Tag Archives: silkworms

NC Moss Dye Bath & Silk Cocoons

During one of the visits to Teotitlan last summer, I went to the studio of Arte y Seda.  This family home and workshop employs a horizontal production process:  they grow the worms, feeding them mulberry leaves from the trees in their courtyard, cultivate the worms through the reproduction stage where they become pupae encased in the silk cocoon.   The cocoons are then soaked so that human hands can unravel the silk that is then dyed, spun and woven.  It is said that 914 yards of silk forms one cocoon. It is a multi-step, multi-month process.

I bought 7 pure white cocoons and brought them home with me, waiting for a jewelry project.  When I shake these, I can hear the remnants of a creature that has dried and is trapped inside.


For the past few months I have been gathering moss from downed limbs in the forest around my house.  The moss is pale olive green.  It’s not really long, dripping Spanish moss, but short little hairs that grow on maple trees.

I’ve now collected about 1 cup, and intend to run a dye experiment, coloring the silk cocoons.  Eric Chavez Santiago, director of education, Museo Textil de Oaxaca, responded to my plea for a recipe:  put the moss in 90 degree centigrade hot water, let it sit for an hour.  Cool the liquid keeping the moss in the liquid.  Add the silk cocoons and keep the termperature at 70-80 C for one more hour.  Let the cocoon mixture cool in the dye bath overnight.  It’s important to figure out a way to keep the cocoons, which tend to float, submerged so they evenly absorb the dye color.  Also, don’t stir the cocoons or they could unravel or get mushy.

“It will be very interesting to see if the moss will dye the cocoons,” said Eric.   It works with cochineal and indigo.

I haven’t run the experiment yet so I’ll keep you posted.

My intention is to string the colored cocoons together with a woven yarn or thread, perhaps a crocheted thread, and perhaps embellish the necklace with clay or glass beads.  I may wrap the cocoons in an alternate commercially dyed and purchased silk to give texture and play off the natural and synthetic nature of the material.  Silkworms are only now cultivated in captivity.  None exist any longer in the wild.

Experiment #1:  I did as instructed above using 1 cup of moss to two cups of water, and the color of the cocoons were a pale shade of ochre, so I returned them to the dye bath for another 24-hour soaking for a total of 48 hours in the dye bath.  They maintained their shape beautifully and colored a deeper ochre, yet still not to my satisfaction after they air dried for 24 hours.  I really want a deep, deep golden color.

Experiment #2: I have picked 1 cup of moss and added this to 1 cup of water in hopes of getting a more intense dye bath.  I can see that the color of the water after the moss is cooked to 190 degrees will be more of the color I am seeking.  I will let the moss/water mix simmer at a constant 190 degrees for one hour, then cool the mix to 170 degrees, and add the cocoons for a second go-around.

How to keep the cocoons from floating:  put the cocoons under the moss covering them completely with moss.  Then, put a layer of aluminum foil over the moss, then weight this with a small ceramic plate so the cocoons don’t bob up and out from under the moss.

Silkworms in Oaxaca

Sunday, August 18, Teotitlan del Valle: I’m behind the wheel of the aging blue Toyota truck, four on the floor. Cindy climbs in next to me riding shotgun. Eric, Sue and Emma hoist themselves onto the flatbed and we set off up the cobblestone street, bumpety bump, for the house where they cultivate silkworms, cook the cocoons into silk, spin it, and weave it into glorious rebozos, huipils, camisas (shawls, blouses and shirts). “Tope”, Sue shouts as we approach a speed bump. It is impossible to go faster than 10 mph anywhere in the village. There is a Tope every block or two.

Caterpiller Lunch
Silk LoomSilk Shawls

Reynoldo Sosa and his wife are the proprietors of Arte y Seda. They feed their caterpillars mulberry leaves from the trees that grow in their courtyard. The silk is spun and woven into beautifully soft material, which is then dyed with cochineal, pericone, indigo or the leaves of pecan trees. They only use natural dyes. She told us that her father was cultivating the silkworms, and they learned the process from him. Years ago, in the early 1900’s, the use of pesticides in the village wiped out the silkworms and the family had to start all over. This is a labor-intensive process. Just like everything else that is handmade in the Oaxaca valley.

Notice that the loom is dressed (warped) by hand, with all those fine strands of silk that are looped through tiny eyes. Then, when it is cut off the loom, it is sewn into a garment, or finished off by a macrame or crochet process that makes a beautifully intricate and secure fringe. Amazing!