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This article is taken from PN Review 73, Volume 16 Number 5, May - June 1990.

The Production of Silk Julia Blackburn
 
The old woman with a gentle face whose name I have forgotten told me that as you approached the village you could hear the sound of caterpillars chewing mulberry leaves. They kept them on special wooden stacks in the attic rooms of the big farmhouses, feeding and feeding and getting fatter and fatter, until gorged and sleepy they began to spin their silken swaddling clothes. Once they were cocooned the days had to be carefully counted until just before the moth was ready to emerge, and then they were plunged into boiling hot water. A well-timed cocoon yielded a kilometer of spidery thread. Payment was by the kilo, and holding one of those little white pellets in your hand it seemed so light that you would think it could never weigh anything, no matter how many were heaped up on the scales.

In the days when this village was still the home of many large families, the life-cycle of the silk moth was every one's concern. A woman who was pregnant or one who was sick with fever was chosen to wear a little cloth bag around her neck, filled with the eggs that were best hatched slightly above normal body heat. Once the baby caterpillars were ready to emerge they were carried to the attics, and then it was very important to stay absolutely still and quiet while they waved their querulous heads in search of green leaves, and climbed up the wooden stacks, and established ...


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