The most magical of fabrics. The larva of an insect spits out a mile-long thread of saliva and wraps that single thread round itself to make a cocoon, in which it can live safely while it grows.
When the saliva has hardened, that single thread can be unwound from the cocoon and used to weave silk fabric, or twisted to make silk thread, or the whole cocoon can be stretched out to make a silk square. The resulting silk thread is stronger than steel. Think about that for a moment: stronger than steel! It comes out of the mouth of a worm! It ought to be impossible, and yet here it is. I know silk is ethically problematic, in that its production necessarily involves taking the life of the silkworm. If the larva is allowed to grow into the adult moth and emerge from the cocoon, the moth dissolves the silk (using, incredibly, a different kind of saliva) and renders it unfit for turning into fabric or thread. However, I no longer buy new silk, preferring to source it from charity shop clothes – scarves and shirts are easy to over-dye and can be cut up or torn into strips.
This is a detail (above) from something I’ve been working on for a few days. Both pieces of fabric here were originally silk scarves: the darker red was already that colour; the paler one was white before I drew on it with gold gutta and coloured it with silk paints.
And below is some over-dyed silk from a shirt with a small piece of chiffon (the darker blue) from a blouse:
You can see two lines of tiny holes in the paler blue fabric, from where the seam used to be when it was a shirt. This is one of my favourite things about recycling old clothes. I really like to be able to see traces of its former life like this. It makes me think of the lines on our faces as we grow older: the marks of time, evidence that we have lived; lines that trace the path of our memories and experiences. There is something very healing about enabling a piece of cloth to leave its past behind and encouraging it to begin anew.