February 18, 2004

Cocooned

Getting to Gig Harbor was an adventure in itself. I was scheduled to leave Happy Holler at 5:30, to be chauffeured by the Great Gray One to the Chateau des Chaussettes Bleus for dinner before continuing on to the retreat. My bags were packed: one small suitcase, one large knitting bag, one large bag of spinning implements and one spinning wheel.

At 6:30 my chauffeur pulled into the driveway. Intending to cause laughter, I had arranged myself at the top of the stairs facing the door. Sherlock sat in my lap and Ginger sat beside me: all of us were at strict attention. Papa G opened the door and thought I was angry. A bit off-balance, he proposed that he take the bags to the car while I bring the big dogs in. Not wanting to get muddy paws all over me, I suggested the opposite. So it was that Papa left the front door open for me to take bags to the car. So it was that the big dogs saw their opportunity for freedom and took it.

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Luckily, after only 45 minutes, a neighbor recognized Grazzi and Harvey and started walking them home. Papa G, in the green monster scouting around for free poodle and shepherd pairs, saw them and brought them home.

After a lovely dinner at the Chateau, Karen, Anne and I drove over to Gig Harbor, a pleasant drive taking less than an hour, but crossing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. As you may know, the Narrows Bridge broke once, flinging cars into the water below. Some of us remember this as we drive over it.

Day 1: Spinning With Silk, taught by Judith MacKenzie-McCuin

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(This is the silk I have been spinning since I got home. Some of it is fine as frog's hair, some is as thick as a tomcat's whisker. It is beautiful, and I am enjoyed the process immensely.)

If you were to see Judith MacKenzie in a crowd, you might pass over her. She looks like an ordinary woman with a normal life, like someone who might belong to your knitting guild or who might be interested in attending fiber events. Her wheel was set up in the classroom, and I happened to be sitting in the chair next to hers. I was surprised, then, when this woman opened her mouth and starting speaking silk. She was forever changed, having morphed into a wonderful, knowledgeable, talented and fascinating expert on fiber and textiles, but also a compassionate and humble member of society.

There are two kinds of silk in the world: Bombyx and Tussah. Bombyx silk is produced by the bombyx mori silkworm, a cultivated worm which can no longer live on its own. The silk it produces is white-- it is bred for the whiteness, fineness and brilliance of the silk. It feeds only on mulberry leaves, so it is often referred to as "mulberry silk". Tussah means "wild" and refers to any silk other than Bombyx. The color of Tussah silk depends upon what the worms eat. The more tannin in the food source, the darker the silk will be. Colors will range from an off-white through a rusty brown.

Any worm that develops into a moth or butterfly produces silk. The worm, after it is hatched, begins feeding. It eats a tremendous amount of leaves-- up to a bushel per day for one worm! In China there is an actual occupation called a "Silkworm Tickler". This Tickler is not allowed to cut their hair or fingernails, must be celibate and eat a vegeterian diet during the tickling season, because silkworms are quite sensitive and their production of silk could be affected by these changes. The worms eat continuously, and when there is a large colony of worms eating the sound is like that of the dull roar of traffic on a freeway. Sometimes the worms become a bit lethargic and slow down in their eating, so the Tickler uses a feather to tickle them awake so that they can begin eating again. The worm eats so much that he must replace his lower jaw every so often!

After about two weeks, the worm begins to create his cocoon. The spinnerette is located in its throat. He spins the cocoon around himself-- cocoons vary in size, but the ones I have seen are the size of a small chicken egg. Inside the cocoon, he creates a little space that is surrounded by a resinous substance, and there he hibernates.

When the cocoon is ready, the worm is "stifled" by putting the cocoon in an oven to bake for a short while. If the worm was allowed to survive, it would damage the silk fibers when it broke out. Judith was always saying things like, "the most amazing thing....", but her most emphatic amazing thing was this: if you break open a cocoon in the early stages of hibernation, you can pour out a milky protein. There is no worm. There is no moth! Somehow this milky protein rearranges itself into a six-legged winged creature! Scientists have been studying this for many years and can't figure it out.

