Tussur Silk: Let the Worm Transform

Tussur/Tussar/Tussah/Tasar silk is a type of wild silk produced from non-domesticated silkworms called Tasar and they belong to the moth genus Antheraea. I came across these beautiful moths during my travels in Asia and took a tour of a small Tussur silk production facility in a remote village.  It is my fancy way of saying I watched ten nice ladies extract silk from Tussur moth cocoons in a hut. The owner of the facility spent a lot of time explaining the difference between domesticated and wild silkworms and I learned a lot about various silk extraction processes. Unfortunately the traditional silk extraction process is not pleasant. We either sun dry or cook silkworm cocoons alive in boiling water to extract silk.  Fortunately (for the Tussur moths of that village and to my delight), the owner of that facility does not kill the worms to extract silk. This facility collects the cocoons after the moths fly off. Apparently there is a market for these more expensive “Non-violent silk” fibers. Two thumbs up to Non-violent silk buyers!

The whole experience made me think and reflect.  It is strange how certain experiences trigger deep introspection. Tussur moths did it for me.  I saw a lot of parallels between our two species.  Just like the way silk can be extracted without killing the silkworms, maybe we can exploit human wisdom for our collective benefit without killing ourselves in the process. And that is the genesis of this website.

It is easy to get angry at people who buy traditional silk but a number of parallels exist between these silkworms/wild moths and us, the “chosen ones – the human beings”.  I thought maybe some of us condone the traditional silk extraction process because some of us go through similar type of exploitation and accept it as a fact of life. Some of us may simply like silk but do not know how and where it comes from but say that we condone skill exraction process because we don’t want to be seen as uninformed. Pure ego thing!  I classify this group as fakers and hence this write-up.

My attitude towards so called “irrelevant things” has changed over the years especially when I got to know more about those irrelevant things. Let us get to know these beautiful species then.

Here are some interesting facts and factoids about silk moths and humans:

  • The goal of a silkworm (hard-coded in its DNA) is to transform into a moth. I don’t think humans are programmed with a goal. But a lot of us spend our entire lives trying to figure out the purpose and meaning of it all.
  • Silkworms/moths have a lifespan of about 7.5 weeks (+/- 1 week). Let us assume average lifespan of a human is about 80 years. Of course this varies depending on the the geographical location of the human or the type of moth. This example is for illustrative purpose only.
  • After hatching from an egg, larva/silkworm spends approximately 4 weeks (53% of its lifespan preparing for the transformation) eating leaves (we can call it learning skills/working). Chewing on the leaves gives silkworm the needed energy to transform into a moth. Most Humans in developed economies spend their first 21 years (26% of lifespan) of life learning basic skills.
  • To protect itself during the metamorphosis, the silkworm builds a cocoon in about 3 days (6% of its lifespan). The color of the cocoon (i.e., silk) depends on the type of food it consumes. Humans spend about 40 years (~50% of lifespan – if we are lucky) to be able to “retire” and the color of their lifestyle (amount of money they make) depends on the type of work they do. This includes paying mortgage for 30 years (building the nest), for example.  Here is an interesting take on life by Mr. Jon Jandai, a farmer based in Thailand, at one of his TEDx Talks.

Silkworm spends approx. 60% of its lifespan (53% + 6%) to reach a point where it can spend rest of its life to transform into a moth (retirement?). Human spends ~76% of her/his life (26%+50%) to reach a similar stage (retirement). Traditional silk producers try to knock these species off at this stage (at 60% of their life span) as there is no utility for humans beyond this point. Most humans get their life sucked out of them during those 40 working years (i.e., a lot of humans get knocked out at the 76% life span stage.) Maybe that’s what causes the apathy among humans.

  • The cocoon is made of a continuous strand of saliva sometimes as long as 1,000 meters. Impressive! A small percentage of humans spend their entire working lives doing what they love. Even more impressive!
  • Some humans destroy the silkworms as soon as the cocoons are built and not allow them to transform. A lot of humans replace the aged working humans with younger ones and not allow the fellow aged humans to retire happily.
  • Silkworms spend approx. 2 weeks (27% of lifespan) in cocoons to transform into moths. One could consider this stage as the meditative nirvana state silkworms go through to transform into those beautiful moths. Average human spends about 20 years (25% of lifespan) in retirement hoping for nirvana.
  • Silkworms transform into Tussur moths and enjoy the last phase as moths for a week (~13% of lifespan). They mate, lay eggs, and fly around strutting their beautiful colors before calling it a day.  Humans usually spend a good 10 years (~13% of human lifespan) in their early adult life doing similar things but this is already included in the 76% calculation above. We are very similar in this department!

Moth’s life starts with a whimper but ends with a bang. Human’s life starts with a bang but ends with a whimper I suppose.

Why do most traditional silk producers kill these species after 4.5 weeks (once the cocoon is built) instead of waiting for an additional 2 weeks for the moths to leave the cocoons? I came up with the following two reasons.

The first one is obvious and must be economics.  We are all about bottom line. It takes about 4.5 weeks for the hatchlings to produce a cocoon. Waiting another 2 weeks for the moth to fly off is an increase of ~45% in production time. That cuts into profits massively.  Unless there is a law banning harvesting cocoons after 4.5 weeks, every overpaid consultant would be advocating silk producers to harvest immediately after 4.5 weeks. Some biologists even argue that silkworms in their pupa stage (silkworms in the cocoon) may not feel any pain (the way humans do) as they do not have the needed organs to transmit pain. Why reduce everything to hedonism? But at least now we know why some silk producers do what they do.

How can we convince our faker minds (even if empathy has not done that already) to act better? We are motivated by profits for sure. Let us exploit that. Here is a different angle to consider.  Silk finds most of its use in luxury items and not in items needed for day to day sustenance. And I assume (am reasonably sure) silk demand is price elastic.  So, why not produce less and increase the price to support the demand at that level. The industry gets to maintain its profitability, the silkworms get to transform and we get to fabricate compassion. In no way do I claim this to be a novel idea. If you ever bought a diamond you know how that thing gets priced. Total rip off! My question to fakers then is, shouldn’t we let these silkworms morph into beautiful moths that they are meant to be?

The second reason is a little technical. If you let the silkworms transform into moths, they make a small hole in the cocoon before they fly off. This hole breaks the long continuous silk strand and the producers get shorter silk strands instead of one long strand. I say whooptidooda to that. Of course, the shorter silk strands can be repaired into one long strand. Costs a little bit more but can be done. Again the same argument mentioned above.

Let the worm transform!