Silk: It’s Just Leaves & Spit

It’s steamy and lush. A big muddy river is coursing between verdant mountains and under thunderously grey storm clouds. Insects are buzzing and the tamarind juice is pulpy. Luang Prabang is pulsing, and I am soaking. It. Up. I’m perhaps too taken by my surroundings, as Paeng, the master weaver who is overseeing my attempts at ikat weaving stops me, shakes her head, mutters ‘no, no, no’ and undoes the last few rows of my scarf…

This is how I recently spent a few days at Ock Pop Tok (meaning ‘East Meets West’), spinning and dyeing raw silk and then weaving it into a scarf. These few days were practically the opposite to how I spend my days in normal life in Sydney, where I always seem to be plugged into – and frowning at – at least one screen, and trying to work out how to get more things done, faster (often without much success). The phrase ‘respect the process’ became a bit of an earworm for me during this time, because in weaving that’s what you have to do. There’s no such thing as a rush job. There’s also a respect for the origin of raw materials – an appreciation that materials do not simply, well, materialise – everything has a source, and often that source is plant-based.

Wrapped in the green of Luang Prabang and reflecting on the history of the threads I was weaving, I became interested in silk production. This luxurious, expensive fabric is produced by thousands of leaves and masses of worm spit. Isn’t that great?

Starting life as tiny little larvae, silkworms spend about 3 weeks continuously gorging themselves on tasty mulberry leaves, until they’ve grown 10,000 times in size. The plumper silkworms then begin expelling raw silk (mulberry-spit), coated in a hardening fluid called sericin through modified salivary glands. They cocoon themselves in one continuous thread of this silk, up to almost 1km in length. In the silk-making process, this is where the silkworm bid their adieu, as the cocoons are placed in boiling water to loosen the filament and to make it workable. Several strands of this raw silk are twisted together to make a single thread of silk, which can be spun, dyed and woven. To give you a sense of scale, approximately 2500 silkworm cocoons produce half a kilogram of silk.

These images are a tribute to the luscious mulberry leaf and the juicy silkworm, and to the simplicity and beauty of their relationship.