The Secret in the Tea Leaves

silkfabricOnce upon a time in a faraway place, a beautiful Empress was sitting under a Mulberry tree in her garden enjoying some tea when suddenly  a round, white,  cocoon fell into her bowl.  Angrily, the Empress grabbed the cocoon out of her tea and saw a thread unwind from the cocoon.   The Empress soon decided the thread from the cocoon could be spun into a wonderful yarn.  Thus began the origin of silk.

Empress His-Ling-Shih was soon to be known as the Goddess of Silk.  She was credited with the rearing of silkworms and the invention of the loom. At first the use of silk was reserved only for the Emperor and other dignitaries.

Eventually a cottage industry developed for producing silk in China.   For six months a year,  every woman in every family devoted a large portion of her day to the feeding, tending and supervision of the silkworms and to the subsequent unraveling, spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidering of silk.

Silk production was a very demanding process.  First the blind, flightless moth, Bombyx mori, laid approximately 400 eggs in a period of four to six days.  As the adult moth had rudimentary mouth parts and did not eat during its short life, it died shortly after laying the eggs. Thousands of tiny eggs, the size of pin heads, were gathered and placed in a warm environment for about ten days until they hatched.   In was said that the women put the eggs in little sacks and placed them between their breasts until the eggs could be laid out on trays. Family member would stoke the fires around the clock to maintain the temperature.  The hatched larvae (caterpillars) were about ¼” long.  The larvae were fed fresh picked, chopped mulberry leaves every half hour night and day.

Silk fibers are very thin, about 1/2500 of an inch in diameter.  Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk. During a six week period, the larvae would shed their skin four times.  Finally, the larvae, grown to about three inches, quit eating, changed color and attached themselves to a branch or frame and began spinning their cocoons-rotating their heads  in a figure-eight movement for the next three to eight days.   The cocoon produced a continuous filament approximately one kilometer in length (3,280 feet}.  At this stage the cocoon was treated with hot air, steam, or boiling water to loosen the tightly woven filaments.  The silk was then unwound.  Filaments from four to eight cocoons were reeled and twisted together to make one thread.

For at least two thousand years the Chinese held the closely guarded secret to the source of their silk:  the indigenous Bombyx mori (Latin for silkworm of the mulberry tree).  In order to maintain their monopoly on silk, anyone trying to smuggle eggs or cocoons out of China, or in any way to reveal the process, was punished by death.

Outside of China,  numerous attempts were made to explain the origin of silk.  Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote in 70 BC “Silk was obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…”.   The Roman poet, Virgil, believed that silk was combed from leaves.   Dionysus,  the Greek historian, thought it was made from flowers.  Others thought the silk threads grew on special trees or were the down of a special bird.

In spite of their secrecy, the Chinese lost their monopoly on silk production.   A story is told that in AD 550 two Monks hid silkworm eggs in hollow bamboo walking sticks and brought them from Asia to a Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, in Constantinople, where he created a thriving silk industry.  Dominance in silk production moved from East to West and back again.

Sericulture is the name given to silkworm farming.  Silkworms reached Sicily in the 12th century and sericulture migrated north to the Como area by the 16th Century.  Como had ample lakes and a thriving Mulberry farming business, and the silk industry thrived there.  In the 16th century France surpassed China in silk manufacturing.   In the 19th century, Japan exported the most silk in the world.   China regained their dominance of silk production after WWII, and now along with Japan, manufactures more than half the world’s silk.

Today undyed, raw silk (fabric and yarn) is purchased from China, finished in Como, Italy and supplied to the fashion houses of Paris, Milan and New York City.  If you own a silk scarf, tie, blouse or dress by any big name fashion house, chances are the silk came from Como, Italy.

The silkworm is not a worm but a moth pupa, and it is only one of several insects that create the animal protein silk as it weaves its cocoons and webs.  The silk of spiders has industrial uses.  In modern times, scientists are studying the silk from the Golden Orb Spider which is said to be almost as strong as Kevlar.  Kevlar, the strongest man-made material is drawn from concentrated sulphuric acid.  Spider silk is drawn from water.  Unfortunately, spiders in a confined space will cannibalize each other, and thus are too difficult to manage.  All kinds of industrial uses could be found if they could produce spider silk:  from items such as parachutes to artificial tendons and ligaments.

Silkworm moths produce twice as much silk as spiders.

Recently two men in Madagascar worked for five years and a team of 80 people to gather and produce the silk thread from the golden orb spider to create a beautiful cape that was on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011.  Read about it here:

Much more immediate gratification (in just one afternoon) can be had by creating your own unique silk scarf.   There are many methods to dye and paint silk.   One method  will be taught  by Karen Snow of Silk for All Seasons at our Spring Study Group March 18 from 1:00-3:00 pm.   Fun, fast  and easy using vegetable dyes.  Cost for materials for one scarf will be $35. The class will be held in Oak Park, space is limited. (15 people maximum)  Club members may register and pay for the class on line at  (click this link)   A letter will be emailed to you acknowledging your payment and giving the location of the class.

