Like most people, if you asked me where fabrics come from, I would be able to tell you that wool comes from sheep, cotton and linen from plants, synthetic fibres from chemical processes and silk from silkworms. Beyond that I don't really give fabrics much more thought. Last weekend, I decided to take a trip to a historic silk mill in Whitchurch, Hampshire, to find out more.
The mill was built around 1800 and began to produce silk fabrics in the 1830's. The mill continued its production until it closed in 1985. Following refurbishment by the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust, the mill became operational again in the early 1990's and is still a working mill today producing silk for stately homes as well as film and television costumes.
Built beside the River Test, a large wooden water wheel was originally used to drive the mill machinery. The wheel is still in working order and can be seen driving a large belt which fed the silk skeins onto bobbins, which would in turn be used on the weaving looms.
So where does the silk actually come from? Well, despite the name silkworm, silk comes from the cocoon produced by the silk moth caterpillar. The thread the caterpillar produces for its cocoon measures 1000-2000 metres in length. Once the caterpillar has metamorphosed in the cocoon, the moth will make a whole through which it escapes. Obviously, this would ruin the continuous length of thread, so for the silk manufacturing process, the cocoons are baked to kill the caterpillar/moth inside. The thread is then carefully unwound from the cocoon.
A single thread whilst long, is far too fine to be used on its own, so eight or so threads are twisted together to produce a silk thread that is suitable for weaving. Most of the silk used at the mill today is purchased ready dyed and on bobbins rather than in skeins. As silkworms need a warm climate to survive, they can't be bred in the UK, so all of the silk is imported from the far east.
Silk is undoubtedly a beautiful fabric which has been held in high regard for centuries. It is light, strong and able to insulate against heat and cold. I do have slight issue with production though. Is it really ethical for bake the poor moths so that we can use their cocoons? I know they are only insects but that isn't really the point is it? With so many other fabrics available to us, do we really need to use silk?