Archive for March 2013

Homemade Silk

I'm raising silkworm (Bombyx mori) so I can reel silk and make my own silk thread, perhaps to ply with other fibers I plan to spin. Growing silkworm is surprisingly approachable--let the tiny eggs hatch in their petri dish, put them in a plastic tub with some added heat, and feed them rehydrated powdered silkworm food until they get big enough to make cocoons!

Bottom of the plant shelf
At the bottom of the plant shelf, the two 34-quart plastic tubs on the bottom hold my silkworms. They each have a seed-starting heat mat underneath to give the silkworms the extra warmth they'd like. The right two trays on the shelf above have vegetable seedlings for this year's garden, also with heat mats underneath. The left two trays have various gesneriads at various stages of propagation.

Luckily the silkworm don't need light like the plants do. There's plenty of competition already for the space I have available under the lights.

Silkworms (Bombyx mori) caterpillars, dried food remains, and poo
The caterpillars, dried food remains, and poo. Silkworms poo a lot. You can see the seed-starting heat mat through the bottom of the plastic tub (the black and green thing).

A closeup.

Silkworms and cocoons in the corner.

Silkworm (Bombyx mori) cocoon
A single cocoon in the plastic tub handle area. So white and pure! I wonder whether I should dye the silk, and with what? The woad I grew and processed last year?

I'll have to slowly bake the cocoons at a low temperature to prepare them for storage until I'm ready to reel the silk--reeling isn't something to start without a large stash of cocoons ready!

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Spinning Cotton

It has taken me a lot longer than projected to return to blogging. But I've missed sharing my adventures in gardening and other hobbies, so I need to just jump back in and start blogging again. So let's start off with what I did with the cotton I grew last year!

I grew three Sea Island x brown NOID cotton plants from seed that I purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The plants themselves were damn pretty. This photo is from mid-summer.

The flowers are pink when they're new.

And turn white as they age.

The bolls start forming pretty quickly, but they take forever to mature. I harvested most of them while they were still immature, because of a cold snap in late September.

cotton seeds
Photo by --ki---
The ones that had ripened on the plant were given to my friend Ki, who took this photo of the seeds attached to the fiber outside of the boll. I think they look like mini peanut butter thumbprint cookies with chocolate chips on top.

Ki spun up a sample skein of yarn from those few bolls--and then taught me how to, as well. She gave me a tahkli spindle--a metal pin with a metal disc at the bottom and a small hook at the top. It spins very fast--all the better to add the twist needed to make yarn from short-staple fibers like cotton.

Photo by --ki---
Before I could spin all the cotton I harvested, it had to be processed. While at Al's Orchid Greenhouse, Ki, Al, and I plucked the fiber from the bolls, removed all the seeds, and carded the cotton to align the fibers and make it fluffier, so it would be easier to spin.

Photo by dacmanj
After I spun it into a very long single strand over the course of a few weeks, I started unwinding the cotton from the tahkli onto my hand in a plying bracelet. It's one way to make a two-ply yarn from only a single strand of spun fiber.

Spun Cotton
After plying, I boiled the cotton with some soda ash to finish it and clean off the plant's waxy coating, in case I'd like to dye it at any point. Probably not, because after processing, the cotton became a deeper, complex brown.

My first-ever skein of yarn is only 45 yards--enough to make a doily, perhaps. But it opened a door to many more hobbies and projects--like the cotton trial I'm doing for Southern Exposure to grow all seven of their cotton varieties and measure the plants' average fiber length. I am doing this project at Wangari Gardens and hope to hold a few educational workshops throughout the summer.

I've also been in touch with a natural-colour cotton breeder, from whom I hope to obtain seed for cotton shades other than white, brown, and green.

In the meantime, I'm spinning wool, knitting a few sweaters, growing silkworms to make silk, helping out in DC State Fair's fourth year, participating in food swaps, and making wine--in other words, plenty of adventures to share in the coming weeks!

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