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Silk thread from Cocoons

After breakfast, we drove to Lucca. The tour participants had some time to walk around Lucca, have some lunch, and have a private tour of the Maria Niemack Laboratory, National Museum Mansi. I opted to have some alone time and get lost in the streets of Lucca.

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Stefania sporting her Violence Free Silk Necklace


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Silk – the source of Lucca’s wealth

At about 2pm, we drove to Segromigno in Piano to pay a visit to Stefania Maffei. What does she do for a living? Well, she breeds silkworms. Silk was the source of much of Lucca’s wealth in midiaeval and Renaissance times, but finally died out in the mid 20th century. Her grandmother used to raise silkworms and Stefania has found a whole new enjoyment in cultivating its revival.

Stefania explained their life cycles and showed us how the cocoons are boiled and unwound to produce fine silk thread. I found it interesting how ravenous the caterpillars are and that they require fresh mulberry leaves (taken from the same trees her grandmother used). I also found it interesting that because Stefania raises them, feeds them, watches them grow and go through several metamorphoses, she started to feel guilty for killing them. Yes, you have to kill them inside the cocoon or the silk thread cannot be unwound. Let me explain, so after they eat a whole bunch and they start to do a dance, that is their signal that they are ready to build their cocoon. At this point, Stefania introduces sticks and branches for them. They find their perfect space and start shooting out the sticky substance from their gland right below their mouth. The cocoon is made from ‘weaving’ one continuous ‘thread’ of this sticky substance we know as silk. When the caterpillar is enclosed in its cocoon and has completed its metamorphosis to silk moth, it secrets an acid tha ‘burns’ a hole into the cocoon and allows it to come out. Once the hole is burnt, the silk cocoon is useless because it is no longer one long continuous thread. So, they kill them by slow roasting them in the oven. As Stefania became attached to them, she tried to find alternate ways to make the silk so she wouldn’t have to kill ALL of them… this process, where she takes the ‘burnt’ cocoons (cocoons with a hole in them) and processes them as you would just sheared wool in a clump. She calls it ‘violence-free silk’. 🙂

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Caterpillars being fed Mulberry Leaves


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Natural Cocoons


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a Silk Moth


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Boiling the cocoons to unravel the silk thread


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