The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Making silk out of silkworm cocoons

Silkworm cocoon

Due to some dieoff during our final silkworm week, we ended up with only ten silkworm cocoons, but that should be enough to carry our livestock on to the next generation.  I was amazed by the colors of the cocoons, especially the brilliant orange one that almost looks fake.  My understanding is that commercial silkworm producers select for white cocoons so that they don't have to bleach the silk before dying it.

One of our chicken blog readers wrote in to ask if she could have our cocoons after we're done with them, which made me realize it's far from common knowledge how silk is produced.  Unfortunately, you have to decide whether to use your cocoons to make silk or whether to let the moths escape and breed, so our cocoons will end up being useless from a fiber perspective.

Silkworm cocoon

If you're not trying to breed the moths, though, it is quite feasible to make silk on the backyard scale if you're up for some tedious labor.  Just boil the cocoons once they're fully formed, which kills the pupae inside and dissolves the glues binding the silk together.  Each cocoon is made up of one extremely long strand, which you can tease apart and wind up, then weave like any other thread.  The reason you can't raise the moths and still use the thread is that the mature insect gnaws its way to freedom, breaking that long thread into many smaller pieces that are much less useful.

Mark and I are still on the fence about whether silkworm culture is an efficient use of time, but we're definitely going to breed our moths and start tweaking the procedure so it works better.  Stay tuned for round two, coming up next month.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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This was an interesting post that I should pass on to my fiber artist friend, even though she prefers indigo. She has had chickens and seems on the same wavelength.

You think I could market any of the mulberry seedlings in our backyard urban homestead nursery? I am kind of kidding since I think they are being sold in bulk online for like 2.50 for 100...

I think it is an interesting idea and harkens back to the Sow's Ear purse analogy.

Comment by Maggie Thu Jul 4 07:40:49 2013

I just watched a video yesterday that showed yellow/orange cocoons, and I was surprised as well. I also found it interesting at how finely they minced the mulberry leaves for the emerging silkworms. I have really enjoyed your silkworm project, thanks for the updates!

Comment by Michael Thu Jul 4 13:52:09 2013
The fibers might not be as useful for spinning into yarn, but they would still be good for a number of other applications. I could see using silk threads in papermaking and in a number of collage combinations, for example. Apparently you can use them in soap making too - (I have no affiliation, I just found it in a Google search).
Comment by WendP Thu Jul 4 19:59:41 2013
Pierced cocoons are usable too, they are boiled to dissolve the sericin and then carded. The yarn isn't as smooth as that reeled from whole cocoons but it is still silk :). Ever see an ad for a garment made from "raw silk"? That's carded fiber from the inside of the cocoon, or from cocoons that are left after the moth emerges. Silk noil, the very short, tangled parts from the very inside of the cocoon, is most often dyed and used as an accent in a tweedy yarn. Now you have had your fiber lesson for today, lol!
Comment by Beth C. Fri Jul 5 06:42:47 2013

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