Pre-Coloured Silkworms

by Lucy Hagger

These strange balls of fabric are actually the raw starting material for silk; but they are normally never this vibrant. Silk is a hugely popular fabric with over $30 billion worth produced each year in China alone. Silk comes from silkworms which produce the raw material when they form cocoons. This is then removed and boiled to obtain fibroin which is the core ingredient for silk.

From here the process gets quite complex and expensive. The dying process requires huge amounts of water, dye and energy to complete and there is a lot of waste produced. However, researchers in Singapore think they have come up with a much more environmentally friendly and efficient method of producing the coloured silks without the harsh dying process.

Instead of manually dying the silk, the researchers came up with solutions that could be fed to the silkworms containing natural dyes. The dyes don’t harm the silkworms as they are natural based dyes and researchers found no negative effect on the worms. The silkworms then subsequently produce silk cocoons of the chosen colour. Not only can they make the silkworms produce different coloured cocoons, they can also provide fluorescent and glow in the dark properties to the dyes. This means the silks come straight from the silkworms in the chosen colour and potentially fluorescing.

This means no harsh dying process needs to occur. All that is needed is the extraction of the fibroin fibers and production of the fabric itself. The researchers demonstrated how this could be a potentially much more cost effective and environmentally friendly approach to silk production.

Currently most silk is harvested from silkworms in farm type environments. For this approach silkworms would have to be kept in more controlled lab-type environments so their specific diets could be provided. This could be a possibility, and silk production could take place on a much larger, commercial scale.

There’s not been too much progression with this work yet, but I still think it is pretty awesome. I like the idea of thousands of these multicoloured, fluorescing cocoons hanging around. With increasing pressure on companies to become more “green”, this provides a great opportunity to do so in the silk industry.