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TYPES OF SILKWORM

Silkworm on Mulberry leaves

The silkworm is the larva of the silk moth and the silk itself is produced from the fibres of the cocoon in which the silkworm wraps itself when it enters the pupal stage of development. The raw silk that goes to making this cocoon is produced in the larvae’s salivary glands. So silk is quite literally caterpillar spit.

Generally when people think of silkworms they usually think of Bombyx mori meaning ‘silkworm of the mulberry tree’ in Latin. In fact there are over 500 species of silkworm, though only a handful of these are cultivated or utilised by humans.

Domestic silkworm moths have been cultivated and selectively bred for a very long time, beginning at least 5000 years ago in China, before spreading to Korea and Japan and later to India and Europe. As a result of generations of inbreeding and genetic selection (silkworms are second only to maize in the varieties produced and intensity of selective breeding) the domestic silkworm is reliant on humans for breeding and can neither eat nor fly upon emerging from their cocoon. They are completely unafraid of any potential predator and so are entirely dependent on humans for their survival.

These domestic silkworms can be categorised into three different types based on the number of silk harvests they can produce annually.

Univoltine silkworms, which are usually found in Europe, have eggs that hibernate during the winter, producing silk only once per year. The name derives from the Latin, uni - meaning one, voltine – meaning brood frequency. Bivoltine silkworms, normally bred in China, Korea and Japan, have two broods per year and so produce silk twice per year. These types of silkworm do not need to hibernate due to the slightly warmer climate in which they are bred.

Polyvoltine silkworms are found in the tropics and can have up to eight broods in a single year.

Wild silk moths are wildly different if you will excuse the pun, and they are not generally exploited on a commercial scale. The cocoons tend to be smaller and as the moth escapes the cocoon it breaks the silk fibre. This leads to short and varied lengths of silk thread, compared to the single, unbroken thread which can be up to mile or two in length for domesticated silkworms.

There are four main types of commercially exploited silkworm, by far the most common being the mulberry silkworm which accounts for around 90% of global silk production.

Other silkworms include the three most common non-mulberry types; Tassar or Tussah silk, Eri silk and Muga silk. There are also other types of non-mulberry silk, which are generally wild or semi-wild varieties and are exploited on a small scale in parts of Africa and Asia. These include Fagara silk from the giant silk moth of the Indo-Australian region; Anaphe silk produced by silkworms which spin cocoons in communes all enclosed in another layer of thin silk collected in the wild by tribal peoples in the forests of central Africa; and Coan silk from the Mediterranean, which feed on a variety of trees such as Ash, Pine, Juniper and Cypress. Non-insect varieties of silk include Mussel and Spider silk.

Ahimsa silk is not derived from a particular type of silkworm, but rather from any wild or semi-wild type that is not killed in the process of silk production. Ahimsa silk is popular in areas of Southern India and was promoted by Mahatma Ghandi as an alternative to silks that involve the killing of silkworms. Domesticated varieties of silk are usually boiled, which kills the silkworm (which is often then eaten as a delicacy) and prevents the destruction of the silk thread as well as softening the silk making it easier to untangle and spin.

Different types of silkworm produce different silks with differing qualities and applications. Tassar (Tussah) silk, for example, has a wide variety of types within the same genus; all of which are either uni- or bivoltine and are wild silk moths. Tassar silk is a copper coloured, course silk that is not quite as lustrous as mulberry based silk. It is often used in luxury furnishings and upholstery. The silkworms of this type feed on Oak tree leaves and the leaves of other related plant species. Mulberry silk is generally used for luxury products such as mulberry silk duvets, mattress toppers and pillows due to its very high quality.

There are two types of domesticated multivoltine silkworm that feed on Castor leaves, which are also used to make castor oil. They produce Eri silk which is cultivated on a small scale in certain areas of Northern India. The silk is used to weave the traditional Chaddor or robe of the tribal people of the region.

Muga silk is produced by silkworms of the same genus as those that produce Tassar silk. However, they produce an unusual gold-yellow thread, and are found exclusively in the Assam region of India. Muga silk is produced on a very small scale and is used in the production of the traditional dress of the people of Assam. It feeds on the leaves of the Som tree and related species.

The only two exploited varieties of non-insect silk are Mussel silk, which comes from a particular bivalve pinna squamosa, a type of mussel found in the shallow waters of the Italian and Dalmatian coasts of the Adriatic. It is used to produce a type of local silk known as ‘fish wool’. The production is small scale and mainly in the Taranto region of Italy.

Spider silk is only commercially exploited through certain Madagascan species of spider and is not used at all in textile production due to the prohibitive cost of even small scale production. However, the silk’s extraordinary resistance to extremes of both humidity and temperature, as well as its strength and durability make it an invaluable (if obscure) resource for use in the crosshairs of optical instruments.

Luxurious and extremely comfortable silk bedding produced with only the very best mulberry silk are available for purchase through this website. Find out more about mulberry silk-filled duvets by clicking below.....

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