Reeling Silk

This is a little photo-journal of the silk reeling process as I do it. I’ve raised silkworms for three years now, and this is how you go about getting the cocoons turned into thread.

This is most of the basic setup. There are two crockpots, one for pre-heating and one for the cocoons that are being reeled; there are forks and slotted spoons, there is a reel (from the 1850’s, we’re guessing) and a ball winder, and lots of cocoons. The work surface is covered first with plastic bags, because the cocoons drip, and then with towels. Silk will get *everywhere*, and if you don’t have something like a towel handy to wipe your fingers on, it’s almost impossible to get free of it.

I begin by simmering the cocoons in the hot water. They need to get pretty drenched, but they don’t need to boil at all. We call this “Pupa Soup.” It smells like dead bugs, because, well, dead bugs. Once the cocoons have loosened up a little, and maybe you’ve held them under the water with the spoon until they stop fizzing, then you can start the Quest for the One True Thread. Each cocoon is made from one thread. The trick is finding it. You start with the toothbrush, which is like taking apart a ball of yarn with a serving fork. You separate out a lot of dead ends, and then you hopefully find the Right One.

In the process of finding the right end, you waste a lot of silk. It’s OK, though, because it isn’t stuff you can reel anyway; it’s short bits from where the cocoon was just getting started. Keep this, though – you can degum it and use it to spin with. This is where silk noil comes from. You can see the waste from two cocoons; some produce more than others. I take it off by wrapping it in a figure-eight shape around my index and ring fingers, while holding the cocoon in the other hand.

When you are about to the One True Thread, it will look much like this. I still have one or two extras here – but once you get the One True Thread, the cocoon tends to unravel, and won’t pose for the picture.

Chris is intrigued with the Pupa Soup, and decides to give it a try.

The Pupa Soup is not delicious.

Here, if you look *really* close, you can see the individual threads coming off all the cocoons. I’m holding them up.

You can check to see which cocoons are connected to the reel, by pulling the bundle of threads to one side… I call this “herding” the cocoons. The ones that are detached will just float, the ones that are attached will follow the threads.

These are the cocoons, just about to start reeling. I ended up switching pots later on, though, so don’t be confused if you notice it changing. The threads showed up nicer against the dark green, so I used this one for the pictures. Notice the stand, and the little bone button hanging over the pot – this will help to condense the multiple cocoon threads into a single filament – reeled silk!

Closeup of the button. You can see where it’s tied onto the Bunsen-burner stand with a twist-tie, and the other hole has the threads going through it.

Then, I attach the thread to the reel, and begin reeling the cocoons. The blur in the middle is the reel turning quickly.

Here you can see the reel with some of the silk on it.

If your cocoons do this a lot, they probably haven’t soaked in the hot water quite long enough. Hold them under with a fork until they get a little water-logged, and that should do the trick. They won’t sink, but they’ll half-float, and the water makes them a little heavier. It also helps them unwind.

As the reeling progresses, the cocoons become thinner and thinner. You can see the bug inside many of them. When you’ve reeled all the usable silk from the cocoon, they will either drop off in the water, or fly up the thread, sometimes with a surprising wet splat.

This is one that went up the thread. The unusable silk at the center of the cocoon is called the “cradle” – when the cocoon runs out of good thread and the cradle is all that’s left, I call that “cradled out.” This isn’t a technical term, I just made it up.

When the silk is all reeled on, it’s time to re-reel. Sometimes this goes directly to the ball winder, but I decided to try putting it onto another clock reel first. It seems to help reduce breakage, because of the angles and the winding mechanism.

Here is the silk being wound onto a toilet paper tube. After enough tubes are made up, they will be reeled together into one thicker thread, then dyed and used for stitchery or weaving. If desired, they can also be twisted using a spinning wheel, a process called “throwing.”


And voila’, there’s the silk.

This is the pile of noils; it’s silk waste and cocoon cradles. You can use this in spinning, or add it to your handmade soap (in the lye water).

This is what’s left of the cocoons. I take the pupae out, and toss them away.

They’re an important source of protein for many countries, though. As Chris pointed out earlier, they are not delicious. I have eaten one, just to check. Really. Tastes like bug. If you don’t raise them yourself, don’t eat them – they will be even less tasty if they’re not fresh.

If you want to learn more about the rearing and handling of the silkworms themselves, check out my earlier entry, Serving the Tiny Masters.

50 replies
  1. recruit
    recruit says:

    One of the most interesting posts I’ve ever read! Thank you! You’re postings are rare.

    The topic is hefty, so all I can do is address a couple of residual thoughts. First, the lime green on the wall. In photos, it’s really ugly! The rest of you background, though, is inspiring!

    The tip about adding the waste silk to the lye — sounds interesting. What’s the effect? I’m not yet in the position to explore these things. Well, I’m getting there.

