Unraveling Silk: Primordial Magic Bursa, Turkey
 
 

Welcome from Jim (:40)

 

 
 

Introduction to "Unraveling Silk" (1:15)

 

 

 

Moth
silkworm moth

Legend has it that around 500 A.D., Holy Roman Emperor Justinian, desperate to learn the secrets of silk, hired two Persian monks to do a little undercover work in China. Many months later the monks reappeared in the Holy Roman capital Constantinople, now Istanbul, dressed in rags and carrying only their bamboo staffs. But hidden inside each hollow stick were silkworm eggs and shoots of the mulberry tree, the worms’ favorite food. Thus begins the story of how silk manufacturing, a process that was then only known to China, India, and Japan, spread to the western world.

Over time, the city of Bursa, in Turkey (now roughly a half day’s journey from Istanbul by bus and ferry), became one of the centers of silk manufacturing. It was one of the cities on the Silk Road, the fabled route which brought the finest cloth in the world from the East to the West.

Donkey Rider
The Silk Road (red) thrived from about the second century B.C. to about the seventh century A.D., when sea routes (green) developed more fully.

The ghost of the Silk Road still haunts tourist guidebooks and PBS specials. There is a courtyard in Bursa where its presence is palpable, in the center of the Koza Han (literally, “cocoon exchange”). Until fairly recently there used to be a brisk trade in silk cocoons here each spring. Nowadays the shops that ring the courtyard sell mostly foreign silk. Lower labor costs in Thailand and elsewhere have undercut the Turkish manufacture of the cloth of kings.

There’s an odd-looking piece of machinery sitting in the courtyard, without any placard of explanation – a dormant metal relic that looks like a cross between a stove, a paddleboat, a loom, and a washtub. Most folks pass it by without a second glance.
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I make a few laps around the courtyard making inquiries. I pull the head of Koza Han away from a serious game of backgammon, and I convince someone – with the help of a small donation – to fire up the contraption. It turns out that this venerable device was once used to turn cocoons into silk. Watching it in action is like witnessing primordial magic.

The apparatus consists of three parts. On one end there is a large basin, which is filled with about 50 gallons (189 liters) of water. Underneath this is a fire box, a wood-fired stove which heats the water in the basin. Next to the basin is a row of about ten metal hoops roughly an inch or two (2.5 or 5 centimeters) in diameter. Parallel to and above them is a series of small wheels mounted like pulleys on a scaffold. Finally there is a take-up reel which looks like a steamboat paddle.

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The cocoons are placed in the basin’s boiling water. What looks like a straw whisk broom is used to stir the cocoons and, as they become degummed, to separate their threads. Each cocoon has been made from one continuous strand of silk thread, spun by the silkworm from the outside in. With the help of the broom, the single outermost strands of thread are gathered from each cocoon, and several of them are twisted together and pulled through one of the metal hoops. The twisted composite strand is then wound up over the pulley wheels and on to the take-up reel.

 
 

Cocoons being boiled and whisked (:28)

 

 
  The treadle pump's pulsing sqeal, the take-up reel's hum (:33)  
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The remarkable thing is that one person can work the entire apparatus. He or she whisks the cocoons, gathers their strands, deftly threads the strands through the loops up and over the pulley wheels, all while working the take-up reel with a foot-powered treadle pump.

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The silk strands are so fine they’re nearly invisible to the eye. Sometimes the unraveling cocoons dangle above the surface of the water and appear to be hanging in midair. As they lose their silken layers, the once-white cocoons become translucent, revealing the larvae within, until all that is left in the boiling water are the brown larval bodies, floating in the bubbling cauldron like organic croutons.

 
 

Silkworms chowing down on mulberry leaves (:26)

 

 
  Epilogue to "Unraveling Silk" (:31)  
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The take-up reel is now replete with raw silk. The rejuvenated apparatus in action has drawn tourists and shopkeepers like a magnet. They touch the freshly spun silk like children on a class trip. So that’s where silk comes from. The mind knew this information, but now the body groks and is awed with the ancient magic of nature and man intertwined. The ghosts of the Silk Road are appeased, temporarily.

— Jim Metzner

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Credits:

One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2000.

Text, Photographs, and Recordings: Jim Metzner.

Photograph of Jim Metzner: Oya Izmirli.

Photograph of Silkworms Eating: Hermine Dreyfuss.

Silk Road Map by National Geographic Maps; Special Thanks to Russ Oates.

Moth illustration courtesy of National Geographic Maps.

Special thanks: Kadir Turel, operator of the cocoon unreeler; Adnan Ustun and Adin Morat of Koza Han; Mumin Kara and the Sericulture Research Institute; Oya Izmirli; Mary Ann Whitten and the United States Information Service; Louis Kahn and the American Turkish Council; Steven Kimmel; WETA; and J.J. Yore of The Savvy Traveler radio program.

Pulse of the Planet  is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

This feature originally appeared on NationalGeographic.com and appears here with their kind permission.

© 2000-2007 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.