Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: Silk - How it's made

To read about the history and legends of silk, read our earlier post here.

How is silk made

Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson

Silk comes from the caterpillar, known as a silkworm, of a type of moth: the bombyz mori moth. Silkworms have special glands in their bodies that make liquid silk - as soon as the liquid silk comes into contact with air, it hardens and is known as a filament. 

Silkworms feasting on mulberry leaves
Photo Credit: Kevin Jaako

Silkworms spend pretty much all of their time eating mulberry leaves, the only food they eat. They do this for about six weeks.

Silkworm cocooning
Photo Credit: 
Nathan Nelson 
When the silkworm is ready to change into a moth, it spins its cocoon with the liquid silk. These cocoons are made up of one continuous filament of silk that can be as long as 1 mile (1.6 km)! It takes 3 days for a silkworm to spin its cocoon. 

Silk cocoons
Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson
The cocoons are harvested before the moth is fully developed, because the moth will break through the cocoon, tearing the silk filament, and one long continuous filament makes stronger silk and is therefore more valuable. When the cocoons are harvested they are heated/baked in order to kill the pupae inside. 

Harvested cocoons
Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson
In order to unravel the silk filament of the cocoon, the gummy substance sericin that holds it together must be softened. To do this, the cocoon is boiled in water.

Boiling cocoons
Photo Credit: Patrick Barry
When the silk is ready to unravel, it is reeled - this means the filaments of several cocoons are wound together around a cylinder to make strong thread.

More silk cocoons with filaments ready for reeling
Photo Credit: Adam Jones
Silk reel
Photo Credit: Nick Hobgood
Silk reels in a factory setting
Photo Credit: Randy Adams
When the silk has been reeled, silk threads are twisted to make them strong enough to be woven.

Raw silk, ready to be dyed and woven
Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson
China is the main producer of silk, and most of the world's raw silk comes from countries in Asia, such as India, Thailand and Uzbekistan. In China, the silk is produced in factories and as a cottage industry, that is by people at home using their own equipment and labor.

Silk Factory
Photo Credit: Andrew Hitchcock
Ever wonder what happens to the silk worm pupae - the ones baked in order to ensure no moth breaks through the cocoon? Well, in many Asian countries, including China, silk worm pupae is enjoyed as a snack.

Silk worm pupae on a stick in Beijing
Photo Credit: The Duffers
In learning about silk, we learned its history and legends with related books, made silk calligraphy scrolls, and even tried raising our own silkworms


  1. Great post. I was looking for resources on silk making when we studied China, but decided that daughter is not old enough to really digest it. I pinned your post for later :)

    1. I didn't know much about silk, and found it all rather fascinating. And, we all enjoy the insect factor in our family :)

  2. These are a fantastic bunch of photos and explained so well!
    Next time could you please coordinate your studies so that you are learning stuff months before me, then I can just use your blog as a text book. It would be so simple and cut down on so much work for me!!

    1. I'll do my best Claire :) I'd definitely need months of notice - I'm so disorganized!


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