Madagascar is home to some of the world’s most spectacular silkmoths, perhaps most dramatically the resplendent-looking, yellow and purple comet moth (Argema mittrei), with its 20cm wingspan and dramatic “tails”. Like all butterflies and moths, silkworms – the caterpillars of silkmoths – turn into chrysalises, with one striking difference: before pupating and dissolving into a soup of DNA to metamorphose into an adult flying beauty, the silkworm secretes silk to form a cocoon to protect the chrysalis. It’s the silk from the cocoon, boiled and separated, spun into thread and woven, that produces silk cloth.
Central Madagascar’s tapia forests are the natural habitat of one of the most productive of these moths, the borocera (Borocera cajani or landibe in Malagasy), whose silk was traditionally used to make burial shrouds – a use of cocoon silk laden with symbolism. Tapia is the Malagasy name for Uapaca bojeri, a highly fire-resistant, olive-like tree related to the southern African sugar plum. In November and December, millions of cocoons are collected from the tapia forests in a harvest tradition hundreds of years old. These forests yield not only the raw material for silk production but also a useful protein supplement in the form of the chrysalises, a popular snack.
Despite being highly fire-resistant, the tapia forests are fast diminishing, and the cocoon supply decreases year on year. In recent years, several local organizations have partnered with NGOs – including Feedback Madagascar and Ny Tanintsika at Soatanana and SAGE at Ambohimanjaka, both west of the RN7 near Ambositra – to plant thousands of tapia saplings to help boost silkworm numbers, develop techniques for farming silkworms and market the finished silk overseas.
Many workshops dye their silk with natural colourings, including turmeric, beetroot, rice mud, bark, and the green leaves of passion fruit vines. Some production is left au naturel, to show off the burnished bronze colour of wild silk. You’ll also come across the less expensive white or pale-golden-cream-coloured silk produced by the domestic silkmoth (Bombyx mori), which is farmed on mulberry leaves.
One silk product that may never become an object of commerce is spider silk cloth. In the nineteenth century, a few items were made from the strong, lustrous, super-light silk of Malagasy golden orb spiders (Nephilia madagascariensis), using an ingenious device that harnessed a captive spider while its silk was wound onto a reel. In 2012 a British silk specialist and a fashion entrepreneur (w godleypeers.com) revived the technique, going on to present an exquisitely embroidered golden cape to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and an equally fabulous shawl to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Each garment was made from the silk of more than a million female golden orb spiders that were trapped and released by a team of eighty local helpers over the course of three years.