  2. admin
    admin says:

    Hee. It’s not lime… I had to have a *lot* of extra lighting in there to get the pictures to take, and it throws the color a little. But, who knows.. you might not like it in person either. I was focusing on the reels and the cocoons, and didn’t realize how much “background” was getting in there – it makes it kinda busy!

    Silk adds a little bit of creaminess to the lather of soap. Because it’s a nonsaponifiable protein similar to the skin’s own keratin, it is believed to remain through the soapmaking process and help make the skin softer. Plus, it sounds luxurious. 😀

  3. skittl1321
    skittl1321 says:

    That is quite amazing.

    I noticed you said you breed the silkworms, do you have some sort of management plan of how many you “harvest” each year, going into the picture essay I figured you were using hatched cocoons.

    No wonder you always have silk to play with.

    So cool.

  4. missdarla
    missdarla says:

    Incredible!
    I had no idea that anyone did this at home. And the silk looks so nice and shiny on the tubes.
    I’m going on over to your other link now.
    (BTW I’m visiting by way of the knitting community)

  5. theoldone
    theoldone says:

    Very impressive work guy! I told GreenEyedPagan about your various efforts. She was impressed with your knitting. I’ve been so impressed with your weaving and now the silk production, that I didn’t pay much attention to the knitting (I don’t knit).

    So, next you are going to write a book? Right?

    Well you should dammit!

  6. whitr
    whitr says:

    completely and totally fascinating. i remember back in elementary school we got to see and touch silkworm pupae but i had no idea what really went into getting them from that stage to silk. i am relly impressed.

  7. starcrossedlady
    starcrossedlady says:

    oh my goodness. I am in such awe.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I learned a ton from your post! 😀 In fact, when I get my class, I might develop some lesson plans on silkworms 😉

  8. admin
    admin says:

    :chuckle: My ability to do strange developing-economy type handicrafts sometimes has that effect on people.

    Or was it because I ate the bug?

  9. admin
    admin says:

    I don’t have a set plan; I usually allow 20 – 30 to eclode, or hatch out, so that I’ll have sufficient breeding stock; the rest take a short walk through the Oven of No Return.

  10. admin
    admin says:

    I try. =)

    I find that tracing things backward is immensely satisfying… that’s the same quest that brought me to the fabric and fiber handicrafts in the first place.

    Clothes… I can buy clothes, but how are they made? Then, I can make clothes, but what are they made from? Fabric. I can buy fabric, but what’s it made from? Thread…. I can buy thread…

    And you follow this road, and you find yourself grinding rocks to make paint, rearing worms to make thread, raising baby chicks to have eggs… it’s a fascinating journey. I still buy most of the stuff that I use, simply because going entirely hand-made is maddeningly time-consuming – but the process is very therapeutic.

  11. admin
    admin says:

    Not a lot of people do this at home in this country. It’s commonplace in a lot of Asia; silk-rearing is a cottage industry because of the specific needs of the worms.

    It works up very shiny because it’s not spun. The filament silk has a very high sheen to it, which is really nice for brocading fiber.

  12. admin
    admin says:

    I’ve never worked with them with kids, but I hear that they’re excellent for the classroom. The only issue, is that somebody has to feed them four times a day on weekends.

    Check out
    http://www.himonkey.net/adventures/sw/index.html
    for a visit with the worms… this lady came over and brought Monkey, who “interviewed” the silkworms. Her whole site is a trip… well worth looking at, especially the recipes.

  13. admin
    admin says:

    Hee hee… well, there’s a long list, but I’m working on whittling it down.

    Child-bearing is one of those things I wish I could do, but just can’t. Chris wants a baby SO BAD. I just haven’t found anybody who was really *serious* with the bear-your-children remarks yet. =)

  14. admin
    admin says:

    Hee hee. We’d probably survive, as long as you don’t mind eating bugs!

    And we’d need somebody who knows how to make soy sauce or something. They’re distinctly icky-flavored. Stir frying in a strong sauce might help.

  15. admin
    admin says:

    Very true! I’d have to find somebody who knows how to make *Chinese* style soy sauce. Of course, if it’s post-apocalypse, I’d have to find somebody who grows soybeans first, and work my way up from there. I might get hungry enough to eat the bugs without sauce first.

  16. julilla1
    julilla1 says:

    Holy Maloly, that is awesome! Those Grannies have you by the cojones, for sure! I thought it was just about the knitting…but your own silk worms? That is true dedication. This was very educational, and now I understand why Europeans couldn’t figure out the whole silk thing, it’s quite intricate.

  17. aerine
    aerine says:

    Wow

    Not only do you spend the time to raise silkworms and untangle their cocoons, but you share the information and the effort in pictures so the rest of us know what we would be getting into. Completely amazing. You are so inspiring. Wish I lived close enough that I could actually meet you. You are a master of fiber!

