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“SILK has been revered as the Queen of Fibers for millennia. Monks and princesses have smuggled its secrets from country to country; bandits have stolen it from camel-back caravans. It is light, soft, shiny, and strong: a cabled silk yarn has more strength, per weight, than a cable of steel, but silk can be made so light that it will float on a breeze. Silk is more available now for Western spinners than at any time before in history; it can be purchased in any form from raw cocoons and carded top all the way to finished yarns, plus special forms that are specific to silk, like hankies and bricks.” http://www.knitty.com/issuespring06/FEATbombyx.html

The other day in the office, I had the privilege to meet a Japanese couple who are here in Puerto Princesa for a few days to train women on how to loom and weave silk threads from Eri-silk worms (Philosamia ricini) with Tagbalay Foundation, a non-profit environmental organization.

Before the year ends, my goal is to make me a nice silk shawl with the help of Adelfa (I’m not sure if I got her name’s spelling right) of Tagbalay who has been training with them for a long time.

Kit Kitatani represents WIN International or Women in Need International, Inc. and his wife, Akiko, is the director of NPO 2050, another non-government organization based in Japan whose goal is to empower women in different countries in Asia to be independent. They’ve been coming back to Puerto Princesa since 2000, when IRREN Foundation, also an NGO, introduced the farming of Eri-silk worms in Palawan.

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Eri silk worms being reared in a farm here in Puerto Princesa.

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Akiko untangles a silk thread ready for weaving.

Kit and Akiko speak very, very good English that’s why it wasn’t so difficult for me to talk to them and ask a lot of questions about Eri-silk worms. When I complemented Akiko on her fluency in the English language, she said it was because they were also based in the U.S. for quite sometime. Now, they try to visit there three times a year.

Also known as endi or errandi, Eri silk is produced by the Eri-silk worms that love to feed on castor and kesseru leaves. In tropical Philippines, the worms can feed on cassava leaves.

ERI-SILK WORM CYCLE

Kit said it is easy to grow this type of silk worm in any tropical country as long as there’s enough food to feed them. The cultivation of silk worms is known as “sericulture” — the small eggs (about 300-500) of silkworm moths are nurtured until they hatch into worms. They are placed under a fine layer of covering ensconced by chopped cassava or caster leaves.

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Kit (left) in an Eri-silk worm farm.

Once the worms mature, they change their skins four times and this is called “molting,” before they start to make 4.5 cm to 5 cm cocoons for four days. Female Eri worms make the largest cocoons, while the male, the small kinds. Eri-silk worms are voracious leaf eaters in this part of their life cycle. After 7 days, the moths inside the cocoons go out and then “mate” to start a new cycle.

The cocoons are then harvested and boiled with perla soap (Pinoy laundry soap) to soften, hanged and then dried before they are spun into threads that can be weaved or loomed into silk shawls, wraps or scarfs.

PUERTO PRINCESA ERI-SILK ASSOCIATION

Here in the City, there’s an organization of women called Puerto Princesa Eri-Silk Association. Its president is 58 years old Helen M. Quijana, a retired radiology technologist of the Ospital ng Palawan (Provincial Hospital). The association has 11 members, all women, some of them unemployed housewives.

“I love to crochet and to knit that’s why silk weaving intrigued me when they came here to train more women. I was part of the second batch that they trained,” Helen narrated, adding Kit and Akiko would bring silk yarns for them to buy and weave. Later on, the two brought a sericulture expert who trained them to farm Eri-silk worms.

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Helen and another member of the association help each other learn how to weave silk using the big weaving loom tool given to them by Ken and Akiko.

“They convinced us that it would be better for us to raise the worms ourselves because they’re easy to rear as long as we have cassava leaves to feed them,” she said.

The Japanese couple soon brought other trainers to teach them on how to improve their weaving and looming skills; gave them free tools to use in training their co-members and were bringing their produce back to Japan to be sold in a “fair trade” event. A good shawl made of Eri-silk fetches more than a PhP1,000.00, she said.

Helen said that since she started seven months ago, she has already sold about 13 pieces of good lengths of shawl through Ken and Akiko. “It’s additional income for us women who have no jobs or who have stopped working regular jobs,” she said. She has earned more than PhP25,000.00 selling her silk shawls.

Kit said the ability to earn additional income is equal to having “independence” for the women in Puerto Princesa who now know how to rear Eri-silk worms and weave them into beautiful shawls.

“When they’re given the opportunity to earn additional income for their families, then they’re also provided the opportunity to be independent economically, socially and politically. Women have got to have some skills in order for them to be able to function alone and not dependent on somebody,” Ken said.

NO SILKWORM INDUSTRY

In Japan, Akiko said, Eri-silk worm farming and weaving them into fine silk shawls is a “completely dead industry” because China is beating them at it. But Japanese people love silks, especially during the cold season.

Only a small population of Japan has taken the interest to continue it, and its produce is not enough to cover the market, according to her. “We thought that providing the women in Puerto Princesa and Palawan the skills and the knowledge about Eri-silk worms can start a viable industry for them here, at the same time encourage them to be self-governed and be confident about themselves,” she said.

As part of their commitment to make women self-sufficient in the City, NPO 2050 has provided the association an amount that it can loan to members who are interested to rear the worms, make silk yarns and weave. It may also be used to provide more trainings they need in partnership with Tagbalay Foundation.

Other than my interest to make me a shawl I can use this Christmas when it turns a bit colder here, I’m really into helping women become independent and self-governing. I know there are still problems before the silk industry flourishes here: majority of the members of the association have no lands where they can start their worm farms, more funding is still needed to train other women (11 women are not enough); etcetera. But if there are organizations that are willing to help, then there is hope.

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