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Silk from Scratch

September 7, 2006

Hi! I’m Jan; I live in northern North Dakota. I’ll be posting occasionally about my fibery adventures. This summer I had a real adventure raising caterpillars of two of the North American silkmoth species. Cecropia and Polyphemus (‘Poly’ for short) are cousins to the famous silkmoths of Asia, and like their Asian counterparts, they end their caterpillar stage by spinning cocoons of pure silk.

In a little over a month the caterpillars eat enough tree leaves to grow from hatchlings a quarter of an inch long to gentle, giant caterpillars bigger than a man’s thumb. My job was to house them safely and deliver apple branchlets to them several times a day. I hauled a lot of apple this summer.

I raised them individually in plastic wastebaskets, covered with landscape cloth to keep out predators.

This cecropia felt secure enough to stretch out and show his collar of orange knobs and tiara of blue ones.

This Poly, on the other hand, decided I was a predator when I peered in. It froze motionless with its feet tucked under its chin. It was trying its best to look like a twig.

Pretty soon it forgot me and went back to munching everything within reach.

No morsel got missed. This cecropia went way overboard.

Finally, after five weeks of diligent eating on their part and obedient branch hauling on mine, I was rewarded one morning by a cocoon of shining silk — during the night the first of the Polys had spun.

The Cecropias spun about a week later. Cocoons of golden amber silk, as big as a hen’s egg.

Suddenly alll the munching and hauling was worth it. They’ll spend the winter in the fridge. Next spring I’ll let them hatch, mate, and lay eggs, and I’ll process their discarded cocoons into silk for my hand spindles. A pretty nice win-win, for sure.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    September 8, 2006 1:03 am

    Jan, this is so amazing. You know we’re all going to be waiting to see what treasure you end up with from this adventure! Lovely photos, and great work. 🙂 Welcome to the blogosphere!

  2. September 8, 2006 3:14 am

    So great!

  3. September 8, 2006 5:10 am

    wow! That is an amazing journey!!!

  4. September 8, 2006 6:39 am

    Welcome to Pink Tea! We want to see those cocoons turned into yarn!

  5. September 8, 2006 8:38 am

    How are you planning to process the cocoons? Are you going to make silk caps maybe?

  6. September 8, 2006 8:45 am

    Congrats on your first entry! Now, remember, when you process their cocoons, it will smell r-e-a-lly bad. Consider a lot of a lab hood or the great out of doors. It was that stinky…!

  7. Melanie permalink
    September 8, 2006 9:43 am

    Fascinating, Jan, and welcome to Pink Tea! The photographs make the process come to life. I’m looking forward to seeing how you get the silk from the cocoons, and to what you do with it.

  8. September 8, 2006 10:03 am

    too cool for words!

  9. September 8, 2006 10:26 am

    what great photos! thanks for sharing them with us!

  10. September 8, 2006 11:32 am

    You’re better than the Discovery Channel!! I just love the pictures. I had no idea the cocoons would be so big!

  11. Jan Clark permalink
    September 8, 2006 1:28 pm

    Thanks for the welcome. Plan is to card or comb, then spin. The cocoons will be too torn up in hatching to reel or make caps. Joanne, I’ll heed your caution and keep the windows open. Also I will scrape every teensy bit of the pupal shuck away, which I hear helps.

  12. September 8, 2006 5:08 pm

    Hi Jan, what a great first entry! You do such beautiful work with silk fibre that I can’t wait to continue this adventure vicariously.

  13. September 8, 2006 11:04 pm

    Oh, welcome to the blog party, Jan. I love your pictures of the fun you have had with the ‘pillers. They are gorgeous and fascinating and look as though they are big enough to be “pets”…pets who hang in the freezer. Wierd! :o)

  14. September 10, 2006 11:16 am

    Now that is really cool. I’ll be interested in seeing the processing too.

  15. September 10, 2006 4:15 pm

    Oh, I’m glad you took the plunge and are posting on Pink Tea. What a fun fiber journey you’ve been on. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the trip.

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