Raising silkworms in Spain, early twentieth century:
Silkworms have been raised in the villages of the Spanish Sierra Nevada since the eleventh century. Here is a description of the method still being practiced by rural Spanish farmers after World War II.
The worms were kept in their cultivators' house, on cane trays hung from the ceilings in clean,
well-ventilated rooms or attics. Fed with fresh mulberry leaves, they made such a greedy noise
as they ate that their munching jaws could be heard all over the house. When they were ready to
spin, they were given bushes to attach their cocoons to, and covered with cloths so they would be
in the dark. These silkworms were very sensitive and hard to breed: any sudden small change in
temperature would make them swell up and sweat a milky substance that after a little time simply
killed them. (Or so the Spanish villagers claimed.) Sudden loud noises while they were spinning
made them turn their heads sharply and snap their threads, a terrible accident; so if a thunderstorm
befell in June (the spinning season) someone had to go up to their attic and set up a constant
rhythm of percussion on a tin tray, so the thunderclaps would pass unnoticed. Also the worms
could not endure evil stenches; the mere whiff of frying fish, if it seeped in from next door, would
make them turn yellow and die. The smell of pig manure or human ordure affected them almost
Silk culture in Persia, nineteenth century:
". . . Before I quit the subject let me very briefly describe the manner in which the silk cultivation is conducted in northern Persia. In the month of April the natives and chiefly the women, take the eggs, attached to a sheet of paper, and expose them to the warmth of the human body by wearing them beneath their clothes, next to the skin. After the lapse of three days the eggs are hatched and the caterpillars appear. They have before them a life of about forty days, which is spent in alternate spasms of excessive gluttony and stupefied repose. The periods of feasting, however, last from seven to ten days, the intervals of torpor not more than two. After the first ten days the worms are transferred to a tilambar, or platform, covered with a thatched shanty and reared at a height of about five feet from the ground, where, in the intervals of voracity, they are stuffed to repletion with mulberry leaves. After about forty days they become fat, full, and nearly transparent, in which uncomfortable condition they exhibit a desire to climb up a number of branches placed vertically in the shed, and to spin their cocoons. This goes on for ten days, during which time the tilambar is hermetically closed. At the end of that time it is again opened, the boughs are removed, the roof is found to be entirely covered with beautiful cocoons; and while some of these are spared to develop into moths for breeding purposes, the bulk are taken down, the chrysalis is killed by exposure to the sun, or immersion in boiling water, and the silk is unravelled and wound off on reels. The survivors come out as full-blown moths in a fortnight, when the female, having done her duty by laying from 100 to 1000 eggs, pines, and incontinently expires." Source: George Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question vol 1 (1892)
Originally, silk culture came from China through Khotan in the first century of the Christian era. Silks of native manufacture were known in Bokhara during the Ignorance; the Romans possibly got their silk from there. Later, most of Persia's silk was produced in Samarkhand and Bokhara, some in Khojend, and very little in Khiva.
After the silkworm cocoons were harvested, they were wound off in a primitive way--put in a
cauldron of boiling water and stirred with a broom till the threads unwound. When a certain
number unwound, they were wound round the broom and lifted out of the cauldron. Jews did
the dying. The weaving was done by the Tadjik tribesmen and native Mervi (people from the
oasis city of Merv). (Source, Arminius Vambery, Sketches of Central Asia, 1868.)
And here is a description of a silk factory in Turkestan, around 1936:
The factory was in a sealed building, hot as a steam bath. When the traveler who described it visited, the silkworms were being boiled in their cocoons, in long pans upon high factory tables; they stank to high heaven as they died. Women standing over the tables had hands all softened and blanched by hot water. The yellow cocoons looked like big beans. They had to be taken at the right end, or they would not unwind. With a skimmer, one woman lifted the cocoons from the pans. Another took seven filaments of raw silk at once and wound it into a thread (?); this was gathered into stiff glittering skeins, colored white or pale yellow gold.
Women weaving in a converted madrasah: their looms lay over pits dug into the floor, the walls
echoed to the thuds of their combs. (Source: Ella Maillart, Turkestan Solo, 1934.)
Further details of nineteenth-century sericulture come from the Russian naturalist Pallas, who wanted to persuade his countrymen to adopt Persian techniques.
It was a wasteful practice (in Pallas' estimation) to feed the worms by gathering and strewing leaves for them; the leaves only decayed, and the beds of the worms had to be continually shifted for cleanliness' sake. Persians (ie, silk-growers in Bukhara) reared mulberry trees to about six feet in height (ie, four or five years or age) and then began to lop their tops and branches. The leafy boughs were brought whole, and laid gently upon the silk-worm beds; by this means the leaves remained fresh and succulent, and the worms devoured the offerings right to the woody fibres, so nothing was wasted. The stripped branches were not taken away. Instead--because the Persian cultivators replenished the boughs daily--the leafy branches gradually formed a sort of wicker-work through which the droppings and impurities constantly fell; this kept the worms clean and healthy as well as fed, and the farmer did not have to shift the beds. Also all the feed for the worms could quickly be gathered by two persons working together--commonly an adult who lopped the mulberry-boughs, and a child following after to gather them.
Finally, when the worms prepared to spin, small dry brushwood was placed in all directions over the leafless branches. The worms climbed up and spun on the brushwood branches, and the cocoons were then collected.
In the steppes of southern Russia, mulberry trees under cultivation grew new shoots twice every summer. Meanwhile in Persia and Bukhara, where the summer was longer and vegetation more vigorous, the shoots were cut twice yearly; the trees, pruned by this method, remained low and bushy and produced abundant fresh shoots from their limbs and trunk. However, merely stripping the leaves to feed the silk-worms was not considered good practice: the foliage decayed rapidly if thus cut, and the plants did poorly after being stripped of all their growth. (No surprise, that.)
If there were not enough mulberry-leaves for the worms to feed on, they could in a pinch be fed with the leaves of the Acer tataricum (the Tartar maple?), which resembled those of a mulberry.
In 1818, Persia exported the following cloth goods to Russia: silk stuffs and cotton, and silk cloth mixed with cotton, all far more durable and beautiful than those of Turkey, and extremely cheap to boot. Some cloth from India was brought up through Persia, and this was more expensive: these were such as fine chintzes called Kalenkor, and an excellent undyed cotton cloth called Maderpok.
Persian silk cloth consisted of silk and half-silk in stripes of various colors, called Kutni and Aladshi. Silk interwoven with gold was called Isarbati and Dibi. Also exported were various other stuffs, plus inferior cotton cloth from Bukhara and Persia.
(Also shipped into Russia from Tibet and Kashmir were fine and valuable woolen shawls such as Persian ladies wore on their heads and round their waists. These were much-sought-after by European ladies; they were shipped through Persia and Turkey, or straight from Persia for a lower price. The director of the school at Astrakhan had visited Kashmir, and there saw the cashmere shawls manufactured; they were made from the finest goat's wool, obtained by combing the goat, and also from the silky wool of the sheep of Kerman and Kashmir, which in lustre and beauty surpassed the finest silk. The shawls came in many patterns, but most valuable were the pure white and also those striped in seven colors.)
(Source: P. S. Pallas, The Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire, 2 vols. originally published
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Posted on February 17th, 2002 by Sylvia