Monday, 28 June 2010

University Students

We had a lucky break in the rainy season for a group of university students who came over and dyed some tenugui. It always amazes me that even with the exact same technique each persons tenugi comes out different.

Friday, 18 June 2010

A new backstrap loom class for beginners.

Three very enthusiastic students have made up a Friday class. To keep it interesting I have all three of them weaving something slightly different. Koike san is weaving saki ori for the first time. (Actually it was the first time she wove anything today.) I had some old silk kimono lining that I dyed with madder and Lac. Perfect to rip into fine strips and weave.

Takeshima san is weaving some fine white paper thread she will later surface design with indigo and persimmon tannin.

Kameii san is weaving a gorgeous random indigo hemp stripe. Picture to come.

My Karma is going to pay for this..

I 'll probably be born as a silkworm in my next million lives ( A rough estimate of the number of silkworms I will have raised and then killed in this life.) and for eternity face one of the several choice fates the silkworms have faced because of me.

Left alone the silk moth will melt a hole in the cocoon ten days after the silkworm had spun it in order to escape and mate. The cocoon would then be useless for reeling with breaks in the continuous fiber. So I have to kill the chrysalis. There are a few techniques. Slightly salting the cocoons to dry them. Boiling and then reeling before the moth is formed. Keeping them in the fridge for a long cold slow death or placing them on the scorching hot tin metal roof on my kitchen to dry out in the sun.

Today I used the hell-hot-roasting-roof to do the trick.

Just to put some faces to the last silk farmers in my area.

Jimbo sans are over 80. This will be their last year raising silkworms. Both of them have raised silkworms their entire lives.
They are self-sufficient rice farmers as well as making their own miso and tofu from their own soybeans. Wow.

Primitive Critter

Silkworms have been bred for docility as well as the quality of the silk over thousands of years. The modern hybrids won't walk more than a few centimetres to find food. If the mulberry isn't directly overhead or right beside them they would starve before going foraging for themselves. It would be just to much trouble to raise a lot of wander lusting silkworms hiding in all corners of the house. They have to stay in place. Like foot-binding the ancient Chinese were very good with limiting mobility for convenience sake. The urge to walk was simply bred out.

There is still a variety of wild silkworm closely related to his/her contemporary cousins. They are called kuwako locally. They seem Cro-Magnon like. Stockier with a large brow. Slightly hairier. Almost always found solitary disinterestedly nibbling on leaf they seem to have been cast out from all the games the other reindeer play.

You can find them occasionally on the back of mulberry leaves brought home to feed their domesticated relatives . I've tried to keep the wild ones from straying, tempting them with the freshest choice mulberry I can find. Alas, they are a free spirited variety and need to roam. So they end up on the mulberryless ceiling or squashed on the floor. I found this sexy pre-historic one on the leaves last night and is now relocated to the dozens of saplings in front of the house. I hope it hangs around long enough to make a cocoon.

You can find their thin beige-coloured cocoons in the dead of winter clinging to the bare branches of the sleeping mulberry. (See January 3rd blog picture.) A small hole on the top of the cocoon to show that no one is home and the occupant flew off as a moth months before.

Just for reference here is a photo of his modern cousins.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Mulberry Rolls

This gets a little carried away but some mothering instinct in me gets me to waste time rolling up these mulberry rolls for the kids. They are easy to slice and taking the extra time with small details like this actually makes being busy seem less busy. The silkworms will be two weeks old tomorrow.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Indigo Seedlings: Second Time Lucky

Thinking I was on the ball I had my indigo planted early this year. A late frost and I lost the entire batch. I replanted quite late and am welcomed by the sight of these seedlings a month behind schedule but better late than never.

Mulberry Saplings

Last year I planted some mulberries. (The actual black berries.) One year later I have three hundred mulberry saplings taking up a lot of space in front of my house. They look great and smell of a productive future. I will plant them in a new field near my house next spring. Today I trimmed off all the secondary branches and fed the trimmings to my 1700 hungry friends.

Wet Bamboo Silk Rearing Trays in the River.

To prevent sickness with the silkworms it is important to disinfect all the equipment after each group of silkworms.

I used to wear a full rubber rain gear suit and a proper gas mask and spray the silk rearing room as well as all everything imaginable that would come in contact with the silkworms with a strong formaldehyde solution. I used to dread it. Sweltering hot and humid Japanese summers in a rubber suit. I once made a mistake and went in the room a day early after closing it down or a few days to open the windows to air it out. I was in the room less than a minute but I managed to burn my lungs and I was in the hospital a few hours later. Barely able to speak, it was a challenge to tell the doctor that I had breathed in formaldehyde fumes while disinfecting for my silkworms in broken semi-delirious Japanese.

A lot can go wrong. This is my 14th year in the silk business and I still have to manage one thousand minute details to make the whole process go smoothly. Is it worth it? Hmmmmm.

I am not rearing the numbers I used to so I just spray and wipe with a disinfectant. I alternate rearing areas between my house and the studio just down the driveway so I don't have to worry about disinfecting too much, giving each spot a year to rest.

All the bamboo trays and shelf frames get hauled down to the river and I spend day scrubbing and just enjoying the water. The waterfall washing area is only a hundred or so meters directly down from my doorstep, but this is the only time of the year that I really get in there and enjoy it. I can hear the waterfalls year round twenty four hours a day. Nice. Far enough away not to feel any dampness in the house but I can still enjoy the sound.

If you keep the silkworms environment spotlessly clean and well aired there isn't that much of a problem with sickness. The weather can be humid and sticky this time of year. A few rain showers and wet mulberry leaf can turn the whole process into nightmare pretty quick when raising over 10 000 silkworms. A lot can go wrong besides the weather. Too much nitrogen fertilizer on the mulberry field and the worms get weak. Low temperatures at the wrong time and the worms kind of implode on the silk liquid that can't flow properly. Too much formaldehyde on the cocoon spinning equipment and the worms stop spinning and try to escape but they are too weak to go far. What a mess.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Going going gone...

There is only one silk farming house left in my area besides myself. This is the last year they will raise silkworms. I'll try to document the elderly couple's work this year as it will be last chance to see the process. Only 40 years ago practically every house in this area was producing silk. The last one... I visited yesterday and took pictures of their kaitenmabushi. The are just finishing a batch of 54 000 silkworms.

Silkworm Eggs Hatching

I have about 1700 babies in the house right now. Each ring of eggs has about 450-500 eggs. A metal cup is placed over the moth so that she doesn't walk all over the place laying eggs. The following spring it is easy to calculate how many silkworms to raise by counting the rings and letting the amount needed to hatch.