While the Worm Turns

By Lady Mary of Montevale
Features Reporter, Pennsic Independent

At Sunday’s Day of Fiber-y Goodness in Artisan’s Row, this reporter’s nose was first drawn to a large heap of “skirted” wool which had already had the worst edges removed, but which had not yet even been washed—because of its distinctive barnyard fragrance.
Only moments later, however, a strange wooden contraption caught my eye. It proved to be a Piedmont Reel for reeling silk, reconstructed from a period Italian woodcut by THL Serena Kimbalwyke, this year’s Middle Kingdom A&S Champion.
Lady Serena raises her own domesticated silkworms (and yes, she also has the mulberry trees whose leaves comprise the silkworms’ diet), and I soon found that she knows more about these insects, their biology, and their “product” than almost anyone who doesn’t have a Ph.D. in entomology.
Most people reading this article probably already know that silkworms and silk-making began in China about 4,000 years ago, and the Chinese continued to have a corner on the silk market for a very long time. In the Middle Ages, European silk production was a big industry in what is now modern-day Italy and in parts of France.
But did you know that you can control a silk worm’s rate of development by changing the temperature of its environment? Or that by controlling the light/dark cycle to which it is exposed, you can control whether the worm will be one who hibernates or one who develops in the summer?
Or that genotyping of domestic silkworms has shown their original ancestor from the wild still exists as a species today?
The silkworm only eats in its caterpillar stage. Some modern silkworm farmers prefer to feed the insects commercial silk worm chow rather than mulberry leaves in order to have cocoons available year round. When the adult moths are ready to leave their cocoons, they do not chew their way out, however, medieval people believed that they did. We now know that the moth who is ready to leave the cocoon secretes an enzyme which weakens the “glue” of the strands which form the cocoon, and then the moth crawls out.
This process of the moth leaving the cocoon creates a problem for the person who wants to make reeled silk (the smooth, shiny, “silky feeling” version of the fabric) because it destroys spots in the long filament which the caterpillar produced to spin his cocoon.
(Silk noile, often called “raw” silk in modern times, is the non-shiny fabric with a slubbed surface, and it is made from short fibers. It is referred as “spun” silk, as opposed to “reeled” silk.)
To reel silk, you have to “stifle” the cocoons before the moth has begun to produce the enzyme mentioned earlier. In period times, silk makers did this by steaming the cocoons or placing them in boiling water. [Hey, we do this to lobsters and clams!] Lady Serena freezes her cocoons; she believes it is more humane than the heat methods. She also added that since insects cannot regulate their own body temperature, it may not really matter.
The medieval definition of “raw” silk was “silk that has been reeled but had not been further processed.” This is why extant period records speak of shipping raw silk: they were referring to spools of reeled silk thread which has not yet been woven into fabric.
The secret to successfully reeling silk on the Piedmont Reel is first to find, on the cocoon which has been soaked in hot water, the “one true filament” which is the continuous one. The silk filament goes from the cocoon to the casting arm of the reel which is connected to a turning bobbin. This distributes the filament over the arms of the reel in such a way that wet silk does not rest on already-dried silk. It dries very quickly and is wound off onto a spool.
At this point, several threads do feel to the hand like the silk from which ladies’ fine veils are made, and it is a white color. The silk on the reel as displayed at Artisans’ Row was about 18 cocoons’ worth.
Lady Serena has also raised wild silk worms, and her next project will be to reel wild cocoons. Because the “glue” of the wild cocoons is a tougher substance than that of the domesticated product, she expects she will have to soak the wild cocoons in a basic solution (such as lye) and not in water, which has been proven to break the filament of wild cocoons. She also wants to investigate whether the toughness of the wild cocoons might be based on the silkworms’ diet in the wild or on other factors.
She will be teaching a class on “Reeling Silk with the Piedmont Reel,” this Wednesday at 1 p.m. Please check the Arts and Sciences additions for August 11, either at A&S Point or in the Pennsic Independent, for the location of her class.