Africa's fabrics - wild silk from Madagascar

When I tell people that Ethnic Supplies stocks fashion accessories made from wild silk one of the questions I get asked without fail is that

Is there enough for commercial purposes?

And the answer yes there is, in Madagascar. The best part is that there is a whole conservation project underway to protect Madagascar’s natural heritage.

Tapia, or Uapaca Bojeri, is the staple food of the wild Malagasy silkworm, called Landibe (borocera madagascariensis). Both tapia and landibe are only found in Madagascar.

The tapia forests are the last remnants of highland primary forest, which are threatened by human destruction through bush fires, firewood collection and charcoal production. The tapia forest is home to a great wealth of products in addition to silkworms, used by the local population; including fruit, medicinal plants, mushrooms and plant dyes.

As the community depends on this forest heavily a project was started to conserve the forests but also ensure that the communities do not lose their way of life

Ny Tanintsika’s project was set up to revitalize the silk industry in the Amoron’i Mania, south central region of Madagascar with the aim of increasing wild silk production while conserving the tapia forests. The projects benefits the poorest within the community especially the women who are involved in silk product.

The village artisans are supported through all the stages of silk production and its transformation into different products, right through to marketing support and sales and a annual target to replant the tapia is set for each village

The significance of silk in Malagasy life

As we all know when one hears the word SILK one immediately associates it with luxury or even indulgence. But something we don't do, I certainly never did is think about its origins and the role it plays in the culture of the communities that produce/process it.

Silk holds an important place in Malagasy culture and according to a Malagasy proverb, “Ny Lambalandy: velona itafiana, maty isalorana”, which loosely translated means In silk one drapes ones' self whilst alive as well as well as when dead. Silk is a sign of nobility for Malagasy people and the deceased have to be wrapped in a silk burial shroud, or “lambamena”, as sign of wealth.

On my last visit to Madagascar I happened upon a procession on the outskirts of a town called Antisirabe (which is a must visit when in Madagascar), I am not quite sure what the ceremony is called can only be described as waking the dead as it was do with celebrating the lives of those that died a while ago. It involves reopening the tomb and wrapping the body in a new silk cloth, lots of food, street dancing and it goes on for at least three days

typical tomb in Madagascar"]typical tomb in Madagascar

funeral processesion in Madagascar"]funeral processesion in Madagascar[/caption]

In the past, villagers bordering the tapia forest did not value wild silk. During cocoon collection, the eggs were thrown away and the protein-rich chrysalides were eaten or sold.

But today Silk production has become an important income-generating activity for villagers and is a promising sector because there is a large market for silk products, both locally and in the international market.

I once heard someone say that if you wear Armani suits chances are you are wearing Malagasy silk as it is the very best silk you can get in the world. Is this therefore Africa's best secret?

Weaving with wild silk is an activity peculiar to the Amoron’i Mania region, which is home to Madagascar’s most extensive tapia forests.

There are several people involved in the different stages of silk production; cocoon collection, reeling, weaving and the value adding of silk into clothing or decorative items (bags, shoes, clothes, lampshades…).

The production proces, how the cocoons are transformed into a usable fabric, is an involved if not fascinating process.

When Silk worm cocoons are collected in the tapia forest, the Landibe eggs are subjected to various treatments, before there are turned into usable thread.

The first stage involves the soaking of the cocoons in water and are turned upside down using a simple metal tool.

This treatment increases their volume four or five-fold, and they are then dried in the sun. When dry, they are boiled in soapy water for an hour and a half, and are kept in a container or cooking pot for about four days.

After this fermentation, the silk material is produced, which is cleaned with soap and dried. It is beaten with a stick to make it suppler. After drying, the wild silk is ready to be spun. As in the past, spinners in Manandriana use traditional weaving equipment.

After the thread is formed, women remove the gum in it by boiling it in soapy water for about a quarter of an hour and then leaving it to soak for half a day. The thread is then rinsed and dried in the shade.

Weavers in Madagascar traditionally use brown thread, dyed naturally, to make burial shrouds. However, faced with evolution in silk products on the market, women are diversifying to produce a range of fabrics and scarves in a wide range of natural colours.

They use a mix of domesticated silk and wild silk, experimenting with different weaving techniques and natural dyes. About twenty plants are used to make the different colours, which can come from different parts of the plant: their leaves, stems, bark, and roots. Various colours, such as red, green, brown, yellow, grey, black, are produced depending on local knowledge and practices.

The women of Manandriana still use simple tools, old wooden looms, during weaving and various weaving groups in Amoron’i Mania are benefiting from essential technical and material assistance from NY TANINTSIKA’s project.

For a selection of handwoven wild silk scarves from the project please visit our online shop

I hope you have enjoyed learning about African wild silk and as usual if you have any views please share them

From my blog

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Comment by BORA ASSUMANI on December 10, 2009 at 14:20
Found this very interesting to read! Thank you :D
Comment by Ida Horner on December 9, 2009 at 9:52
Many thanks Tamsin
Comment by Tamsin Lejeune on December 9, 2009 at 8:44
Thankyou for your excellent addition to the blog. We look forward to hearing more from you, Tamsin

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