Who would have thought, in centuries past, that the production of one of the most luxurious and expensive fabrics in the world owes its very existence to a tiny caterpillar of the Bombyx Mori Silk Moth, which feeds on the leaves of White Mulberry trees in far-off China! The story of silk was revealed to us by Mrs Frances Harper, our April Speaker, and herself a retired employee from one of the silk manufacturers in East Anglia, at Braintree.
The process of silk production is known as sericulture. It was established by the Chinese 5,000 years ago, when, according to legend, the princess Xi Lingshi discovered that a cocoon could be unravelled to produce a thread when one dropped into her tea while she sat under a mulberry tree! For centuries the secret of silk manufacture was known only to the Chinese, until in the middle of the sixth century two Persian monks managed to smuggle silkworm eggs to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The secrets of silk gradually spread into Europe, and an Italian merchant, explorer and writer named Marco Polo established what we now call the Silk Road, a trade route from China to Europe.
All the moths and caterpillars are still bred in China, where the silk is extracted and spun into skeins to be exported to the west, where it is woven into luxury fabrics in silk mills.
What is silk used for? Besides fine clothing, silk has been and is used for tablecloths, pillowcases, bedding, curtains, wall hangings, table runners, surgical sutures, parachutes, upholstery and bike tyres, as well as bridal and formal wear, brocades and velvet. Hampton Court, The Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace have all got furnishings, upholstery and wall coverings made from silk, much of it manufactured in East Anglia! Most of these factories are now closed, but at one time silk was woven at mills in Sudbury, Castle Hedingham, Braintree and Norwich, to name but a few of them. Nowadays the main silk weaving industry is based at Lyons, in France, known as the silk capital of the world.
Now for something completely different! Our May Speaker, Jane Hoggar, came to recount some of her experiences as a former Bluebell Girl, whose dancing career began in the 1980s. At the age of twelve, Jane had to abandon her dreams of becoming a ballerina. Measuring six-feet tall with size nine feet, she reluctantly gave her tutu away, instead, sewing herself a sequinned ‘boob tube’ and turning her ambitions to Top of the Pops, Pans People and the exciting world of cabaret! Jane described her exciting travels around the globe during the 80’s that eventually led her to the remarkable Margaret Kelly, better known as Miss Bluebell of Le Lido de Paris.
She has worked in places as far away as Cairo, Tokyo, Paris and parts of Italy, coping with the most challenging of situations on a variety of exotic work engagements. In recent years, she has also suffered from breast cancer, and kept a diary of her “chemo summer”, an uplifting book that could help other sufferers get through their treatments for this disease.
During her talk she had us all in fits of laughter, and she even demonstrated some of her dance moves and sang snatches of songs from pre-recorded sound bites, finishing with Edith Piaf’s “No Regrets”! It was a joyous and uplifting evening for all of us!
For more of the same, with a great variety of speakers and entertainment, why not come along to one of our meetings on the first Thursday of the month, at 7.30pm in Capel Library? You will be most welcome! Bring a friend, too!
Coming up we have a visit to the Orchard Players’ Summer show and a Summer Social with a Country and Western theme. In July we are taking part in this year’s Scarecrow Trail again, and one of our members, Rose Chiverton, will be opening her garden, complete with model railways, in aid of the Blossom Appeal.
Lots of events to enjoy!