Sericulture - The process

The major activities involved in a sericulture industry are:

  • Cultivation of silkworm food plants
  • Rearing of silkworms for the production of raw silk
  • Reeling the cocoons for unwinding the silk filament and
  • Other post-cocoon processes such as twisting, dyeing, weaving, printing and finishing.
  • Sericulture, or silk farming, is the rearing of silkworms for the production of raw silk
  • Bombyx mori is the most widely used species of silkworm and intensively studied.
  • Stages of production of silk
  • The silk moth lays eggs
  • The eggs hatch, and the larvae feed on mulberry leaves
  • When the silkworms are about 10,000 times heavier than when they hatched, they are ready to spin a silk cocoon
  • The silk is produced in two glands in the silkworm's head and then forced out in liquid form through openings called spinnerets.

Sericulture is one of the most labour intensive sectors, combining activities of both agriculture (sericulture) and industry. It is this position along with its immense employment potential, that makes sericulture and silk, indispensable in the Nigerian textile map.

It is the only one cash crop in agriculture sector that gives returns within 30 days. Sericulture emerged as an important economic activity, becoming increasingly popular in several parts of the country, because of its short gestation period, quick recycling of resources. It suits very well to all types of farmers and exceptionally for marginal and small land holders as it offers rich opportunities for enhancement of income and creates own family employment round the year.

Hatching the Eggs

The first stage of silk production is the laying of silkworm eggs, in a controlled environment such as an aluminum box, which are then examined to ensure they are free from disease. The female deposits 300 to 400 eggs at a time.

In an area the size of your monitor screen, 100 moths would deposit some 40,000 eggs, each about the size of a pinhead. The female dies almost immediately after depositing the eggs and the male lives only a short time after. The adult possesses rudimentary mouthparts and does not eat during the short period of its mature existence.

The tiny eggs of the silkworm moth are incubated (about 10 days) until they hatch into larvae (caterpillars). At this point, the larva is about a quarter of an inch long.

The Feeding Period

Once hatched, the larvae are placed under a fine layer of gauze and fed huge amounts of chopped mulberry leaves during which time they shed their skin four times. The larvae may also feed on Osage orange or lettuce. Larvae fed on mulberry leaves produce the very finest silk. The larva will eat 50,000 times its initial weight in plant material.

For about six weeks the silkworm eats almost continually. After growing to its maximum size of about 3 inches at around 6 weeks, it stops eating, changes color, and is about 10,000 times heavier than when it hatched.

The silkworm is now ready to spin a silk cocoon.

Spinning the Cocoon

The silkworm attaches itself to a compartmented frame, twig, tree or shrub in a rearing house to spin a silk cocoon over a 3 to 8 day period. This period is termed pupating.

Silkworms possess a pair of specially modified salivary glands called sericteries, which are used for the production of fibroin – a clear, viscous, proteinaceous fluid that is forced through openings called spinnerets on the mouthpart of the larva.

Liquid secretions from the two large glands in the insect emerge from the spinneret, a single exit tube in the head. The diameter of the spinneret determines the thickness of the silk thread, which is produced as a long, continuous filament. The secretions harden on exposure to the air and form twin filaments composed of fibroin, a protein material. A second pair of glands secretes a gummy binding fluid called sericin which bonds the two filaments together.

Steadily over the next four days, the silkworm rotates its body in a figure-8 movement some 300,000 times, constructing a cocoon and producing about a kilometer of silk filament.

Reeling the Filament

At this stage, the cocoon is treated with hot air, steam, or boiling water. The silk is then unbound from the cocoon by softening the sericin and then delicately and carefully unwinding, or 'reeling' the filaments from 4 - 8 cocoons at once, sometimes with a slight twist, to create a single strand.

As the sericin protects the silk fiber during processing, this is often left in until the yarn or even woven fabric stage. Raw silk is silk that still contains sericin. Once this is washed out (in soap and boiling water), the fabric is left soft, lustrous, and up to 30% lighter. The amount of usable silk in each cocoon is small, and about 2500 silkworms are required to produce a pound of raw silk.

Types of Silk

Raw silk is twisted into a strand sufficiently strong for weaving or knitting. This process of creating the silk yarn is called “throwing,” and prevents the thread from splitting into its constituent fibers.

Four different types of silk thread may be produced from this procedure: crepetramthrown singles, and organzine. Crepe is made by twisting individual threads of raw silk, doubling two or more of these together, and then twisting them again. Tram is made by twisting two or more threads in only one direction. Thrown singles are individual threads that are twisted in only one direction. Organzine is a thread made by giving the raw silk a preliminary twist in one direction and then twisting two of these threads together in the opposite direction.

In general, organzine thread is used for the warp threads of materials, tram threads for the weft or filling, crepe thread for weaving crinkly fabrics and a single thread for sheer fabrics.

Broken or waste filaments and damaged cocoons are retained, treated to remove the sericin, and combed. This is then processed into yarn, marketed as spun silk, which is inferior in character to the reeled product and much cheaper.