  18. admin
    admin says:

    I love the idea that the worm “seeds” were smuggled out of China in people’s headdresses and walking sticks.

    I’m going to try rearing some wild silkmoths this year – they’re a LOT bigger, and more of a challenge – and they can fly. I don’t know what I’ll end up with as far as results, but I’m looking forward to it!

  19. stimps
    stimps says:

    Holy wow, that is so impressive. I can’t believe it! It makes me wish I had room for bugs now, which is quite the statement from a bugaphobe like me. =)

  20. admin
    admin says:

    One of the things that I love about them, is that they’re surprisingly un-bug-like… they don’t scurry fast, they can’t fly, they don’t bite, they won’t get on you… they just eat, and eat, and eat… then they spin, and hatch, and mate. The world’s only truly domesticated insect.

  21. thymeformom
    thymeformom says:

    With the way you go about learning new stuff, that kid’s going to be lucky to have a parent like you.

    Did you make the reel that you used?

    BTW, I just updated my order with Treenweay Silks to include a package of silk cocoons. I’m not sure I’m up to handraising the silkworms but I think I’ll give the cocoons a try. 🙂

  22. admin
    admin says:

    The two reels are both antique pieces. The smaller one that I was reeling onto is of indeterminate origin, probably 1850’s or so; the taller clock reel that I was using for re-reeling is from Sweden and is dated 1836.

    Cocoons are a blast – the worm experience is a lot of fun, but also a lot of work, and definitely not everybody’s cup of tea.

  23. chifurbuddy
    chifurbuddy says:

    Simply amazing. My mom had us kids invovled in crafts every summer (no, not slave labor – just keeping us occupied) but we never did anything this cool. Do you want a sand candle? How about some macreme? Charcoal sketch?

    There’s a lady around the corner from my parents with a huge spinning wheel in the front window. Sometimes, on Halloween, she would sit in costume and spin. Kinda neat, kinda creepy (considering the costume and time of year). I don’t know if she still does any spinning, though.

    i know how to brew beer and jack cider, make candles and paper, and I cook a bit, too. Adopt me. 🙂

  24. admin
    admin says:

    In my family, it was my grandmothers. Grandma Duckworth was all yarn and string and embroidery… Grandmother Cook was a former one-room-school teacher, and she could go from drawing, to ceramics, to gluing maccaroni on things quicker than you could blink.

    Mom did some of that kind of stuff with us, but it was always kind of the grandmotherly perogative.

    For three years, I was the Education Coordinator for a living history museum – overseeing everything from blacksmiths to vinegar making. It was such a blast. That’s where I learned to make soap, and learned more and more about many of the textile arts. I think I’m finally OK enough with the way I was asked (coerced) to resign, that I can go back and volunteer.

  25. kjaz
    kjaz says:

    Let me just add my “that’s amazing” to the many compliments above. I knew silk came from silkworms but who knew one could actually do this in one’s home? Amazing.

  26. admin
    admin says:

    Umm… it’s kind of like saying, “How long does it take to knit?” Once you get the setup arranged, it’s just a constant process… hook on some new cocoons, reel some more, reel off when you get the reel full.

    I wouldn’t start to do it without at least a free couple of hours; the setup has to be arranged, the water has to get hot, etc. I spent about five hours doing it, to get that much silk though. It’s very time-intensive. I had a couple of spectacular mistakes, too, though – entire reels full of silk that had to be cut off because the end was impossible to find. Those will go to become spinning fiber.

  27. poubelle
    poubelle says:

    I’ve actually eaten them (silkworms) before at some Beijing night markets. They’re not that bad if they’re grilled well (and if you don’t think about what it is that you’re eating, exactly ;).

  28. admin
    admin says:

    I think the grilling was the key. I just chewed one, fresh outta the reeling pot. I had stifled them that same afternoon, so I knew it was fresh, and cooked. Wasn’t delicious at all.

  29. draco_kc
    draco_kc says:

    A little late in getting to read this, as I’m still playing catch-up from my trip last weekend. Amazing entry!

    I used to tablet weave a fair amount during my medieval-recreation days during undergrad. Reading your entries is starting to tempt me to take it back up. [*grin*]

  30. admin
    admin says:

    Yah, Treeskin mentioned that you tablet-wove, and I would have had no idea.

    I used to do SCA too… long time ago. With the exception of one set of classes that I went to California to teach, I haven’t done any SCA since ’97 or so.

  31. treeskin
    treeskin says:

    I used to be in the SCA, and then I got better…

    Or something like that. I am amazed. You did a wonderful job of recording this process. I’m afraid it’s talked me out of trying it, I just have too many projects/hobbies as it is. But I’ve always wondered how this was done.

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