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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Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: Silk - Our attempt at raising silkworms (And how you can try!)

Pea getting to know one of our silkworms
When we first started learning about silk making, my immediate thought was: I need to get my hands on cocoons! To have the tactile experience of holding one, and the possibility of unraveling a mile long filament is the kind of experience that excites me :) Unfortunately, I was unable to find a company that shipped cocoons to Canada (if you know of any, please drop me a line!). The next logical step was to look for silkworms, so we could watch it spin the cocoon itself - so much better! 

I discovered that silkworms are sold as pet food for reptiles, and so headed to a nearby pet supply store. We only got three, because based on our past experiences, we did not want the death toll to be too high. Unfortunately, our fears came true. 

We set them up in our kitchen table, and supplied them with mulberry leaves. They immediately started chewing, and that is what they did for the remainder of the afternoon.  We stared for quite some time :) And when we brought our ears close to them, we could actually hear them chewing. We put the paper plate in an empty aquarium, and left them for the night.

The following day, however, they began acting strangely. Or it seems, they began over night. They were wandering. Leaves were left behind, and the silkworms would not stop wandering the aquarium. Despite our repeated attempts to tempt them with mulberry leaves, the caterpillars continued to wander away, without a single bite. Thinking perhaps they were ready to cocoon, we tried varied ways of giving them a small area to make it easier to attach themselves. All of this to no avail, they continued to wander for the remainder of the day until the next when all three died. We were so disappointed, and confused. 

Not to be deterred, we went back to the store the following week the day their shipment of silkworms comes in, to be told that the entire shipment died due to the cold. Aha! This may be the answer to the puzzle of why our silkworms behaved erratically, and inexplicably died. 

Our house is almost always cold. In the dead heat of the summer, we may have needed a fan or two on for a total of three days. We are surrounded by trees, have no south facing windows, and live not far from the coast. It is very likely those poor silkworms, used to the heat of southern Asia, were too cold to eat or cocoon, and inevitably died. Perhaps if we had tried this in mid July, we would have had a greater possibility of success. 

If you would like to try raising silkworms, here is what you will need:

  • Silkworms (check out your pet store for their feeding supplies)
  • Access to fresh mulberry leaves. Seriously, they will eat nothing else. Not even raspberry leaves that you thought might be worth a try since the berries look similar and you know your stock of (dodgily acquired) mulberry leaves may dwindle before cocooning.
  • Heat!
  • A small contained space that is easy to clean (bug catcher, shoe box)
  • Egg carton for cocooning
These silkworms were raised in a small box. Note the mulberry leaves (and droppings!) One has already began cocooning in the corner.
Photo Credit: Ivan Walsh
Once hatched from their eggs, silkworms spend approximately 5 to 6 weeks devouring mulberry leaves before cocooning. When you get silkworms from a pet store, it is unlikely that you will know how old they are, therefore it is difficult to determine when they might be ready to cocoon. You will have to pay attention to them. 

They should be kept at a constant temperature of 23 degrees or more (as it turns out) and out of direct sunlight. They should not be handled too much. Over the course of their life as a caterpillar, they will change their skin four times. Be sure not to touch or disrupt them at all during these transitions. The first signs of this molting is when they stop feeding and rest with their heads raised, not moving for several days. Again, do not disturb them when they are changing their skin. 

The week before they are ready to cocoon, their appetite will increase. They also become slightly translucent when they are ready to start spinning. They will also start wandering, looking for a nook to settle themselves in, swaying their heads back and forth. This is a good time to place them in the egg carton. Before spinning, the silkworm ejects a fluid glob. Then they begin to spin, which takes approximately 3 days. Once cocooned, the caterpillar (or larvae) changes into pupae and then moth. It takes ten to fourteen days for the entire transformation.

You need to decide whether you want the silkworms to develop into moths, or if you want to save the cocoon for the silk filament. You could let the moth emerge, which dissolves a part of the cocoon, still giving you part of the cocoon, but not an unending filament. You will need to consider what to do with the eggs should the moths mate - one moth lays 300-400 eggs.

If you don't want the moths to emerge, harvest the cocoons 7-10 days after the silkworm starts to spin its cocoon. You should then place the cocoons in a paper bag, and bake them in an oven for 20 minutes at 200F.

In order to get your filament, put the cocoons in boiling water. Don't forget, there are pupae inside. 

Has anyone tried this? I would love to hear about it!

In learning about silk, we learned its history and legends with related books, learned the process of making silk, and made silk calligraphy scrolls.

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:
You can find more creative and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:

Best4Future Wednesdays
Highhill Homeschool


  1. Ooh, I never thought about raising our own silkworms, but it sounds like an interesting idea (at least in the summer).

    1. Yes, definitely in the summer! We just may have to try again. I would really love to see them cocoon.

  2. I was going to ask if you were planning on trying again?
    We almost attempted it, but it was difficult to get them in the uk so I changed my mind.

    1. I actually just found a UK based business that sells them - I was so excited! (Cue deadpan stare from the girls) and they ship to Canada - there's mini silk starter kit, and they include artificial food that the silkworms will eat. It's a bit out of budget for now... but maybe by the time we have the wood stove going (heat!) - anyhow, check it out: http://www.wwb.co.uk/silkworm-eggs-colourful-cocoons-and-unusual-larvae/c---mini-silk-farm

    2. Now why didn't I find that when I was looking. We'll definitely check it out!

  3. We tried it once and the food that was sent with them molded and the company (a reputable mail-order company) refused to send us any more. It was awful just to see them starve to death. We now have access to a Mulberry tree, so we might try it again. Thank you so much for your tips and tricks.

    1. It does feel awful when what you hoped to raise ends up dying on your watch. That's a shame about the mail order company - having access to a mulberry tree would make all the difference. And of course, heat :)

  4. I hope you try again and have success. We have three cocoons which we obtained at a carpet market in Turkey. They were doing demonstrations of making silk and had boiling water to unwind the cocoons. None of the kids want to see them unwound, so we just keep them on a shelf.

    1. That's so neat that you have some cocoons! Yes, I hope to try again - I did recently find a source, just have to wait for better timing.

  5. I raised the silk worm when I was little! They are so tender and soft.... Unfortunately I cannot find any in the US to give my children a try. Your blog brought back the old memory. Thank you!

    1. They are so tender and soft - Fun that you raised silkworms when you were little! Just a couple of days ago, I found a UK based site that sells and ships silkworms or silkworm eggs to Canada and US -- http://www.wwb.co.uk/silkworm-eggs-colourful-cocoons-and-unusual-larvae/c---mini-silk-farm

  6. I actually pinned this on my Creation to Christ board rather than my science because we're just about to learn about this in history. I love when subjects overlap this way.
    I wonder where it's possible to get mulberry leaves because we don't have any......

    1. finding mulberry leaves is tricky - also its a deciduous bush, so not the best time of year. This site sells artificial food silkworms will (supposedly) eat instead of mulberry leaves: http://www.wwb.co.uk/silkworm-eggs-colourful-cocoons-and-unusual-larvae/c---mini-silk-farm
      I'd love to hear about it if you try it out!

  7. I'm featuring this tomorrow on Entertaining and Educational. Please stop by and grab a featured button.


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