What to do with silk cocoons 4: Spin degummed cocoons

For those who have not been following the silkworm saga… I raised a good number of silkworms last year, starting with the hatching and ending (after riveting weekly updates, believe me), with the very last silkworm creating a cocoon. Since then there has been a small series of ‘what I did with my silk cocoons’ posts… and I think this is the last one for this season of silk.

With  A Silk Worker’s Notebook by Cheryl Kolander (Interweave Press, Colorado USA 1985) as my guide, I moved on to my final experiment.  Cheryl describes the potential of spinning from degummed cocoons as ‘unlimited’ (page 71).  In fact, she goes so far as to say: ‘Direct spinning from degummed cocoons is the classic form for handspun silk. In fact, there is no easier fiber to spin.’

As it happens, I bought 25g of degummed cocoons last time I visited the Victorian Guild, (they have a lovely shop and gallery) for the princessly sum of $3.20.  It’s a good thing I did, because these are the only degummed silk cocoons I have ever touched. It can be difficult to embark on a process (such as degumming) when you have never seen anyone do it (other than on YouTube perhaps) and you have never seen or touched the finished product–and you have only a paragraph of text as your guide.

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Degumming is a way of releasing the sticky substance that holds the strands of silk together to form the cocoon, so these are still roughly cocoon shaped but fluffy by comparison with their intact counterparts.  Now, I have to begin by saying that Cheryl Kolander has skills that far exceed my own, but for me this was not the easiest fibre I have ever spun!

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Just the same, I managed to spin it, extract most of the chrysalis remains that were included and produce yarn, even if I was quite unsure how to turn it into something even and lovely.  I didn’t really expect to do that on my first attempt–but I would not object to being surprised by beginners’ luck at some point in my life. I re-read the relevant part of the book to discover that even from Cheryl’s skill level and point of view, some parts are not spinnable, and they were the ones I struggled with most.  Here is what I produced:

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The next thing to do was to follow Cheryl’s advice on how to degum silk cocoons and try this process with my own.

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There were two accounts of how to degum in the book, one of which implied that the cocoons were degummed with the chrysalis intact (since it was extracted at a certain point in the spinning process).  The other advised cutting the cocoons up the side and removing the chrysalis before before degumming,  In the end, I decided to do that because the idea of a well simmered chrysalis did not excite me.  Call me unprepared to pick small insect parts from my fibre–stronger insults have come my way!

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So, into the pot went the white cocoons, the yellow cocoons and the parts left over from spinning raw cocoons, just in case more could be done with them.  There were mysterious elements, as there often are with instructional texts from the US–for me, at least.  What is Ivory dish detergent?  Does the brand matter?  What would count as a big squirt?  This complication in understanding what others actually do is particularly entertaining in reading online discussion of washing wool–I recommend the thousands of accounts of the ‘only’ and ‘best’ way to clean raw fleece that you can find in any forum where this issue is discussed as fine entertainment!

As usual, I resolved these mysteries with the judicious application of guesswork.  Some time later I had this, a circular mass of silk fibres with quite a bit less structure, much less colour and some yellow water:

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I rinsed–and had something decidedly mangy and sad looking at the end of the process.  So I drew it out into a longish lumpy mass and hung it out to dry.

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Then, the struggle to spin began.  I think the temperature on my degumming pot may have been a problem… in that my burners maintain temperature by intermittently heating, which sometimes produces bubbling. I think this introduced a level of tangling that the cocoons I bought from the Victorian Guild did not suffer from.  But of course… this was probably only one of my beginner mistakes. My cocoons did not contain as much fibre as those I had purchased either, so the ratio of spinnable silk to fine inner layer was different too.

In the end, there was some yarn.  Not very much, and not very lovely.  But there was yarn.

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Time to put my feet up until next September, I guess!

7 Comments

Filed under Fibre preparation, Spinning

7 responses to “What to do with silk cocoons 4: Spin degummed cocoons

  1. “What would count as a big squirt?” That cracked me up! This whole project has been so fascinating! And now for a question from one who knows absolutely nothing about silk production… what happens to the silk worms? What do they turn into?

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    • I’m glad you’ve found it interesting! I guess that’s one of the things I really like about blogs. The writer can have the most peculiar unique interests, and only readers who are similarly curious need read the details–or anything at all. Left to their own devices, the silk worms turn into silk moths, which in this case were pale cream and lovely. I’m surprised to find I didn’t post a photo, as I certainly took some… and what else did I spare you?

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  2. Spinaddict

    hi,
    l was just wondering how carding it would have gone? Could it even have been carded???
    l know with a silk hanky you can “GASP” cut it, but that’s only if the filaments are EXTRA long!
    And what about the yellow in the cocoons? Was the yellow all worm spit?
    l’m so glad that you spared those of us with weaker stomachs the gruesome details of what happens to a silkworm who “doesn’t make it out alive”!!

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    • The short answer is that I couldn’t have carded it without cutting it–my arms are just not long enough! I don’t know whether carding would have been a good idea… Cheryl Kolander’s approach suggests that carding would be an absolute resort, but had she seen my degummed silk she might have pulled her hair out and recommended carding immediately 🙂 I also think that fine cards would be called for, and I don’t own any. It does seem that the yellow colour was all worm spit, and I cannot explain why some of the silkworms had yellow spit and some didn’t, even though they were all eating the same diet. Let us pass over what happened to the pupae that didn’t make it out alive in silence…

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  3. Neet

    Hi Mazzaus, I found your article very interesting. I would like to use the photographs on this blog for my project (silkworm rearing). And was wondering if you can help me out with many more photographs of this kind.

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    • Hello Neet, I did a whole series on the silkworms which you can find posted week by week, with photos of each stage. I did take more photos, but I am not sure that they add a great deal! If you search the blog I am sure you’ll find them–or if you scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, you’ll find a word cloud. If you look for ‘silk worms’ and click on it, that should take you to all the posts on the silk worms–and then there is a series you already found about what I did with the cocoons. I’m glad you found them interesting! m

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