For 3,000 years, the source of silk — shimmering, luxurious and terribly expensive — was a closely guarded secret. Silk worms, it’s lucrative little spinners, were kept jealously hidden by the silk makers of China on pain of death.
But today, 8,000 miles and a few millenia from ancient China, the very same worms are readying to produce another crop of precious silk, still one of the most pricey and sought after fibers on the market today.
Cassie Dickson has a tray of them sitting serenely on her dining room table in Sylva, munching on mulberry leaves, the sole diet of the Bombyx mori, the legendary variety of silk worms responsible for producing the lion’s share of the world’s silk.
“I have emergency trees, I have trees everywhere,” says Dickson. “I can spot trees just driving down the road.”
She’s been rearing the insects herself for 21 years now, after a magazine article piqued her interest.
She’d always been interested in handcrafts and fibers; she got traditional weaving and fiber spinning in the 1970s, and today she weaves historical pieces that have found their way into museums and private collections alike.
So she wrote to the woman featured in the article and got a response — along with some silkworm eggs as well.
She hatched them, and now she travels the region, giving out eggs and advice of her own.
The cardboard tray is teeming with a hundred or so worms, which are really more akin to caterpillars, with their knobbly bodies and tiny, sticky feet that make the sound of gently falling rain as they patter over the mulberry leaves.
In their short, month-long run as worms, they’ll grow to 10,000 times their original size, ballooning up from tiny eggs that are no larger than a grain of sand.
They don’t venture out of their cardboard homes, says Dickson, until it’s time to spin, when the fattened worms begin to get antsy for a dark, secluded place to create the hard, oblong cocoons that can eventually be turned into everything from couture eveningwear to wire insulation.
It takes more than just a few worms, however, to get to the prêt-à-porter phase. According to Dickson, it takes 1,000 cocoons to make an average-size ladies’ blouse, which might be why the gossamer threads are so costly. Each two-inch worm will produce one single filament that’s anywhere from 500 yards to a mile long, and it takes around 48 filaments to spin into a single silk thread.
Dickson, though, says she uses the fiber not only for spinning into yarn and thread, but also raw, unraveled and pulled from a cocoon.
Purchased from a factory, raw silk comes in thin, translucent squares that are unraveled from the hardened cocoons that have been softened in water. But rather than spin these, Dickson often just knits this silk straight from its original state, simply pulling it by hand to the desired thickness or space dying it with natural dyes or even Kool-Aid.
That’s a technique she takes into workshops and schools, to demonstrate how versatile the fiber can be.
“The boys always go, ‘that looks like fish bait to me,’” laughs Dickson, but her worms and their products have always proven pretty popular with kids and adults in her classes and workshops.
And, she says, while the month of raising the worms is very labor intensive, she’s never had a problem hatching the eggs, which she keeps dormant in her refrigerator for much of the year.
This year’s herd has about another week before they begin to branch out and spin themselves into their fibrous shells. And for most of them, that’s the end of the line. The majority of the blind, flightless moths that would naturally emerge from the cocoon will never see the light of day, as their chrysalis damages the silk threads. But Dickson will select a few of the most choice cocoons and let them emerge to lay next year’s eggs — “sort-of my selective breeding,” she says — while the others will be stifled, heated slightly to prevent their exit.
Today, most of the silk used in the U.S. comes from China, still a powerhouse in the industry it founded so many thousands of years ago. While domestic production has seen spikes throughout American history, large-scale sericulture died out in the 1930s, thanks to the Great Depression.
But the age-old tradition is alive in places like Western North Carolina, where natural fibers and natural textile techniques are seeing a new vogue. And the secret of silk is still hatching and spinning, year after year, as Dickson passes on eggs and expertise to a new crowd of silk spinners.
For the past few years, internet literary critics of fantasy/supernatural novels have been raving about about a writer of “punk rock prose” named Caitlin Kiernan. The praise has been excessive, comparing her to H. P. Lovecraft, Poe and Clive Barker. However, if the endorsements of Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman and Garrison Keillor (no kidding!) should move you to find one of her seven novels — and if you live in a small town in Western North Carolina — you may have a problem. Neither the libraries nor the bookstores stock “the poet and bard of the wasted lost.” There is a reason for that.
Kiernan’s work certainly falls within the boundaries of what is called horror, fantasy and the supernatural — but these are classifications that the author steadfastly rejects. She has a point. Although the novel Silk is packed with otherworldly creatures that live by night, imbibe a mix of pot, mushrooms, Ramen noodles and bourbon while exhibiting sexual behavior that is, by mainstream standards, “aberrant,” the cast of characters are quite definitely ... human. They are young, homeless and frequently mentally unstable. Although some are gifted, they are invariably impaired in some fatal or tragic manner. All of them are painfully alienated and lonely creatures, who, in order to survive, huddle together, attempting to create “families.” Often living in unheated tenement slums, they emerge at night, to congregate in back-alley nightspots with names like Dr. Jekyll, the Cave or Dante’s where drug addicts and acid-head musicians and prostitutes dance and drink and make out until daylight.