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  March 4, 2015 Garden Club Meeting at Cheney Mansion, 220 Euclid, Oak Park, IL    12:30  meeting      1:00  Speaker

 Guests Welcomed                                          

Kirstin Larson Presents:

Go Wild in Your Garden: The Birds, The Bees, AND The Butterflies!   60 minute PowerPoint presentation,  The average American yard is a wildlife desert, and the natural areas that surround us are constantly shrinking as fields and woods are leveled every year for new housing developments.  But with a few simple steps, you can begin to create an oasis in your yard that will invite in the most amazing guests.  Learn how to help to maintain beautiful migratory birds and butterflies,, and they will reward you by returning year after year, literally bringing your garden to life with their incredible beauty.  Nurturing our troubled bee population is a stewardship task every gardener should embrace.   This presentation will bring together the hot new gardening trends of today: butterfly gardening, planting for pollinators, and backyard birds into one easy-to-follow study of why right now is the time to Go Wild in Your Garden!  Handouts providing detailed information on Native plant recommendations, including what pollinators and birds you might attract in using them.




The violets cometh

“Surely as cometh the Winter, I know

There are Spring violets under the snow.”

                                   – R.H. Newell

Approximately 18 of us (perhaps the only ones still in town?) got out of our winter torpor and made it over to Cheney on Wednesday for the February meeting.  The speaker was a tad late, apparently not all villages are as diligent about getting the streets plowed as Oak Park, but that just gave us more time to hear Club news.   I believe the odds of winning a door prize were about 3 to 1.  Alas, I was not a flowering plant winner, but I did get to bring home some of the delicious uneaten fruit to share with my chauffeur/husband.


I am not inspired to rehash the Speaker’s talk as I think most of our Garden Club members are veteran plant people and probably have used most of the time tested houseplants that he referred to.   The speaker got his inspiration and photos from Garfield Park Conservatory.  We could also observe the growing conditions in the eight rooms at the Conservatory as a guide for care and placing of our own houseplants.  He remarked that a yellow and green croton at the Conservatory was all green this winter. He reminded us that a variegated leaf has less chlorophyll and may revert to all green if it isn’t getting enough light.   While some plants will indicate their dissatisfaction with the growing conditions, others such as sansevieria and spider plants are not fussy and are practically indestructible.

I will say my favorite houseplants this year are the two large poinsettias that have been showing off their cheerful red colors for almost three months now.  You probably know (but may have forgotten) that the colored “petals” are really bracts and are not the flowers.  The flowers of the plant are the cluster of yellow buds in the center, or cyathia. Poinsettias (named in honor of a US Ambassador to Mexico) were more than a pretty face in their native southern Mexico.  The Aztecs used the milky white sap for fevers and a purple dye was extracted for textiles and cosmetics. The Aztecs referred to the winter-blooming plant as cuetlaxochitl; (its Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherrima or “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”)   In the early 1820’s Joel R. Poinsett spotted the plant south of Mexico City.  He liked the plant so much that he shipped plants to his home in South Carolina for use at Christmas.  An ardent botanist, Poinsett began to propagate more plants in his greenhouses at home and had plants and seeds sent to Col. Robert Carr, who was married to Ann Bartram-Carr, the granddaughter of the famous American nurseryman John Bartram.   Thanks to Col. Carr (and Bartram’s garden) the cultivation and commercial trade of poinsettias was started.  The poinsettia was introduced in June of 1829 at the first Philadelphia Flower show.

Today approximately 80% of the flowering poinsettias were once “little starts” in the Paul Eske Ranch in Encinitas, California.  The Ecke Ranch ships several million cuttings to growers in over 50 countries as well as flowering plants to wholesale outlets in California, Arizona and Nevada.  Poinsettias are the best-selling flowering plant in the US followed by the Easter lily and potted orchids.  More than 34 million poinsettias were sold in 2013.

If you like a challenge, you can get your poinsettia to re-bloom after a dormant period and then a carefully controlled period of light during the autumn.  The color of the bracts is created by a process known as photoperiodism which is basically the plants reaction to the length of light and dark in a 24 hour cycle.  Plants use it to signal seasonal events such as flowering.

News flash:  Japan has a variety of poinsettia known as the pink “Dulce Rosa” that is a spring container plant.  Breeders are also working on new shades of purple and orange poinsettias for the autumn season.

Lethargy be gone!   Flowers shows are on the horizon.  Garden Club has a road trip to the Orchid show later this month.  Lisa has a creative, paint a silk scarf workshop coming in March.  Seed catalogues are arriving.  Jackie Paine told me she has already ordered some plants.  The spring equinox is March 20, 2015.  The spring season brings increasing daylight, warming temperatures and nature’s renewal in the Midwest.

Garden Club to meet February 4

The Garden Club is happy to meet in Oak Park, where the streets and alleys have been plowed.
 The meeting is at Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid at 12:30 p.m. on Wed. Feb. 4th
Our speaker is Mel Zaloudek on the topic of Houseplants – Selection, Care & Feeding. at 1 p.m.
Lovely cyclamens will be the free door prizes this month and light refreshments will be served.
Bring a guest and join your friends for a delightful afternoon. After all, we’re a hardy bunch – a few flakes can’t top us!
Sue Milojevic
Program Chair