The secret to silk production is the tiny creature known as the silkworm, which is the caterpillar of the silk moth Bombyx mori. It feeds solely on the leaves of mulberry trees. Only one other species of moth, the Antheraea mylitta, also produces silk fiber. This is a wild creature, and its silk filament is about three times heavier than that of the cultivated silkworm. Its coarser fiber is called tussah.
The life cycle of the Bombyx mori begins with eggs laid by the adult moth. The larvae emerge from the eggs and feed on mulberry leaves. In the larval stage, the Bombyx is the caterpillar known as the silkworm. The silkworm spins a protective cocoon around itself so it can safely transform into a
The secret to silk production is the tiny creature known as the silk-worm, which is the caterpillar of the silk moth Bombyx mori. chrysalis. In nature, the chrysalis breaks through the cocoon and emerges as a moth. The moths mate and the female lays 300 to 400 eggs. A few days after emerging from the cocoon, the moths die and the life cycle continues.
The cultivation of silkworms for the purpose of producing silk is called sericulture. Over the centuries, sericulture has been developed and refined to a precise science. Sericulture involves raising healthy eggs through the chrysalis stage when the worm is encased in its silky cocoon. The chrysalis inside is destroyed before it can break out of the cocoon so that the precious silk filament remains intact. The healthiest moths are selected for breeding, and they are allowed to reach maturity, mate, and produce more eggs.
Generally, one cocoon produces between 1,000 and 2,000 feet of silk filament, made essentially of two elements. The fiber, called fibroin, makes up between 75 and 90%, and sericin, the gum secreted by the caterpillar to glue the fiber into a cocoon, comprises about 10-25% of silk. Other elements include fats, salts, and wax. To make one yard of silk material, about 3,000 cocoons are used.
1 Only the healthiest moths are used for breeding. Their eggs are categorized, graded, and meticulously tested for infection. Unhealthy eggs are burned. The healthiest eggs may be placed in cold storage until they are ready to be hatched. Once the eggs are incubated, they usually hatch within seven days. They emerge at a mere one-eighth of an inch (3.2 mm) long and must be maintained in a carefully controlled environment. Under normal conditions, the eggs would hatch once a year in the spring when mulberry trees begin to leaf. But with the intervention of sericulturists, breeding can occur as many as three times per year.
Feeding the larva
2 The silkworms feed only on the leaves of the mulberry tree. The mulberry leaves are finely chopped and fed to the voracious silkworms every few hours for 20 to 35 days. During this period the wormns increase in size to about 3.5 inches (8.9 cm). They also shed their skin, or molt, four times and change color from gray to a translucent pinkish color.
Spinning the cocoon
3 When the silkworm starts to fidget and toss its head back and forth, it is preparing to spin its cocoon. The caterpillar attaches itself to either a twig or rack for support. As the worm twists its head, it spins a double strand of fiber in a figure-eight pattern and constructs a symmetrical wall around itself. The filament is secreted from each of two glands called the spinneret located under the jaws of the silkworm. The insoluble protein-like fiber is called fibroin.
4 The fibroin is held together by sericin, a soluble gum secreted by the worm, which hardens as soon as it is exposed to air. The result is the raw silk fiber, called the bave. The caterpillar spins a cocoon encasing itself completely. It can then safely transform into the chrysalis, which is the pupa stage.
Stoving the chrysalis
5 The natural course would be for the chrysalis to break through the protective cocoon and emerge as a moth. However, sericulturists must destroy the chrysalis so that it does not break the silk filament. This is done by stoving, or stifling, the chrysalis with heat.
Sorting and softening the cocoons
6 The filature is the factory in which the cocoons are processed into silk thread. In the filature the cocoons are sorted by various characteristics, including color and size, so that the finished product can be of uniform quality. The cocoons must then be soaked in hot water to loosen the sericin. Although the silk is about 20% sericin, only 1% is removed at this stage. This way the gum facilitates the following stage in which the filaments are combined to form silk thread, or yarn.
Reeling the filament
7 Reeling may be achieved manually or automatically. The cocoon is brushed to locate the end of the fiber. It is threaded through a porcelain eyelet, and the fiber is reeled onto a wheel. Meanwhile, diligent operators check for flaws in the filaments as they are being reeled.
8 As each filament is nearly finished being reeled, a new fiber is twisted onto it, thereby forming one long, continuous thread. Sericin contributes to the adhesion of the fibers to each other.
Packaging the skeins
9 The end product, the raw silk filaments, are reeled into skeins. These skeins are packaged into bundles weighing 5-10 pounds (2-4 kg), called books. The books are further packaged into bales of 133 pounds (60 kg) and transported to manufacturing centers.
Forming silk yarn
10 Silk thread, also called yarn, is formed by throwing, or twisting, the reeled silk. First the skeins of raw silk are categorized by color, size, and quantity. Next they are soaked in warm water mixed with oil or soap to soften the sericin. The silk is then dried.
11 As the silk filaments are reeled onto bobbins, they are twisted in a particular manner to achieve a certain texture of yarn. For instance, “singles” consist of several filaments which are twisted together in one direction. They are turned tightly for sheer fabrics and loosely for thicker fabrics. Combinations of singles and untwisted fibers may be twisted together in certain patterns to achieve desired textures of fabrics such as crepe de chine, voile, or tram. Fibers may also be manufactured in different patterns for use in the nap of fabrics, for the outside, or for the inside of the fabric.
12 The silk yarn is put through rollers to make the width more uniform. The yarn is inspected, weighed, and packaged. Finally, the yarn is shipped to fabric manufacturers.
Degumming thrown yarn
13 To achieve the distinctive softness and shine of silk, the remaining sericin must be removed from the yarn by soaking it in warm soapy water. Degumming decreases the weight of the yarn by as much as 25%.
Finishing silk fabrics
14 After degumming, the silk yarn is a creamy white color. It may next be dyed as yarn, or after the yarn has been woven into fabric. The silk industry makes a distinction between pure-dye silk and what is called weighted silk. In the pure-dye process, the silk is colored with dye, and may be finished with water-soluble substances such as starch, glue, sugar, or gelatin. To produce weighted silk, metallic substances are added to the fabric during the dying process. This is done to increase the weight lost during degumming and to add body to the fabric. If weighting is not executed properly, it can decrease the longevity of the fabric, so pure-dye silk is considered the superior product. After dyeing, silk fabric may be finished by additional processes, such as bleaching, embossing, steaming, or
Not all of the silk filament is usable for reeled silk. The leftover silk may include the brushed ends or broken cocoons. This shorter staple silk may be used for spinning silk in a manner of fabrics like cotton and linen. The quality of spun silk is slightly inferior to reeled silk in that it is a bit weaker and it tends to become fuzzy. The waste material from the spun silk can also be used for making “waste silk” or “silk noil.” This coarse material is commonly used for draperies and upholstery.