Mainstream America is horrified by Kiernan’s world (Silk is set in drab and bleak slums of Birmingham, Ala.), and if morbid curiosity tempts the average reader to sample a few pages in something like Daughter of Hounds, they will probably close the book as though they feared contamination or infection and quickly return it to the shelf.
Such reactions delight Kiernan, who notes that she does not write for “the office monkeys” — her contemptuous label for people who live a 9 to 5 existence in a “politically correct” world. Kiernan’s protagonists flip burgers, wash dishes in coffeehouses, work in garages, peddle drugs or eke out a minimal existence in the uncertain world of music (punk rock, goth, grrrl, etc.) and outsider art. Kiernan captures their world with a grim and gritty prose that frequently has a dark and lyric beauty — especially the dialogue which has been called “poetically nasty.”
The characters are unforgettable: Daria Parker is an intense, chain-smoking young woman who dyes her hair with cherry Koolaid and works in the Fidgety Bean, a local coffeehouse, using her wages to keep her band, Stiff Kitten, up and running. Her lover, Keith Barry is a talented musician with a hopeless drug addiction. Spyder Baxter functions as a kind of den mother for a dozen wrecked and lost outcasts (lesbians, transsexuals and drug addicts) who gather each night in her ramshackle house to listen as Spyder weave dark stories about fallen angels and ... spiders (a topic that she knows a great deal about). Niki Ky, a haunted young Vietnamese fleeing from the memory of a suicidal lover, finds herself in Birmingham where she first befriends Daria, but finds herself drawn to white-haired Spyder and her court of “shrikes.”
Although there are terrifying scenes in Silk, scenes in which Kiernan’s characters find themselves at the mercy of a nameless evil that skitters through the dark alleys of Birmingham, thumps on the walls (and whispers in Spyder’s basement), it is finally an evil that originates in the tormented minds of Spyder and her followers. A foolish, drug-induced ritual in Spyder’s basement (lots of mushrooms and an occult mantra) leaves the participants haunted by the belief that they had summonsed “something” and now it follows them relentlessly.
Despite all of its bleakness and obscenity, Silk contains descriptive passages that glow and pulse with sensory details: a thunderous and nightmarish band festival in Atlanta in which the Stiff Kitten performs (and fails) is especially notable. Then, the massive snowfall that buries Birmingham during the novel’s conclusion reads like a frozen tableau in Hell. She may be “nasty,” but this weird woman can write!
Kiernan’s latest novel, The Red Tree, chronicles the psychological disintegration of a single character named Sarah Crowe, an author, who flees a wrecked life in Atlanta and rents the Wight Farm in rural Rhode Island in order to complete her latest novel. The farm turns out to be the infamous site of supernatural events dating back 300 years, including demonic possessions, suicides and human sacrifice. When Sarah discovers a battered manuscript in the basement — a kind of journal composed by the last occupant of the house, Dr. Charles Harvey — a renter who committed suicide, she becomes obsessed with the manuscript, especially after reading about “the red tree” which is located a short distance from the house. Eventually, she gives up all pretense of completing her novel and devotes all of her time researching the history of the great oak, which has played a prominent role in the region’s occult history.
When an artist named Constance Hopkins rents the attic of the house, Sarah gains both a roommate and a lover. However, in time, the two women begin to bicker. Both develop a dread of the “red tree,” and begin to suspect that they are helpless pawns of the tree. Attempts to visit the tree turn into nightmarish treks (It takes you hours to walk a few hundred feet, and even a longer time to return to the house). As Sarah continues to read the manuscript, (which she shares with Constance), this novel gradually turns into a terrifying story of compulsive possession. Eventually, Sarah comes to doubt the world around her, a doubt that is substantiated when she visits Constance in the attic and discovers that no one lives there.
The Red Tree takes the form of a journal in which Sarah Crowe provides a daily record of events. After Sarah discovers the manuscript in the basement, she begins to record passages from it. As a consequence, Sarah’s journal is interspersed with passages that were typed on a manual Royal typewriter with a worn ribbon. Like the faulty typewriter in Stephen King’s Misery, these typed passages (just as they appear in the original manuscript) give the narrative a disturbing quality.
Caitlin Kiernan’s novels give abundant evidence of the author’s impressive research and learning. Within a single chapter, the reader may find references to sources as varied as Seneca, Nina Simone, Thoreau, Tom Waits, Joseph Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft. Kiernan often wields her impressive learning like a bludgeon and seems to take considerable satisfaction in doing so. The reader may feel both taunted and intimidated by this amazing author. However, discerning readers will probably forgive this author for her occasional outbursts of unabashed arrogance and vulgarity. Caitlin Kiernan has a rare talent.
Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan. RoC Books, 2002. 353 pages.
The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. New American Library, 2009. 385 pages