Silk Solutions
Silk Worms as Poverty Solutions

Jaman Matthews © 2008

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The following is an article from the World Ark Magazine published by Heifer International. We were given permission to provide this fascinating article by their Associate Editor, Austin Gelde, and we would like to express our sincere thanks. Crazy quilters everywhere, mixed media artists and those who create beautiful and artistic quilts and wearables appreciate the wide range of silk fabrics we have to use. This article not only informs and educates on the history of silk and the silk worm, but enlightens us as to how something seemingly so simple can transform lives. – Julie O. Yonge, Staff Writer

Weaving Success For China’s Struggling Farmers

Though its name may suggest otherwise, Heifer International gives more than just cows. The organization works with a variety of locally adapted, culturally appropriate animals. In southern China, the silkworm is one small animal that produces giant results for poor farmers.

By Jaman Matthews | WORLD ARK WRITER for Heifer International, ©2008
Photography by Jake Lyell

A young woman in southern China wanders through a grove of mulberry trees on a cool morning, her eyes turned upward. Something is eating away at the leaves, and Leizu must uncover the culprit. She pauses beneath the trees when something — Plop! — falls into her cup of tea.

Leizu picks a nearly invisible hair-like thread from her cup and winds it around her finger. Even wet, she notices that the fiber keeps her finger warm in the chilly air. What is this thin thread with such peculiar properties? Leizu finds her answer at the bottom of the tea cup — a lustrous white cocoon. And, so the legend goes, Leizu discovered not only that it was silkworms devouring the trees; she had also discovered silk. Leizu went on to breed silkworms in her own special mulberry grove and even invented the reel used to wind the tiny filaments into thread. Fifty centuries later, women and men in southern China, including members of several Heifer International projects, are using Leizu’s discoveries to earn a living.

The Silkworm In Chinese History

The silkworm spins its filament throughout Chinese history. The story of silk’s discovery 5,000 years ago is an important national narrative, much like our own story of Benjamin Franklin discovering electricity. The secrets of silk production were closely guarded by the Chinese, and for centuries they had a worldwide monopoly on silk production and trade. China’s economic dominance stretched as far away as Western Europe.

But as China’s silk secrets slowly leaked to their neighbors in India, Korea, Japan and later to Europe, China’s dominance faded. Silk, too, lost its position as queen of fibers as cotton became king during the Industrial Revolution. Later, synthetic silks like nylon and rayon became cheap to make. But today silk is making a comeback, and China has once again reclaimed its role as the world’s largest silk producer.

Silk And The Silkworm

The silkworm is not a worm at all. It is a caterpillar, the larva of the silk moth. The life span of a silk moth — from an egg the size of a pinhead through adult stage — is a mere 47 days. Most of this time is spent in the silkworm phase, feasting on mulberry leaves. When fully grown, the caterpillar spins its cocoon of silk, which is actually a protein-based liquid produced in specialized saliva glands and excreted through tiny holes in the silkworm’s mouth. The liquid solidifies only when it comes into contact with air. The cocooning process takes five days and results in one continuous thread of silk up to 3,000 feet long, all wound into a cocoon the color and size of a cotton ball. The moth emerges from this cocoon to live only another five days.


Sericulture is the practice of raising silkworms and producing silk. Though the larvae of several species of moths produce silk, it is Bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm, that spins the finest quality silk. The species no longer occurs in the wild and, since they cannot fly, are completely dependent on humans to provide everything from food to assistance in reproducing. The larvae are fed a steady diet of mulberry leaves and can consume 10,000 times their hatch-weight.

Once they are fully formed, the cocoons are harvested and boiled. Boiling the cocoon makes it easier to unwind the silk fiber. It also kills the pupa inside. But if the silk moth were allowed to emerge from the cocoon, much of the valuable silk would be destroyed. The long fibers are unwound and cleaned in preparation for spinning and weaving. It takes about 3,000 cocoons to make one pound of silk.

Heifer International

In southern China’s Lezhi County, where silk is a $20-million-a-year industry, there are about 120 million mulberry trees to feed the silkworms. Because they are so profitable, many farmers, especially women, like to raise silkworms. Heifer International’s Lezhi Women’s Silkworm Project, begun in 1999, has held 25 training sessions and distributed silkworms to 261 families, who have in turn passed on silkworms to 270 additional families. To many families, silkworms are more important than other livestock for generating family income. The project is so successful that Heifer China is supplying silkworms to other projects throughout the region.

Be sure to visit Heifer International’s website for further information on sericulture and their other life transforming initiatives:

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