Silkworms are not the first thing that comes to mind when one visits Patagonia. Usually associated with China, their discovery as a valuable commodity was first noted in the 27th century BC. Chinese legend has it that Empress His Ling Shi was sipping tea under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. The empress was so captivated by the shimmering threads that she identified and studied the source and found the Bombyx mori silkworm munching mulberry leaves and eventually forming the silk cocoon that so fascinated her. From this discovery she developed sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom to process the glistening threads into luxurious fabrics. Not only is silk a beautiful fabric, pound for pound it is also stronger than steel, making it even more valuable and considered at that time more precious than gold.
During the latter half of the first millennium BC, demand for silk eventually created the trade route now known as the Silk Road taking it westward and bringing gold, silver and wools back to the east. By CE200, sericulture had spread throughout Asia via Chinese immigration and finally, around CE550 it reached Europe.
New York native, and Patagonia resident since 1987, Susan Corl has added sericulture to her many, many other endeavors as an artist and craftsperson. In 2000, Corl helped a second grade teacher in Tucson teach metamorphosis by creating a puppet show about the Empress His Ling Shi and her silkworm discovery. Corl had crafted the puppets for the event and became enamored with this story of silk they were reenacting in the puppet show. This prompted her journey into sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms.
Corl’s life has been anything but routine. After leaving New York City for a five-year stint at a Hudson River Valley herb farm, she realized what she had missed in the city was the natural world and “the feel of the earth.” A friend invited Corl and her young son to accompany her on a trip to Tubac, and that trip is what brought Corl to Arizona.
Corl sums up her life as “a life-long student with unending curiosity.” Self-taught, she has mastered many of the arts and crafts that she now teaches in schools and on tribal reservations. She has received grants from various foundations to hold workshops for many non-profit organizations.
Corl has traveled extensively in the southwest over the years to teach her many talents, including silk paper making, paper origami, felting, papier mache, book making, wreath making, Ukrainian egg decorating and her many other skills as a teaching artist and artist in residence. Writing poems and quilting are even more of her many creative outlets.
Of all of these, perhaps the most unusual is her journey into sericulture. The season is short, March through the end of May, and during that time, Corl can be found at the various locales in SE Arizona where mulberry trees are leafing out. Into her seventh decade, she can still climb a ladder or a tree picking the green leaves for her wriggly charges to keep them alive and well fed. Her silkworms are domestic and could not survive out in the wild, so she must care for them in a controlled environment, assuring their safety from the elements.
Keeping them alive and able to breed, lay their eggs and feeding them through the larval stage until they finally make their cocoons out of the precious silk or “dried worm spit,” as Corl describes it, is a full-time job. It takes three days for a worm to spin the cocoon and then two weeks for the mature moth to emerge, always in the mornings. They are flightless, but mate, lay their eggs and then die. At the end of the season, Corl collects the eggs, stores them in a cool place and waits for the following spring for them to hatch. “They seem to know when spring comes and come out when the time is right.” At that point, the process starts again.
Corl processes the cocoons left by the moths by simmering them in washing soda to remove the harder outer coating called sericin. After being rinsed, the silk is ready for dying and processing into the paper that she makes from it.
Corl’s silk paper and other creations are available for purchase at the Patagonia Trading Post as well at various craft shows in the area.