A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

nerd love: a day at the Silk Museum

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 26, 2008

What would you do if you had a free afternoon in Lebanon? There are so many options: beaching, shopping, cafe’ing, eating.

But if you were as nerdy as me, you would ask your boyfriend to take you to the national silk museum🙂.

Actually, it was partly H’s idea: he had seen an advertisement in the Hamra Domtex shop (which, despite its industrial-sounding name, sells nice fabrics) and thought that the museum was something I would enjoy.

The museum had also been running weekly advertisements in the Daily Star:

I do love silk, but I’m not convinced that learning more about its production would help me forget any serious worries. But with a hook like that, who could resist?

The museum was fascinating. I knew that Lebanon had been a major center for silk production starting in the mid-1800s, and that it had temporarily boosted the economy, while in the long run forcing large numbers of peasants into debt (or propelling them towards migration to the US and South America, in search of higher wages – in much the same way as Lebanese today leave for the Gulf).

But I didn’t know much about silkworms, the little creatures that actually produce silk threads. They are basically the caterpillar stage of the silkworm moth, and the silk thread is what they produce when spinning their cocoons. They go through five stages of growth, from little specks of baby worm to these behemoths (which are each about 2″ long):

Yes. Not the most attractive bugs in the world, but very interesting. One thing I had been told about the silkworms was that you can hear them eating. They eat constantly – we learned that they have special ducts on their bodies that breathe for the worms, so that they never have to stop munching to take a breath. And we could indeed hear them – a soft crunchcrunchcrunching of the chopped-up mulberry (toot) leaves that the museum staff provide for them.

This is what the cocoons look like when they have been spun and the worm is metamorphizing inside them:

Silk comes in several shades, ranging from white-white to a sharp lemon yellow. I’m not quite sure what determines the color variation – it has something to do with diet and something to do with climate, but I don’t know the details.

In order to unravel the cocoon, silk workers today and in the past use a series of hot and cold water baths. The hot water loosens the silk threads, and the cool does … err … something. Maybe its role is simply to cool the cocoons down enough to be picked up – I don’t remember. They then use a coarse brush to pick up the thread, and start unraveling, feeding the unraveled thread into a skein of three or four cocoon threads and winding it around a bobbin to be spun.

Our tour guide didn’t mention what happens to the metamorphizing worm during this process, but I don’t think the hot and cold baths, or the unraveling generally, is kind to them. But even “wild” silkworms have what seems to me to be an absolutely awful life.

After spending their worm-hood eating and molting, they labor to create a cocoon so they can transform into … not a beautiful butterfly, but a pale white moth. Its blind, and although it has wings, it cannot fly. The silkworm moth lives for roughly 24 hours, during which time it has to crawl around blindly in search of a mate.

As I said, its not a pleasant life in either case. But I loved learning more about a fabric whose origins had always been hazy to me.

(More about the rest of the museum in my next post!)

4 Responses to “nerd love: a day at the Silk Museum”

  1. I remember vaguely visiting a silk factory around 1973 or 74 with the school, and being fascinated by the cocoons.

  2. dona Raad said

    Very interesting and would like to meet you when you next come to the museum..I am the responsible person here and will show you the latest exhibition…

  3. Kheireddine, I wonder if it was the same one. This museum is on Asseily land, a family that I know was heavily involved in the silk industry. The restoration of the building looks fairly new, but I don’t know when it officially opened.

    Ms. Raad, we look forward to meeting you as well! We loved the museum and are eager to return when we are back in Lebanon.

  4. […] adiamondinsunlight on February 12, 2009 Since it is the season of love, indulge me as I return to one of my Lebanese loves: the Bsous Silk Museum. I’m not actually a great silk wearer, but the history of silk […]

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