Once the worm has been stifled, the cocoon can be put into hot water to melt the resin. The end of the fiber is located on the outside of the cocoon and the silk is "reeled" off the cocoon. There is an average of 5000 yards of silk fiber per cocoon.

The secret of silk was closely guarded by the Chinese for thousands of years. It slipped out when a woman, being forced to marry a man she despised, used it to negotiate her escape from that union. How cool is that?

A silkworm can last indefinitely if frozen or dried. Worms in the Antarctic have survived for a thousand years, frozen. They were revived and resumed their normal life cycle. Some Japanese families would name a partcular silkworm and revere it for generations (obviously it was the worm family and not that particular worm).

Tomorrow: love letters and silk samples.


Sherlock is determined to have me finish this beaded wrist warmer (One of Susanna's) for him. They're great fun to make!

sherlockwristlet.jpg


Posted by Sheila at February 18, 2004 07:09 AM | TrackBack
Comments

I just gobbled up every word of your silk info. Amazing, fascinating, wonderful stuff! Thanks, Sheila! Looking forward to more of your Gig Harbor Travelogue!

Posted by: Ryan on February 18, 2004 08:56 AM

What a wonderful description. You make it all come alive. I simply adore the photo of Sherlock. I will see if I can get one of my pets or kids to model the beaded cuff that I am currently finishing. I think getting a dog or cat to wear it would be easier than getting my son to try it, but my daughter probably wouldn't let me have it back!

Posted by: Anne on February 18, 2004 10:58 AM

Ms. Judith is coming to our fiber fair in the spring to teach some classes. I'm really hoping I will get to take one or more.

Posted by: LisaK on February 18, 2004 11:51 AM

But did Judith tell you of the existence of "silkworm chow"?
Would *love* to know the whereabouts of the pattern for the beaded wristwarmer. Love the looks of yours!!!
Hey, does Happy Holler have a B&B? It's sounding more & more like I need to (someday) visit Madame's parlor (I wish! Gotta remember to buy those lottery tickets! :-)

Posted by: Caroline in NH on February 18, 2004 12:12 PM

Anne, maybe you could model it and your son could take the photo! Machines and tools, he'd go for that, wouldn't he?! Lisa, if you have a chance to take a class from Judith, don't pass it by! And where/when in the spring? I might consider driving out for that.

Carolyn, Judith didn't mention silkworm chow, but I heard someone else who did. Researching a tiny bit, I'm confused as to whether it is used to feed real silk-production worms-- the only reference I found referred to silkworm "farms" that are sold through toy stores to kids.

Happy Holler has one of the B's -- Breakfast by Brad, but no extra B-rooms, unfortunately. However, you are most welcome to visit the Parlor any time you find your way over to the opposite coast!

Posted by: Sheila on February 18, 2004 01:00 PM

I googled 'silk work chow' and look what I found!

http://www.recorpinc.com/silkchow.html

The always curious, Linda B.

Posted by: Linda B. on February 18, 2004 01:55 PM

Sorry, it was 'silk WORM chow'!

Hanging her head, Linda B.

Posted by: Linda B. on February 18, 2004 01:56 PM

of course madame doesn't have an extra b, i envision skeins of yarn bursting out of windows.

Posted by: vanessa on February 19, 2004 03:17 AM

I am sick with envy. Despite many, many desperate attempts, I cannot spin silk. I know that someday I'll get it , so I keep trying. Yours is lovely. Just lovely.

Posted by: Stephanie on February 19, 2004 05:12 AM

I am looking for a phone number or email address for Judith MacKenzie. Judith and I spend many hours, days, weeks, months and years as neighbours on Salt Spring Island British Columbia, spinning, weaving and dying. I'd like to get in touch with her again, maybe surprise her at one of her classes or something. Thanks to anyone who can help.
My home # 604 486 0009
Fax # 605 486 0000

Posted by: Laurie Kilner on February 21, 2004 05:36 AM

correct my fax # to 604 486 0000 on the above. Thanks again.
Laurie Kilner

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