South Africa’s Silk Road…

South Africa’s Silk Road…

Different worms and different silk colours (note that the worms are not next to the colours they spin though).

So today we bring you the first of our stories from our recent sojourn to Mpumalanga. You may not have been aware that we have a silk road… Technically, you would be right – we don’t. We have a silk spot. In fact, there are, to my knowledge, only two silk spots in South Africa – and only one of those produces actual silk fabric used to create clothing etc. But it makes an intriguing title, don’t you think? Interesting fact – the silk thread making up a cocoon can be up to 1.5km long! So, if you ever visit this spot, about half the length of the dirt road leading into the macadamia and avo farm on which Africa Silks is located. Or the length of 15 rugby fields place end to end…  Fascinating.

The red dirt road leading into the Africa Silks farm.

The production of silk originated in Neolithic China (within the Yangshao culture) during, 4th millennium BC. Silk remained confined to China until the Silk Road opened in 114 BC. China still managed to maintain its virtual monopoly over silk production for another thousand years. Slowly silk cultivation spread to Japan (around 300 AD), and, by 552 AD, the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) managed to obtain silkworm eggs and were able to begin silkworm cultivation; the Arabs also began to manufacture silk at this time. The Crusades brought silk production to Western Europe where Italy in particular saw an economic boom exporting silk to the rest of Europe. And in the 90’s Ronel Swart brought silk production to South Africa.

If you look carefully, you can see the thin thread of silk (exiting left off the image).

In the early 90s, Ronel started her journey with silk via the South African Government, as a job creation initiative. They, however, decided that the project used too many resources and closed the project down. Many people’s livelihoods depended on the project, including Ronel’s, and so she decided to continue. Realising that she needed expertise, she travelled to Taiwan to learn more. On her return, Africa Silks was established (1999) with a small showroom and a weaver in Graskop. She soon realised that it was too expensive to import the silk required to manufacture products from the East. And so, the farm was born. After much trial and error, she eventually found her winning combination and the rest is history. The company focuses on job creation, retail and empowering the local communities. The employees are encouraged to embrace their creative side and contribute their own beautiful designs. The company believes that the beauty of hand-crafted products is lost when governed by rules, and thus encourages each individual’s creative talents to shine out of the products they produce.

The farm also occasionally creates (much rougher) silk products from the mopane worm cocoons.

Most of us remember owning (and trading) silkworms when we were much younger. Rumour had it that lettuce created almost-white silk, mulberry leaves produced bright yellow and (the most fun of all) beetroot allowed for a pink hue on the silk cocoons. I shudder to think how many little worms died in the process of being forced to eat completely inappropriate food in our misspent youth! At the silk farm, the tiny worms get only the brand-new mulberry leaves, the slightly older worms get the slightly more mature leaves and so on. 

The total life cycle of a silkworm ranges from 6-8 weeks. Generally, the warmer the weather, the quicker the cycle, which begins as soon as the female silk moth produces eggs. The life cycle of mulberry silkworm is completed in approximately 45-55 days, and consists of egg, larva, pupa and moth stages. The egg stage takes about 9-10 days. Females lay about 300 to 500 eggs (which hatch within 7 to 14 days when kept at temperatures of 24 to 29 °C) and then die. 

The pupae are carefully removed and allowed to hatch outside the cocoons.

The larval stage lasts 24-28 days, during which a silkworm’s weight multiplies by around 10,000 from the time it is hatched to the time it reaches one month (these numbers vary depending on different reports, but the newly hatched larvae are almost microscopic). When they are fully developed, a weave is netted around by the silkworm to hold itself. After that it swings its head, spinning a fibre made of a protein (which is the silk), making a beautiful yellow cocoon. The pupal stage lasts 8-10 days and finally the moth emerges. Copulation between silkworm moths lasts for several hours. After mating, the female silkworm moth lays her tiny eggs. Silkworm moths do not eat or drink, and once they have mated and the eggs are laid, they die (around five days after emerging). In areas where the seasons change, silkworm moths reproduce only once each year. In areas where the climate is always warm (or artificially controlled), the moth’s life cycle is ongoing. The production of raw silk by means of raising caterpillars is known as “sericulture”.

Once mated, the moths are placed on the laying paper and covered with a little container with airholes – to limit their laying area to a specific section.

There are three main variations of the Bombyx Mori silkworm breed; Zebra Silkworms, Tiger Silkworms, and White Seductress Silkworms. Interestingly, Zebra Silkworm eggs are sex limited, with the males being pure white and the females having zebra stripes and spinning a white cocoon.

Said to be the strongest natural textile in the world, silk also has other desirable properties. It is lightweight and good at maintaining your body temperature which means it can help you feel cool in hot weather and warm in the cold. Silk absorbs up to 30% of its own weight in moisture, but as the moisture gets locked away inside its structure it doesn’t feel clammy against the skin. Silk also dries very fast and offers great moisture-wicking performance. It is naturally hypoallergenic and antimicrobial, but the most sought-after property is its incredible beauty.

Thank you, little worms!!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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