The project from soil to silk is how Madhulika describes her silk farm. The 10 hectares of land where her parents grew maize and wheat now grow mulberry plants, food for silkworms.
Women in particular had to benefit
It didn't make much sense to become a silk farmer, but her parents wanted to sell the land that has been in the family for many generations. And that didn't feel right for Madhulika. She wanted something with it, but what? She should grow something with a view to good yields, and something that would benefit the local community. Especially the women! Women, says Madhulika, may be official landowners, but in practice they don't notice it at all. They often work harder than men and are paid half as much.
(harvesting the mulberry plants)
Those who are sustainable must stay small
The nursery currently employs more than 60 rural women near Bihar, a state in eastern India. Working in shifts has given women the opportunity to get to work and has made them important players in the decision-making process. Of the 15 people it takes to produce one kilogram of raw silk, 10 are now women. Madhulika does not want to grow bigger with the company. Because, she says, if you want to be a sustainable company, you have to stay small. When you grow up, you have to find all kinds of ways to increase your profit margin and you can no longer work sustainably.
(the caterpillars are fed mulberry leaves)
Madhulika works with indigenous silkworms. The advantage of this is that she does not need heated greenhouses to breed the caterpillars at a certain temperature. Growing native species does not require technology and electricity. Madhulika's caterpillars are native to the climatic conditions of the environment. There are a number of cold greenhouses on the land where the cocoons are hung and the caterpillars can develop into silk moths. If the glass panes of the greenhouse are placed correctly, it will be just warm enough, says Madhulika.
(the cocoons are placed in large wheels where the caterpillars will soon pupate)
The silk is produced animal-friendly. That is to say, they are not boiled alive in their cocoon, as is done with industrially made silk. When the caterpillars on the silk farm turn into butterflies, they gnaw their way out of the cocoon and can enjoy their freedom. However, that freedom does not last very long. The Bombyx mor i is a silkworm that has been domesticated for centuries. This is as far removed from its original wild counterpart as our barn cows are from the aurochs. The popped silk moths can reproduce, but cannot survive on their own.
(Bombyx mori silk moth on a cocoon)
In factories, only silk threads are woven by machine that have a certain length. This length is tailored to cocoons that are cooked with the caterpillars inside. The caterpillars of Madhulika's nursery turn into butterflies and gnaw through the threads of the cocoon. This means that the silk threads are broken, and therefore too short to weave by machine. This silk is therefore exclusively woven by hand. The women of the silk farm spin the silk threads themselves, but the weaving is done in West Bengal by specialized hand weavers.
(spinner of silk threads)
Silk threads contain a natural kind of 'gum', a protein that the caterpillar itself secretes. As a result, the threads stick together and the caterpillar can weave a sturdy cocoon for itself to emerge as a silk moth. To remove the gum, the silk is degreased with soda. And the natural yellow color of the cocoon is washed off in the river. The use of chemicals at this special nursery is taboo. All natural materials are reused. Silkworm waste is returned to the garden as fertilizer, and dried twigs and excess leaves from the mulberry plants serve as fuel and feed.
Ultimately, 80% of the value of the end product (the silk fabric) flows back to the cocoon growers, spinners and weavers.