Picture of Jennifer of Jennifer's Hamam
June 14, 2012

Jennifer's Hamam - Silk - Part 1

May and June are very important months when it comes to the cycle of a silk worm's life.  There are many places around Turkey where silk worms are being raised; in fact, in the last five years there has been an enormous increase in the numbers of people cultivating silk worms. But there is only one family in the country still hand-spinning, reeling, dyeing and weaving the silk on old-style shuttled looms.  Jennifer's Hamam is grateful to be the only boutique in western Turkey working with this family.

silk worms

Silk is amazing – it is a natural protein fiber and it has a long history of use in the production of fabric and other items. Silks are produced by several other insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile production: for more than 1,400 years, humans have been making use of this little worm's cocoon.

The silk worm's life is interesting, but short. It begins in February when his little egg comes out of stasis and begins the incubation process. Usually this takes place in small bags that each member of the weaving family keep in their breast pockets, which the weavers say provides the ideal temperature for incubation.

Silk worms eat mulberry leaves: the development of the worm and the blossoming of the mulberry leaves are in perfect harmony.  At this point the worms, now hatched, are placed in small boxes with mulberry leaves to feed on.  Over the next several weeks the body mass of each silk worm triples.

There are two ways to obtain fibres from the silk cocoon.

Reeling is a technique whereby live cocoons are placed in hot water, and boiled for five to ten minutes to kill the worm.  To get the highest quality silk, the temperature of the water must be lowered before the reeling begins, so cold water is added. A brush is used to catch a strand from each of the cocoons and the silk is pulled off the cocoon in a single strand while the cocoon is still in the hot water. Those strands then are moved to a simple roll-up apparatus that creates four bunches of silk threads.  

The silk reeling station uses a wood fire to heat the water. The family explained that they tried using gas and electricity to heat the water, but those methods lowered the quality of the silk threads.

Instead of trying to increase the water’s temperature, these weavers actually cool the water down in order to reel very slowly. This raises the quality and endurance of the silk.

In one 12-hour day, reeling the old way, and very slowly for quality, these weavers can reel approximately three kilograms of silk; these can be made into 25 for instance.

Most of today's silk production is very different from silk production of the past.  Almost everything made with silk in the present time is machine-reeled and most of the producers reeling silk with these machines put acid in the water to increase the boiling temperatures and thus the production.  While the addition of acid helps to reel the silk more quickly, it also affects the strand of silk. Anything made with this silk will not have the endurance of traditionally-reeled silk.

Most of the silk producers today are machine-reeling. Unfortunately, the primary objective of machine-reeling is usually to achieve the highest quantity possible of silk threads. Rather than decreasing the water temperature slowly to obtain quality threads, acid is added to the water. While this does enables faster reeling, and thus speedier production, the addition of acid weakens the silk strands: any item made from this silk will not last like items made from traditionally-reeled silk, and will fray and pill.

Pictured (on the right) is a cocoon where the moth has escaped.  The dark markings around the hole are created by the moth's acidic saliva.

Cocoons that have already “hatched” cannot be used for reeling silk; however, they can be boiled, washed, hung in the sun to dry and then the soft fibers are spun into silk threads.  Items made from this silk have a very different texture and are much softer than their reeled counterparts, but the basic properties of the silk are still the same; silk is very warm - and yet it breathes.

Jennifer's Hamam weavers use drop spindles to spin the silk.   This is also a very tedious task and requires days of work before there are enough threads to make a roll of warp threads or bobbins for weft threads.

The drop spindle is a very simple tool that gets rolled on the thigh of the spinner and then is dropped while the fibres above are spun into threads using the fingers.  Threads made from spinning have a softer touch, are more matte and thick than reeled threads.

Learn more about silk worms and the miraculous art of silk weaving in next month’s blog…

Full article available here

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