Tending The Silk Makers

WHEN I was four or five years old, my world was very small. But when it widened to include the great outdoors, I watched the yellow chickens pecking at the feed in the yard and I looked at the papery red poppies in bloom. This was in northern Italy under the watchful eyes of my mother and father, who worked their few acres of land. Near the house were several mulberry trees, and in early spring I picked tender mulberry leaves to feed, not to the baby chicks, but to some other busy and very alive creatures. But let me begin at the beginning. Centuries ago, silk and the making of silk in China were a highly guarded secret. Anyone caught stealing the silk-moth eggs was put to death.

Silk was made by the Chinese long before the time of Christ. The Chinese merchants became very wealthy trading in silk with other Asian and European countries before the knowledge of making it spread across the world. It was not available to the general masses, and thus it became known as ``the cloth of kings.''

Justinian, the ruler of the Roman Empire in Constantinople (Istanbul), about the year 550, met two Persian monks who had been to China. They told Justinian the fascinating story of the moth eggs and the silkworms and of the fabric that was created from them. Justinian wanted this secret for his country and he sent the monks back into China. It was a few years later that the monks returned, bringing with them some of the prized eggs hidden in their bamboo walking staffs.

Over the years, the cultivation of the silkworm spread throughout England and Europe, and the resulting fabric was known not only for its beauty but also for its strength.

Thus it came about that my parents nurtured this art and this industry, and in my earliest years I had a small part in the creation of the most precious of fabrics. In summer, the female moth lays hundreds of eggs in mulberry trees, and some silk farmers put a portion of these into cold storage to save for another season.

The minute eggs, smaller than tiny ants, hatch worms that are soon one-eighth of an inch long, perhaps the thickness of a single hair. They start eating the mulberry leaves steadily, and are full grown in five weeks, at which time they are 3 inches long and half an inch thick. Once full grown they stop eating and start spinning their cocoons.

One cocoon can produce 700 to 1,000 feet of silk thread. It is said that a thread of silk is two-thirds as strong as an iron wire of equal size. I don't remember ever being allowed to test its strength when I was a child and saw it handled so carefully by my mother.

My mother always had four large trays filled with silkworms in various stages of growth. As a small child, I helped by tending the lowest tray of the smallest silkworms. It was fun to put a fresh mulberry leaf on the tray and watch them eat so voraciously. Every day we had to clean the trays, taking away the dry leaves, which were inedible. As the silkworms grew, so did their appetites, but by the time they were grown, they were busy burying themselves in their cocoons. When the cocoons were ready for market, Mother would boil them to kill the pupae so they would not bore out of the cocoons and spoil the silk filaments. That done, Mother took them to market to sell.

On a recent trip to China, I visited a silk factory. I saw again all the work needed to make a yard of silk cloth. As I watched, the young factory girls worked with nimble fingers picking filaments from the hot water and placing them on a machine. When dry, the threads would be wound onto large reels. Though they were raw silk threads, at that point they looked like small, thick ropes.

This factory also had a gift shop where silk by the yard could be purchased. It's no longer a guarded secret. On one table lay several vials displaying the growth cycle of the silkworm. The eggs, as always, were very hard to see, just like the tiny ones I once worked with. The display was so memory-provoking that before I left I couldn't resist buying a box of cocoons.

It's a pleasure to share all this now with my family and my friends. I also remember my mother and father, and I think how pleased they would be to know that I have actually been to China, where the cloth of kings was first created.

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