How It’s Made (Kenya Edition): Silk

Earlier in the year I visited a silk farm and had so much fun but didn’t get a chance to tie and dye my own silk. So, I did another road trip. This time I invited four people I had never met before to come along with me. Here’s what we got up to.

I picked Julie and Ken at 7:00AM from the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi’s Central Business District then proceeded on to Mombasa Road to pick Nicole and Nimu up. We had an instant connection – talking and laughing the entire three hour drive to Makueni. You would have thought we were long lost buddies.

It was a perfect morning for driving up the windy Ukambani hills which, were covered by thin layers of low lying clouds that gave the impression it was going to be a rainy day. We got to the farm almost an hour earlier than expected. Ruth, one of the Tosheka Textiles staff, warmly welcomed us and gave us a tour through the silkworm’s life cycle. We did a quick walk around the farm – identified the castor plants growing in the wild, leisurely strolled down to the well then finally back up to the compost pit.

Inside the grainage, we got a very detailed account of the Samia cynthia caterpillar that produces eri silk and whose ancestral roots can be traced back all the way to Japan. Most of the silkworms had already been wrapped up in paper, ready to spin their luxurious cocoons in preparation for metamorphosis. Ruth gave us a sneak peak into one of the wrapped papers to see just how yellow they turned when they were ready for cocooning (they are usually white). We gave some of the caterpillars a good squeeze to satisfy our curiosity of what the creepy crawlies felt like. Don’t worry – they don’t burst.  Although we had just missed the mating season, we still got to see and touch some mummified moths that had fulfilled their destiny of procreation.

A few steps away from the grainage, is the roasting chamber where thousands of silk pupa that don’t make the cut, undergo drying over high heat to become animal feed. We had a peep inside and even treated ourselves to a crunchy snack. While Nimu put her photographic skills to use, the rest of us did what we do best and munched away. They taste a bit like njugu karanga – leaving your mouth with that nutty aftertaste.

After learning about the silkworm’s life cycle, we drove to the community hall to learn how the weavers convert the hard cocoon shell into fine fabric. Ruguru took us round the weaving process where we watched very keenly as some of the ladies interlaced coloured strands of yarn to produce beautiful designs of blended silk and cotton. Ken was very intrigued by the movement of the loom and the patterns it formed on the cloth and decided to give it a try. In the unifying spirit of FOMO, we all ended up on the loom – weaving away. I must say, it’s quite therapeutic.

We enjoyed finger-licking, nyama choma over lunch then continued with the behind-the-scenes silk tour. This was the highlight of the day! It was like going back in time to when we were all little, mischievous children in Arts and Craft class. We had SO MUCH FUN tying our silk fabric into various shapes and forms, experimenting with colours, and just letting our creativity ooze out through the entire tie and dye process. We learnt how screen printing is done and even got to do it ourselves. The entire afternoon was filled with good cheer and laughter. The best part was when it was time to cut the thread on our tie-dye materials and reveal the patterns we had designed. We all watched in great anticipation as each of us opened up our cloth. Some designs popped with vibrant colour while some designs didn’t but taught us an even greater lesson – the why behind the process.

It was a day very well spent – free from the pollution in the big city, amongst absolutely fantastic company. I made wonderful friends, ate good food and learnt something new. It enlightened my outlook on the otherwise mundane routine of simply wearing clothes every single day just because I have to.

4 Comments

  1. Murungi – I had so much fun this day. Thanks for putting together an amazing experience.
    Looking forward to another one!

  2. It is an amazing experience. You begun with how the thread is bredesigned, spun, woven and dyed. It’s a full cycle.

    1. Thank you mom. It’s an especially fantastic experience because it shows young people and old that Kenya also has the potential to become a producer economy.

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