Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Modern Day Miracle Fiber

A few weeks ago, Bonnie Samuel, who's blog features articles about fiber, asked me to do a story about silk...

Back when I was growing up, the then-new manmade fibers were heavily touted as "miracle fibers" -- those fabrics that were wash 'n wear, required little if any ironing, either never showed stains or you could get spots out easily, and lasted virtually forever. In time, we learned most of that simply wasn't true. The manmade fibers didn't hold up the way they were supposed to or developed problems of their own. And who wanted to wear lime green jacquard polyester leisure suits, anyway?

Now that's ancient history. Today's miracle fiber, IMHO, is silk. They used to say you had to dry clean silk, but that too was hogwash. Fact is, I had my share of sumptuous silk blouses ruined by dry cleaning in the 1980s. Among it's numerous virtues, silk is very hand washable, plus it's nearly indestructible. Silk is also light weight and amazingly warm, it's hypoallergenic, it dyes magnificently, and it comes in a wide variety of textures and finishes. Is there anyone out there who doesn't absolutely love silk?

I've been spinning silk, almost exclusively, for the past eight years. Originally I switched to silk from animal fibers, when I found I could no longer wear wools -- even very fine merino wool -- because they caused me to itch and made my skin crawl. At first I moved from sheep wool to alpaca, but that was way too warm and still somewhat itchy, and eventually I went down the list of finer and finer animal fibers until I found myself so unbelievably allergic to angora that I can't be in the same room with the stuff. So enter silk in my life, and I've never looked back.

Although all silk comes from silk worm cocoons, the first division in types of silk is whether it has been cultivated or harvested in the wild. All, or nearly all cultivated silk comes from the Bombyx Mori moth, hence cultivated silk is simply called bombyx, or alternately mulberry silk, because bombyx moths are raised exclusively on mulberry leaves. Cultivated silk is very white and lustrous.

Wild silk is called tussah or sometimes muga depending on the species of moth, and there are many silk moth species in the world. What distinguishes all wild silk is that it will range in color from honey to a nearly cinnamon color, depending on what the moths eat. The more tannin in the moths' food supply, the darker tan the silk will be. Of course, these days you can get bleached tussah, but even though it can be disguised to look like bombyx, there are distinct differences in the way the two silks feel. Tussah or wild silks are just slightly crimpy compared with the amazingly straight bombyx silk fibers; they're fuzzier, they're matte in finish, and they're slightly heavier. Also slightly stronger.

Regardless of whether they are cultivated or wild, silk cocoons are processed to get silk fiber for spinning, and subsequently for silk yarn and silk fabrics. It all starts with those fine strands of fiber that create the cocoon. In the processing of cocoons another division occurs, and that is between long silk fibers and short fibers or noil. The long straight fibers are combed together to become top or sliver (pronounced with a long "i"). Silk top is heavenly to spin with, it practically spins itself. Typically you'll use the long draw spinning technique. You can spin it extremely finely, or not, the fibers are long and straight, and the yarn is so strong -- even the very finest yarn -- that you can easily cut your hand trying to break it!

The short noil fibers might be carded into roving, or spun as is. Usually silk noil fiber has bits of cocoon in it, or small pieces of whatever the cocoon was hanging on out in the wild. It looks a lot like cotton fiber. It's a completely different experience spinning silk noil -- because the fibers are so short you must use the short draw method keeping your hands very close together. And you'll typically spin a chunky yarn, although it will weigh almost nothing.

Cocoons also might be made into hankies, which are then dyed, separated into individual cocoon layers, and spun. A hanky is a flat square of silk comprised of approximately 6 to 8 cocoons that have been degummed in water and soda ash, had the worm pupa removed, and been stretched over a 10" x 10" frame to dry. Hankies have both long and short fibers in them so when they're spun up, the resulting yarn will have tiny slubs of short fibers. Spun up, this is raw silk textured yarn.

I should clarify that my focus is primarily on spun silk, because I am a spinner. There's also an entire industry devoted to reeled silk, that creates unbelievably gorgeous and extremely expensive yarn and fabrics made of numerous filaments of silk being unreeled together from individual cocoons and made into thread, rather than being spun together.

The silks just mentioned -- bombyx and tussah top, hankies, and noil -- are what I spin. I often combine a ply of one type of silk with a ply of another to create interesting and unusual yarns. For example, a chunky noil ply with a very fine bombyx ply. I also often hand card angelina fiber and/or weaving thrums into the silk noil, then ply that with fine bombyx, for a really unique, glitzy silk novelty yarn.

For earlier posts about my work with silk -- spinning, weaving and/or dyeing -- go to the compilation here. For a really terrific website devoted to silk worm raising and cultivation, visit Michael Cook at WormSpit. For great source info on using silk, see Treenway Silk's website. And check out my Etsy store for silks to spin. Enjoy!


Michael said...

Yaaay, silk!

I agree - it's really a miracle fiber. And we can get more species of silk, and more preparations of silk fiber, than we've ever had in the past.

Tricks said...

Hi Connie,
Well, thanks for all that lovely information. I have started to spin tussah silk this year and dye small amounts, I like to dye it variegated as I use it to sew with on my hand made felt.
Please could you answer a question for me. How do you spin silk thread with flames. I would simply love to know how, as I love the uneven thickness and would like to spin my yarn in this manner. I have seen and bought some like this, it is very fine but has these beautifully smooth but different thicknesses. Is there some special secret to allow a spinner to do this or can it only be done on a machine. Please, if you know how can you tell me how it is done. I just love to sew with threads like this but I don't know how to ply them together to make the thin and thick work together. I always ply my threads two ply for sewing. Thanks again for all that interesting information Best Wishes Tricia

Willington Weaver said...

Hi Connie

I'm so glad you've stressed that you can wash silk! I've been doing it for years and had some expressions of horror when I'd told people who only ever send their silk to the dry cleaners.

Lots of valuable information. Thanks.


shiborigirl said...

i too, have become a fan of silk.
living here in So CA, it's the perfect fabric and can cheer me up the minute it touches my skin! i am "dyeing" to get back to my spinning which ended in a desperate moment when i sold my spinning wheel for $ to pay a divorce lawyer but i swear i'm gonna get one again...and start spinning silk exclusively!
scrimping and saving to pay for a trip to japan in may- going on a "silk study tour" with a group of other interested parties..