Tuesday, January 22, 2013

For kings and dead people - but what has Rumpelstiltskin have to do with it?

Madagascar is a country that will never cease to amaze me. I believe that after two and half years, I may have discovered 2% of all the secrets and treasures this country has to offer.

On a field visit trip I recently did for UNDP, I am taken to see a small project financed by this United Nations agency. We drive for about three hours on bumpy roads, arrive at a farmer's house, made of mud and clay with a court yard. The farmer, followed by half the village, leads us into some sort of barn, and I'm thinking: Ha, another pig rearing project. Or chickens maybe?

No way! It was a silk worm farm with a weaving installation.

Originally destined for Kings and (rich) dead bodies only, silk is now more and more available in Madagascar, though it's still pretty rare and expensive.

When you're wearing a silk shawl, you may want to remind yourself of the extremely labor intensive process that you've wrapped around your neck. Want to know more? Here's some Silk-For-Dummies steps:

1. Grow and groom your silk worms

Madagascar silk larvae are pretty difficult little creatures. They do not like: humidity, noise, strong smells, pesticides and parasites, in particular ants, flees and flies. I'm not sure about lemurs and chameleons. Grooming them is almost a full time job. They do like: feuilles de murier (mulberry leaves). One missed feeding can kill them all! So one has to look after the leaves too.

Sensitive little buggers they are!

2. Harvesting silk cocoons and unwinding the threat

The entire process from silkworm egg to cocoon takes about twenty-five days. That is 25 days of full time care.

At the moment the demand for silk cocoons exceeds the offer
Several cocoons will be left alone to let the moths come out to lay new eggs. Each cocoon consists of many meters of silk threat, but how to get it off? The bulk of the cocoons are boiled to kill the chrysalis and to soften them before extracting the long, strong silky threat which is rolled onto a reel. This too is a long and demanding process.

3. Dye (not die!) 

Red, yellow and orange seem to be the favorites
Malagasy silk makers use mostly natural coloring, from hibiscus and acacia flowers to color the yarn, but also artifical coloring powders.

4. Spin it

Like Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin (who?), people still use spinning wheels (when they're not eating).

5. Weave it

Check out this simpel yet complicated-looking loom. This is obviously a labor intensive process involving much skill.

Artisanal weaving machine (loom)

6. Wear it!

Voila, so I learned the steps involved in silk making. Now you know too.
Madagascar silk is smooth like cashmere and soft like a baby rabit's skin! Had to buy some - you should too!

No longer just for Kings and dead people!
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  1. A Malagasy silk weavers' association
    http://sahalandy.org (available in both English and French)

    A Malagasy Reader.

  2. Beste Susanne,
    Mijn duitse vrouw heeft het aanbod om voor haar werk (als epidemiologe) vanaf September twee tot vier jaar in Madagascar gestationeerd te zijn, en we denken er nu serieus over na met onze dochters in Tana te gaan wonen. Zeker daardoor lees ik je blog nu met veel interesse; Madagascar klinkt enorm interessant maar ook een uitdaging. We wonen op het moment in Londen dus het zal nogal een stap zijn.
    Ik heb een boel vragen en zou het erg fijn vinden om jou meer te horen over jou ervaring over het dagelijks leven als expat familie in Tana.
    ik zou het geweldig vinden als je me een emailtje zou willen sturen zodat ik je een emailtje terug zou kunnen sturen.

    hartelijke groeten,

    joostvanwell (apestaartje) gmail.com