Have you ever wondered how silkworms make silk? No, me neither. Not until I took Kew Gardens up on their Twelve Days of Christmas free ticket offer and went to see the Minka House – a traditional Japanese House transported to Kew and re-erected by the Japan Minka Re-use and Recycle Association.
Minka houses have a wooden framework, mud-plastered wall panels and a thatched roof. Those in the warmer parts of Japan had raised walls to improve ventilation, though I can’t help thinking they must have been a bit draughty round the ankles.
And in the spring, apparently, they were pretty noisy as well as because the house would be filled with trays of silkworms, all eating continuously and making a noise like torrential rain falling on leaves.
Silkworms aren’t actually worms at all. They’re caterpillars, of the flightless moth Bombyx Mori which is completely domesticated – there aren’t any in the wild. They’re entirely dependent on people for their existence.
After they emerge from the egg they do nothing but eat for an entire month – white mulberry leaves for preference though in a pinch any mulberry leaf will do. Imagine having your house filled with them all chomping away and having to keep bringing them more and more mulberry leaves.
Then they pupate, wrapping themselves in silk which they make with their silk glands which are just below their mouths. And then the kind people who’ve been feeding them for a whole month kill them. They steam them and then they unwind the silk – each cocoon makes a thread of raw silk up to a thousand metres long. Makes you look at your silk scarf in a new light, doesn’t it?
Let’s get back to the Minka house. It was built around 1900 in Okazaki City and transported to Kew in 2001, where the framework was re-erected by Japanese carpenters using a nail-free jointing system.
I think this panel must list the names of the carpenters:
The mud wall panels and thatched roof were added by British builders who worked on the Globe Theatre, which is also constructed without nails using mortice and tenon joints as in Shakespeare’s day. Isn’t it interesting how similar building techniques are used in such different parts of the world?
It means you can go in and have a good look around, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if Kew raised their own silkworms there? That would be a sight to see.