In the world of spinning, we often think of silk as an add-in for spinning. We blend silk top with our wool. We spin mawata into lumpy, bumpy silk thread. We dye cocoons and incorporate them whole into our art yarns. We often don’t consider reeling silk. Reeling silk is hard. Reeling silk requires lots of special equipment. I can’t get whole cocoons. In truth, if you are already a fiber artist, knitter, or spinner, you probably already have all the tools you need! You can reel silk! And it is far easier than you might think.
You will need:
- whole, uncut silk cocoons
- 2 pots
- a yarn swift
- a ball winder
- a toothbrush
- plastic wrap
- toilet paper cardboard tube
First, your cocoons must be uncut. Depending on where you live, there are legal restrictions on the importation of cocoons, as the insect is still inside. Often times, the cocoons are cut open and the pupae removed. The cocoon is one long strand of fiber and if it has been cut, it cannot be reeled. If you get your hands on cut cocoons, these are great for making silk mawata, another spinning preparation.
Soak Your Cocoons
The cocoons are soaked in hot water in a mason jar or any jar with a lid. The lid keeps the cocoons submerged and helps them to fully saturate. I soak my cocoons for several hours to overnight. Then I transfer my cocoons to a pot on the stove where I boil them for about half an hour. The cocoons will fizz as air is pushed out of them. Boiling softens the sericin, a protein produced by the silkworm along with the silkwhich acts as the “glue” that holds the fine strands of silk together.
Find the One End to Reel them All
Once boiled, I remove my pot from the stove. One by one, I use a toothbrush (the one I get from my six month dental checkup!) to gently stroke the surface of the cocoons to find the one true end. There are usually a few false starts, waste fiber that the silkworm larvae used to anchor their cocoon. Once I find the one true end, I transfer the cocoon to a heated crockpot. It is important to maintain heat during the reeling process, to keep the sericin pliable.
Set Up Your Space
My reeling setup consists of a crock pot, a skein winder and a ball winder. I cover the pegs of my skein winder with plastic to keep the silk filament from sticking to my tool and gumming it up. All of the strands of silk go through the yarn guide of my ball winder.
This gathers all the strands into one point. As the silk is reeled from the pot, the sericin dries before it makes it to the skein winder and “glues” the strands together. While reeling, the silk feels as if it might break at any moment, but have faith in it. It is stronger than it looks!
Once the prime silk is reeled off, the pot contains the remaining silk net around the pupae. These short fibers can be used in fiber blends or paper making
Make a Ball
I then wind the silk filament from my skein winder to a toilet paper cardboard tub on my ball winder. This helps to keep the filament from becoming tangled. It can now be reeled with other silk to create a thicker thread or thrown to add twist. Just remember, twist will reduce your luster.
Reeled silk can be used in embroidery, weaving, tapestry… Silk’s qualities — strength, breathability, moisture-wicking, anti-microbial fibers, warmth — make it a fiber with incredible possibility and a variety of use.
There are some controversies surrounding silk production. Many individuals find it inhumane to kill the pupae before they develop into moths. They propose that moths be allowed to emerge before the silk is harvested. On the other side of this argument, silk moths are born without mouths. They mate, lay eggs, and starve to death within a week of emerging from the cocoon. And once the moth breaches the cocoon, the silk can no longer be reeled. It is a tricky discussion.
Silkworms can be somewhat difficult to keep alive. Temperature, diet, moisture and disease make sericulture a tricky business. With great risk comes great reward. While most western cultures avoid eating insects, silkworm pupae are considered a delicacy in many areas and are full of protein. If you do decide to partake, I recommend only consuming silkworms you’ve raised yourself. There is no telling how long purchased cocoons have sat in storage.
While I imagine it may be difficult to find a home use for sericin, it does have use in the bio-medical field, notably as a liquid suture. Strong, sticky, and anti-microbial, it works well in this application.
Sericulture may seem strange or gross to the uninitiated, but I can assure you that the pupae are not as “bug-like” as you might expect. The fiber is spectacular. To me, the benefits far outweigh and ick-factor I may have!