Stalking silk

On our way down from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap today, we stopped at a silk farm for lunch. The making of silk is one of those things that could convert me to Intelligent Design, if they had it for societies, and if the US Congress weren't such an obvious counterexample.

The way you make silk is this: you hatch yourself some silkworms by catching the butterflies. You carefully feed these worms mulberry leaves for a few weeks, which makes them huge. When the worms change color, you know they're ready to spin a cocoon, so you carefully stick them in a bunch of tree branches to do their stuff.

Okay, this much you could probably figure out by watching nature. But then:

You have to kill the silkworms before they hatch; otherwise, they'll bust the single continuous fiber, many meters long, that makes one strand of silk. So you boil them alive, or dry them on a hot metal sheet in the sun. Then you carefully unwind that single strand, and bundle it together with 40-50 other strands to make a single silk thread. This doesn't look or feel anything like silk; there's some kind of glue on it, so the intermediate product has the look and feel of a coarse fiber such as hemp or straw. You get rid of the glue by boiling the thread for two hours in a solution of soda ash. Then, and only then, do you have a single silk thread.

I don't know about you, but I would have given up somewhere before boiling the silkworms alive. Given how little value the stuff has at the intermediate stages, how did we ever get to the final product? I'm seriously befuddled by human ingenuity.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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