The Process of Making Silk

How is Silk Really Made?

I am not a big silk fan myself, but I watched this documentary about how silk is made and as a vegetarian and animal rights advocate it was pretty sad for me to watch...but I will let you form your own opinions.

How Silk Is Made

Silk is nature’s miracle material. It’s strong enough to stop bullets and is light enough for parachutes. Silk starts out as silkworms spit, but how does it end up as the material that we know and use every day? Silk is so precious that for centuries you could be killed for revealing the secret of how it is made, but it’s not a secret anymore!

Handmade Silk Process

More than two thirds of the 450,000 tons of silk produced worldwide each year come from China. In Thailand, however, there is a village that is continuing the tradition of their ancestors by creating handmade silk. This silk is considered some of the best in the world.

The process of creating the best silk starts out with the best bugs. Some animals such as spiders and bees create silk, but silk worms are used for manufacturing because they don’t run away when you try to steal their web.

The silk worms begin life feeding on fresh handpicked mulberry leaves. They need to increase their weight by 10,000 times in order to become the silk producing larvae required to make silk. This means that if they were human, they would weigh 70,000 pounds by the time they were a month old.

After 40 days and 40 nights of continuous eating, the worms begin the process of making a cocoon. The cocoon is supposed to be their protection as they make the process into moths. To make the cocoon they use their saliva to produce one long, continuous thread of silk, a half a mile long. This process takes about three to four days.


Silkworm in Cocoon
Silkworm in Cocoon

Once the worms have finished their process of making a silk cocoon, the workers begin their process. They first clean and sort the cocoons. Unraveling the silk is a challenge because the fibers are stuck together by a sticky protein, so the cocoons are dipped into hot water, which softens the proteins and helps to loosen the silk threads. The worms inside the cocoons are a delicacy and set aside to eat for later.

Each thread is only a few thousandths of a millimeter wide. This means that many threads have to be combined to make a thread strong enough for use. Separate strands are pulled from the cocoons and are spun together to produce a thicker, stronger thread. As the long, continuous thread emerges it is set aside for reeling.

The thread is then hand-reeled onto a wooden spoon. The wet silk is weak and can easily be snapped during this process, so the workers sprinkle some rice onto the silk to absorb moisture and strengthen the thread as it gets reeled.

The thread is then wound onto a spinner’s weasel that measures out lengths of thread. Once measured, the thread is hung out to dry.

Changing The Color and Making It Into Material

The resulting dried silk is yellow. The silk needs to be bleached in hydrogen peroxide. Then the silk can be soaked in various colors of dye.

Next the workers use the loom to create cloth from the silk. This is a process that requires the workers full attention. The workers spend about 40 hours on the loom to create about a half of a rug.

As you can see, the demand for silk simply cannot be met by workers using their hands, so technology has stepped in to create silk at a much faster pace. The traditional process described above is still used, but machines work much faster than humans, and they can match the annual output of the workers in just a few hours.

Now you know the secret of where your silk comes from. What once was the saliva from a silkworm is now the fabric that you wear and admire.

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