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Wild silk

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Muga silkworms on a som tree

Wild silks have been known and used in many countries from early times, although the scale of production is far smaller than that from cultivated silkworms. Silk cocoons and nests often resemble paper or cloth, and their use has arisen independently in many societies.[1]


Silk taken from various species has been used since ancient times, either in its natural state or after some form of preparation. Spider webs were used as a wound dressing in ancient Greece and Rome,[2] and as a base for painting from the 16th century.[3] Caterpillar nests were used to make containers and fabric in the Aztec Empire.[1][4]

To make a woven fabric, silk threads must first be either carded and spun, or extracted as a single intact thread. Commercially reared silkworms of the species Bombyx mori (Linnaeus, 1758) are normally killed before the pupae emerge, either by pricking them with a needle or dipping the cocoons into boiling water, thus allowing the whole cocoon to be unravelled as one continuous thread. This allows a much finer cloth to be woven from the silk.

There are more than 500 species of wild silkworms in the world, although only a few are used to produce cloth. They usually produce a tougher and rougher silk than that from domesticated B. mori. Wild silks are usually harvested after the moths have left the cocoons, cutting the threads in the process, so that there is not one long thread, as with domesticated silkworms.

Wild silks are more difficult to bleach and dye than silk from Bombyx mori, but most have naturally attractive colours, particularly the rich golden sheen of the silk produced by the muga silkworm from Assam, often known as Assam silk.

The cocoon shells of wild silk moths are toughened or stabilized either by tanning (cross-linking) or by mineral reinforcements (e.g. calcium oxalate).[5] Recently, a new method has been developed, demineralizing, which can remove the mineral reinforcements present in wild silks and enables wet reeling like the commercial silkworm.[6][7]

Wild silk industry in India[edit]

Wild silks are often referred to in India as 'Vanya' silks:

The term 'Vanya' is of Sanskrit origin, meaning untamed, wild, or forest-based. Muga, Tasar, and Eri silkworms are not fully tamed and the world calls the silks they produce as 'wild silks'.[8]

India produces four kinds of silk: mulberry, tasar, muga and eri. The silkworm Bombyx mori is fed on mulberry leaves cultivated in plantations. Silkworms are also found wild on forest trees, e.g Antheraea paphia which produces the tasar silk (Tussah). Antheraea paphia feeds on several trees such as Anogeissus latifolia, Terminalia tomentosa, T. arjuna (Terminalia arjuna), Lagerstroemia parviflora and Madhuca indica. Wild silkworm Antheraea assamensis produces muga silk, and another wild silkworm Philosamia synthia ricini (= Samia cynthia) produces eri silk. The estimated annual production of tasar silk is 130 tonnes. Production of other types of silk exceeds 10 000 tonnes (Gupta 1994).[9]

In 2015, Adarsh Gupta K of Nagaraju's research team at Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, India, discovered the complete sequence and the protein structure of Muga Silk Fibroin and published it in Scientific Reports.[10]

The eri silk worm from India feeds on the leaves of the castor plant. It is the only completely domesticated silkworm other than Bombyx mori. The silk is extremely durable, but cannot be easily reeled off the cocoon and is thus spun like cotton or wool.[11]

Wild silk industry in China[edit]

Some of the best quality wild silk is produced by silkworms in Henan. This is the only type of wild silk that can be easily dyed.[12][unreliable source?]


Central Asia[edit]

Wild silk threads have been found and identified from two Indus River sites, Harappa and Chanhu-daro, dating to c. 2450–2000 BCE. This is roughly the same period as the earliest evidence of silk use in China, which is generally thought to have had the oldest silk industry in the world. The specimens of threads from Harappa appear on scanning electron microscope analysis to be from two different species of silk moth, Antheraea paphia and A. assamensis, while the silk from Chanhu-daro may be from a Philosamia species (eri silk), and this silk appears to have been reeled.[13]


Wild silks were in use in China from early times. Moreover, the Chinese were aware of their use in the Roman Empire and apparently imported goods made from them by the time of the Later Han Dynasty in the 1st to 3rd centuries CE.[14][15]

Greece and the Middle East[edit]

There are significant indications in the literature that wild silks were in use in Persia and in Greece by the late 5th century BCE, apparently referred to as "Amorgina" or "Amorgian garments" in Greece.[16] Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century CE, obviously had some knowledge of how wild silkworms' cocoons were produced and utilised on the island of Kos for coa vestis, even though his account included some fanciful ideas.[17]

Central America[edit]

Wild silk was used and traded by the Aztecs, Mixtecs and Zapotecs at the time of Moctezuma (early 16th Century CE).[18][4] This silk came from the social caterpillars Euchiera socialis and Eutachyptera psidii, which produce communal silk nests that frequently reach 50 cm (20 inches) in length.[1] The nests were cut open and pasted together to make a paper-like fabric.

