Sericulture in the United Kingdom
King James 1st dearly wanted a silk industry right across his kingdom and ordered his mulberry for every town and village in the land. Today when talking of Mulberries most will comment on the wonderful berries making excellent jam. Yet it is the humble leaves of the mulberry bush that are the very making of a silk industry, that in China today employs literately millions of people.
The Romans brought mulberry to England and they used the leaves for medicinal use, and even the bark of mulberry roots was used to flush out tapeworms from the gut. So why today is there no industry of sericulture in the UK?
Our story of sericulture in the United Kingdom goes back to King James and his hopes for a silk industry of our own and his belief that it was possible, which got a lot of people excited. At one of the Cambridge Colleges a possible solution to their troubled finances was a purchase in large amounts of mulberry in order to produce silk and save them from ruin. Alas despite this and other efforts a home spun industry has never emerged.
King James was said to have purchased his mulberry from France and it was from there and Italy that much of Sumptuous silk fabrics that adorned the King was supplied. The big historic question will remain as to if the King was deliberately sold the Morus Nigra instead of the Morus Alba? In other words the red instead of the white mulberry in order to defeat his efforts. This is important as the leaf of the red is little use to the humble silk worm that needs the leaf of the white to feed its boundless appetite.
A single worm of the Bombyx Mori species will consume a kilo of mulberry leaves in just forty days and nights. The worm outgrows its skin up to four times and wriggles out of the old ones to emerge with a bigger new one. The worms are not too bothered about travelling as long as there is mulberry available, and can be retained in trays.
The worm reaches its full potential and begins to search for a place to cocoon. The silk thread is exuded through twin glands in the tip of the head, and up to one mile of continuous filament thread will be spun. The silkworm rolls its head to and fro making the cocoon as a protection from predators. Once the cocoon is complete the magic of metamorphous takes place where the worm transforms into a chrysalis within the cocoon. There the chrysalis lays dormant for up to ten days before a moth emerges from the discarded shell.
If unchallenged the moth will proceed to chew a hole in the cocoon to escape and search for a mate. To aid this, the female moth produces a fluid to attract the male. She is unable to fly and only one male will be successful in mating a single female, which can last for several hours. The female then rests and despite vigorous approaches from males no other is tolerated before the egg laying begins.
The female will lay around 120 eggs which resemble sesame seeds and could be mistaken if not carefully harvested. These eggs will lay dormant until the following season. The broken and spoilt cocoons are destined for the spun silk industry, but the only way to create continuous filament silk is to unravel the silk, thread which is unbroken, is by stifling the chrysalis before it spoils the cocoon, enabling the unravelling to begin. This is the skilful art of sericulture knowing when to proceed, for the best harvest.
The simple fact that all this processing of making silk has to happen in warm temperature range in controlled moisture content does keep the silk business away from our shores. This climate could be artificially created in the UK today at some cost, but despite pure silk being at a very high price, we cannot compete with the China silk industry. They have a head start, having invented the process over five thousand years ago.