Of Cocoons and Silk

The production of silk yarn, a traditional chore in Konavle households, has been present for centuries. By the end of 19th century, the production of silk in other parts of Croatia had been organised with the needs of the market in mind, while for the residents of the Konavle region it had always been a domestic activity. Silk was produced primarily for crafting the traditional Konavle embroidery (konavoski vez), decorations, as well as for weaving, sewing and knitting cloths for modrina (a traditional women’s dress worn in winter, initially blue and later black). Accordingly, the rearing of dudov svilac (silkworm moth), responsible for the production of silk, was a task assigned exclusively to female children and young girls. They were expected to furnish themselves with all the garments that they may require for the remainder of their lives. Only the finest silk yarns were used for embroidery and fine weaves, while those of lesser quality were used in sewing, patchwork, or the making of tassels found on the everyday workwear.

The silk threads are derived from punćele, the cocoons spun by the silkworm moth, which it starts knitting following a period of several weeks of feeding on the mulberry leaves. The beginning of the pupation marks the end of their life as caterpillars. The transformation of a silkworm caterpillar into an adult moth occurs within the safe confines of a silk cocoon. The process of pupation starts with a caterpillar separating from the other larvae after having gathered enough silk in order to find a suitable location for the spinning and bracing of the cocoon; such locations are regularly found on the koruna/gora/šuma, i.e. the twigs from the broom shrub used by the local women to surround the krevet (enclosure in which silkworms are kept during this stage of their life), which is made of jese, pads made of reed and typically used in the process of fig drying. On average, a single silkworm caterpillar produces approximately 1500 metres of silk thread of varying quality while spinning a cocoon, and the cocoon itself is built by sticking together the silk filaments in the shape of the figure 8 using a gummy substance called sericin to cement the two threads together. The colour of sericin impacts the colour of the cocoon, which in Konavle varies from shades of yellow to white.

The average time necessary for the cocoon’s spinning is approximately 48 hours. 12 hours into the process, the silkworm caterpillar will have sealed itself within the cocoon and will no longer be visible to the eye. It remains enclosed within the cocoon for the following 15 to 17 days, and by the 8th day of the aforementioned phase it will have discarded all the organs of a caterpillar and transform into a lutkica or pupa (chrysalis). The 8th day of the process was called dan najdubljeg sna (‘the day of the deepest sleep’) by the Konavle women; it was on that day that the women would select the cocoons they wished to preserve from the damage caused by the exiting moths. They would leave the selected cocoons in the heat of the sun, which would in turn prevent the further development of silkworm moths inside the cocoons. These cocoons provided unbroken yarn of the highest quality. However, no cocoons would go to waste, since the women would still spin silk skein using the empty cocoons whose filaments were cut into hundreds of short fragments by an adult moth’s exit.

Some of the cocoons would be preserved for the breeding of adult moths in order to ensure a sufficient number of larvae for the next cycle of silkworm rearing. Skilful skein spinning using the damaged cocoons could produce fine yarn of lesser quality, commonly described using the phrase osinja noga, ćukova glava (‘the leg of a wasp, the head of a little owl’), signifying its uneven diameters. Such threads would therefore be used for crafting tassels on everyday clothing (kite za posvakidan). The yarn was also made from kučina, i.e. the silk used by the caterpillar to anchor itself to the koruna during the cocoon spinning process. Having been cleaned, kučina was spun in order to produce silk yarn of the lowest quality, also often used in the crafting of tassels.

The silk of even diameter used for embroidery and fine weaves was made in a process known as točenje, i.e., the winding of the undamaged cocoons, which was performed while praying or singing by the fireplace during long winter nights. The diameter of the thread was determined by the number of cocoons, which was in turn determined by the women themselves, who would first decide what garment they wished to make. For instance, the making of fine embroidery required around forty cocoons, while tassels of greater quality required around hundred. The cocoons were put into boiling water; the dissolution of sericin, as well as the degumming of the fibres, allows their unwinding into a single continuous filament of length ranging from three hundred to one thousand metres (approximately 328 to 1093 yards).

The above-mentioned type of silk, marked by its exceptional durability, was called grež by the locals. It was slowly wound on točak, a round bundle of leaves (typically fig leaves), whose size determined the ease of the unwinding in the stage of spinning silk into a yarn – the larger the surface of točak, the easier the unwinding process would be. The silk intended for embroidery was immediately rewound from točak to a spindle with a diameter of 50 centimetres (motovilo od lakta), and such silk was not to be respun. On the other hand, the threads intended for weaving kurđelice (ornamental strips decorating the belt of the Konavle folk costume) and sewing, were being respun slowly, while imbrišim, the thread intended for the crafting of tassels and hems (uzice), was respun twice. Following the rewinding, spinning and respinning, silk was washed by being boiled anew in a solution of soap or ash in water. The aforementioned process would in turn make the silk white, shiny and suitable for colouring, as well as a third lighter than the unwashed silk.

It must be stressed that only a properly washed silk could be coloured well. The use of synthetic dyes was preceded by the ones obtained from sources in the immediate environment: common madder, smoke tree, mulberry, apple peels, pomegranate peels and walnuts. The colours were then set into the silk using cow urine, vinegar or salt. Furthermore, the unwashed silk, which is rough and retains the colour of sericin used by the caterpillar to spin a cocoon, was also used in making garments: ‘Rough yarn was indeed used, and it was used in making all sorts of laces, and all embroidery that was done white on white, such as men’s shirts. It is stiff as wire. And then you make all of that using rough yarn and then wash it all together.’ Silk was stored in the shape of windings the size of a spindle; the windings themselves were divided by strings into pasme (one pasma is equal to thirty windings of thread); the number of pasme determined the length of the yarn.

Although silk was primarily used in making traditional garments and textile handicraft, it is worth mentioning that silk yarn was also used to tie the umbilical cord of a newborn child, as well as the legs of a deceased person. Besides the varied practical uses of silk in Konavle, such ceremonial acts emphasise its symbolic value as a signifier of both the beginning and end of life for the Konavle residents, thus further augmenting its customary importance.