Silkworm Paper

If you set the caterpillars up on a surface where they can’t find a corner, they’ll make this stuff.  It doesn’t hurt them, although it probably frustrates their instincts.  After spinning out their silk, they turn into a healthy pupa.

This is the surface of the paper.  One of the things I learned from the first run – make sure the silkworms are DONE pooping, really, are you SURE you’re done, before you put them on the paper.  You can’t wash it out once it’s sandwiched between layers of silk.

This is how I set them up to spin the paper.  There has to be an overhang, so that they cannot crawl down without crawling upside-down, which they avoid.  Once they are done spinning, they turn into pupae, often right on top of the paper; then, I put them down in the bottom.  A few have managed to climb down there on their own.

Here, you can still see the plastic needlepoint canvas through the silk.  As they work on it more, the silk becomes more opaque, and you don’t see the canvas.

This one looks like he’s dancing, or doing Tai Chi.  Notice the little “hemmed” edge – the worms tend to pull the silk back from the edge of the canvas base and then silk over it more.  It really does look like a turned hem.

I washed and ironed the sheet, which made it shrink and wrinkle a little.  I think it looks like leather.

The finished sheet is about the stiffness of paper, although it does have a little bit of a more leathery drape.

If you pinch it, the folds are sharp; it holds a crease well after ironing.  I think it would be well-suited for certain origami applications. I know that some of the tribal women in Thailand use pieces of this stuff for applique on their skirts.  There is a company called LiveSilk that is working on making a commercial product similar to this.

15 replies
  1. czina
    czina says:

    OMG, that is so cool 🙂 What is done with it? Can it be used like leather or paper (cut/holes punched/etc.) or does it act more like fabric?

  2. admin
    admin says:

    The only thing that I’ve seen pictures of, is fans – they actually had the silkworms spinning the “paper” onto a bamboo fan frame. It feels a lot more like paper – but it can be stitched and dyed too. I would say it’s probably going to wear more like paper, but that’s just a guess.

  3. trickykitty
    trickykitty says:

    That for some reason reminds me of the recent articles regarding the spiders on the space shuttle spinning their webbing into into nonsense 3-d tangles.

    I wonder if there would be a way to connect multiple pieces into some sort of a silk patchwork dress. I could see some designers going gaga over this material for that purpose. A potential dress make from “patched” silk would be light, dainty, and worth of a major awards ceremony red carpet event.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I’ll have to find that article; sounds like a good one! I’m sure they’re quite lost without gravity and sunshine.

    This stuff can be sewn, but it’s still pretty paper-like – I would at least want to inter-line it. That, and the fact that you can see right through it in the thin spots.

  5. admin
    admin says:

    After they’re done with the spinning, their bodies are pretty shrunken. They turn into something called a pre-pupa, inside the caterpillar skin. They can no longer walk, only wiggle like a hula dancer. After another two to three days, the caterpillar skin splits, and the pupa wriggles out of it.

    You can see some of the parts of the process in Cecropia and Tussah pages; I haven’t yet photographed the whole process with Bombyx.


  6. engisdottir
    engisdottir says:

    > spiders on the space shuttle spinning their webbing into into nonsense 3-d tangles.
    It must look creepy, I suppose. 🙂 Have you still got the links to the articles?

  7. sarita
    sarita says:

    i have seen a silk business doing this in vietnam….they leave all their silkworms out on a flat surface to spin.
    will give the website in the next email.
    luv it…

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