’t know though, because I don’t do things in reasonable quantities. I would say 100 silkworms is a reasonable number. I have 3,000.

It’s been almost six weeks, and these silkworms are taking their sweet time getting zipped up into cocoons. I spend about three hours a day feeding them, cleaning their trays, and moving the ones that are spinning cocoons to a different tray. On top of this, my husband spends another hour every day climbing a ladder to cut down armloads of mulberry branches and then plucking all the leaves off. And after that, I spend one last hour crumpled in a heap on the floor, weeping and sucking my thumb.

100 caterpillars per tray
100 caterpillars per tray

Do you know that some people actually have silk rugs in their homes? That they walk on?! Given everything I explained above, you can understand if I have anger toward silk rugs. After all the work we put into producing a hard-won crop of silk, I can’t imagine someone walking all over it.

This is something I think about a lot. Huge amounts of work go into making the products we use every day. Of course you would expect something like a hand-knotted Tibetan rug to be a labor-intensive work of art. But what about a cheap plastic toy from the dollar store? Even that took a lot of work to make. Someone had to design and build a mold to make that toy, and after a few runs they take it apart and build a new mold for the next $1 toy. Seems like a lot of work for nothing.

Farming silk also seems like a lot of work for nothing, sometimes. Other times, I know why I do this. It’s a pretty neat trick to take a simple insect, some leaves, and a bit of time and end up with one of the most valuable and precious textile fibers in the world. Silk is beautiful, rare, and luxurious. The fact that you can make it in your own home, basically out of leaves, is amazing to me. And I like to be part of that process. Plus, it’s shiny.

People have asked me which of the new projects we’ve tried this year will we NOT be doing again in the future? So far, I’ve said we have enjoyed them all and will be repeating every one. But here, I have met my match. Yes, we will raise silkworms again next year. But not 3,000. I’m thinking of a nice round number…say 100?

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