Silk worms, born of moths, secrete a special thread which they spin into cocoons. Entombed and undisturbed, the worms transform into moths and so the process starts again. It’s mind-boggling biology at its best and silk, an integral part of this cycle, is one of nature’s most amazing materials, as I was reminded on a recent tour of a silk factory in Hoedspruit, Limpopo.
The batting is softer than anything I have ever felt and makes me think of silky cappuccino foam, the dense and velvety kind, but lighter, just a whisper against my skin…
I was there to write an article for Lowveld Living about the silk farm and its metamorphosis from a small job creation project into an international brand. You’ll have to buy the magazine to read about that, but I can tell you a bit about the tour…
My guide, Hazel Mamabane, knows the industry inside-out, having worked in sericulture since she left school. And although Godding&Godding is no longer involved in the production of silk itself, Hazel, the factory floor manager, confidently explains the secrets of the silkworms to me. First discovered in ancient China more than 5000 years ago, for many years they were a closely guarded treasure and smuggling silk worms or their eggs was punishable by death. Although today silkworms spin their thread all over the world, China remains the dominant producer and that is where the silk that Hazel is showing me comes from.
“Silkworm farming is a precise science. You need temperature and humidity controls, a sterile environment and need to be far removed from any agricultural processes that may affect the worms,” Hazel explains. That’s why the company, which is surrounded by a number of citrus farms, has decided to focus on making silk products, instead of producing silk.
At a demonstration table, Hazel explains how, after the pupa is removed the silk cocoon, its silken nest is boiled in water and bicarbonate of soda. 25 cocoons make one small square of silk. Four of these silk squares are then hand-worked into batting which is miraculous both in texture and form; a relatively small piece can expand to several times its original surface area, enough to make a duvet inner.
The batting is softer than anything I have ever felt and makes me think of silky cappuccino foam, the dense and velvety kind, but lighter, just a whisper against my skin… It feels the same way clouds look and I’m reminded why silk was considered special enough to die for.
“It’s heavenly,” Sue Godding confirms as she joins us on the tour. She co-owns the business and has spent the last decade learning as much as she can about how to work with silk and transform what are literally hundreds of thousands of cocoons into everything from duvets to face creams.
We watch as, very quickly, a duvet is stretched to size; “the silk is light and keeps you warm or cool depending on the weather, it’s also easy to customise, doesn’t mildew, is great for excema and allergies because its acidity makes it inhospitable to dust-mites,” she expounds.
We visit the sewing room, where the cotton percale covers are made. The degree of customisation is fantastic; the duvets are designed so that in summer you can have one layer of silk, and in winter, join it with a second. Or if you and your partner have different resting body temperatures, you can have half of the duvet one layer and the other half two (this would work very well in my household). They also have a 35 year life-span, I'm told, and are relatively easy to clean.
Godding&Godding also now produce and package duvets and pillows for clients all over the world, as well as a gorgeous range of beauty products, infused with pure silk power and African essences like marula and baobab – their shop and factory smells gorgeous. Sue is a wealth of information and enthusiasm and I don’t doubt for a second that she uses every single product the factory makes.
Hazel is equally enthusiastic about, and visibly proud, of everything she shows me – from the lab, where the cosmetic products are made – to the packing room, where each item is wrapped and labelled. She ends the tour with some silk facts; it’s stronger than steel and once cocoon can stretch for 1.8 kilometres. It’s an amazing natural material and what Sue and her team are doing with it – creating jobs and export-quality products – is pretty amazing too.
The tours are free and take about 15 minutes.
Other lowveld-based silk business you can visit include Afrika Silks between Graskop and Hazyview (they also support a job creation project in the North West Province of South Africa where people collect empty Mopani worm cocoons which are then processed into a variety of rough textured hand-woven products) and Tsakani Silk in Nelspruit.