Whole nests have also been use as purses and containers for liquid, and sections of nest silk have served as bandages and as a base for painting.

Silk fibres from the same species have been extracted and spun to make sashes. This practice was recorded in Oaxaca in 1986, but had ceased by 1997. It is uncertain when the wild fibres were first used in this way: one hypothesis is that the techniques were learned from 16th-century colonists, who taught local people to grow imported Bombyx, and later adapted to the local wild silks.[19]

List of some wild silk moths and their silk[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Peigler, Richard S. (1993-07-01). "Wild Silks of the World". American Entomologist. 39 (3): 151–162. doi:10.1093/ae/39.3.151. ISSN 1046-2821. Large nests can be more than a meter long, but they average less than half that size ... most authors consider that G. psidii was the main source of silk in the commerce of the ancient Mexicans before and during the time of Moctezuma.
  2. ^ "Chance meeting leads to creation of antibiotic spider silk". phys.org. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
  3. ^ "Cobweb Art a Triumph of Whimsy Over Practicality: Northwestern University News". www.northwestern.edu. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
  4. ^ a b c Hogue, Charles Leonard (1993). Latin American insects and entomology. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 328. ISBN 978-0520078499. OCLC 25164105. Aztec artisans cut up the large sacs, piecing together the resulting swatches into larger pieces of "fabric."
  5. ^ Sindya N. Bhanoo (20 May 2011). "Silk Production Takes a Walk on the Wild Side". New York Times. Retrieved 26 May 2011.
  6. ^ Gheysens, T; Collins, A; Raina, S; Vollrath, F; Knight, D (2011). "Demineralization enables reeling of Wild Silkmoth cocoons". Biomacromolecules. 12 (6): 2257–66. doi:10.1021/bm2003362. hdl:1854/LU-2153669. PMID 21491856.
  7. ^ "New method of unreeling cocoons could extend silk industry beyond Asia". ScienceDaily. 22 May 2011. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  8. ^ "The Wonders Of India’s 'Vanya'Silks…"
  9. ^ "Animals and animal products". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Archived from the original on 2014-04-18.
  10. ^ a b Adarsh Gupta. K. "Molecular architecture of silk fibroin of Indian golden silkmoth, Antheraea assama".
  11. ^ "The Queen of Textiles." Nina Hyde. National Geographic Magazine. Vol. 165, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 2–49.
  12. ^ Maitra, K.K. (2007). Encyclopaedic dictionary of clothing and textiles. New Delhi: Mittal Publications. p. 211. ISBN 9788183242059.
  13. ^ "New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization." I. L. Good, J. M. Kenoyer and R. H. Meadow. To be published in Archaeometry. Published online 21 January 2009.
  14. ^ Hill (2009), pp. 25, 477–480.
  15. ^ Hill (2004). Appendix E.
  16. ^ "Silk in Greece." Gisela M. A. Richter. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1. (January–March 1929), pp. 27–33.
  17. ^ Pliny XI, 75–78 (77 CE). From: Natural History – A Selection. Pliny the Elder, pp. 157–158. Translated by John F. Healy. London. Penguin Books. (1991).
  18. ^ Fitzgerald, Terrence D. (2019-06-07). The Tent Caterpillars. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-1-5017-3457-1.
  19. ^ a b de Avila, Alejandro (1997). Klein, Kathryn (ed.). The Unbroken Thread: Conserving the Textile Traditions of Oaxaca (PDF). Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute. p. 125.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g "Chapter 9". FAO.org. Archived from the original on 2012-10-21.
  21. ^ a b "Raw & Organic Silk: Facts behind the Fibers"
  22. ^ "Saturniidae". Archived from the original on 2009-04-13.
  23. ^ "Orange-tipped oakworm moth Anisota senatoria (J.E. Smith, 1797)". Butterflies and Moths of North America.
  24. ^ "Anisota senatoria". Archived from the original on 2012-02-24.
  25. ^ "Automeris io moth (Fabricius, 1775)". Archived from the original on 2013-01-17.
  26. ^ Madagascar: What’s good for the forest is good for the native silk industry
  27. ^ The secret life of mangroves documentary (episode 2)
  28. ^ "Eutachyptera psidii". pir2.uniprot.org. Retrieved 2018-09-25.
  29. ^ "Kalahari Wild Silk" By Amy Schoeman
  30. ^ Bombyx in Merriam Webster.


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