This is one of four pieces produced for workshops delivered for the Museum of English Rural Life – or the MERL for short – as part of their research project, “Making, Using and Enjoying”. The MERL commissioned writers, makers, artists and craftspeople to explore ways of engaging with museum collections through creativity and you can read more about it here.

I delivered four workshops at the MERL between March and April 2018 as part of this project. In each session, I was joined by local knitters and, together, we explored a different part of the Museum’s collection through knitting and sound.

This episode was created for the third session in the series: KNIT A SONG OF SILK. The inspiration came from seeing that MERL hold a book in their archives titled “Lullingstone silk farm 1932-1954, by Zoe, Lady Hart Dyke”. The story of Lullingstone Silk Farm is interesting; it’s one of aristocratic land use (an undeniable aspect of British rural life) but also of an entrepreneurial woman accessing an industry – sericulture – which, without important social ties, and enormous resources at her hands – would have been impossible to have pulled off.

The accession notes describe Zoe, Lady Hart Dyke’s book, as including “a silk sample in pocket at back” bringing together the physical textile with Hart Dyke’s account of its creation. I wanted to combine silk textiles with their story of provenance and to share with workshop attendees my own experience of having raised silkworms in 2014.

For KNIT A SONG OF SILKWORMS, I took an old hank of silk reeled at Lullingstone and processed it for hand spinning.

I first had to degum the silk in a mixture of washing soda and cetyl alcohol (a surfactant) which I did using this excellent tutorial, after which followed a couple of hours spent rinsing out the cleaned fibres.

After this, I dried them on a radiator, and cut them into shorter lengths, more manageable for spinning. The next day, I carded the silk and set about hand spinning enough yarn for everyone at the workshop to be able to knit a bracelet featuring lengths of i-cord worked in silk.

It’s impossible to record the sounds of Lullingstone Silk Farm anymore as it no longer exists. However, listening to accounts of the silk farm (I read out several sections from various books by Lady Hart Dyke both in this piece and in the actual workshop) we were able to tie together a better sense of the provenance of the silk with which we were working. I went with bracelets as the knitted outcome for this project because silk is so labour intensive to produce that, to me, it seems as rare and precious as jewellery. Fong adorned hers with a flower, and Clare turned hers into a necklace. You can buy the silk fibre we used for this workshop here.

This work was commissioned by the MERL for the project “Making, Using and Enjoying: The Museum of the Intangible”. The project is funded by the Arts Council England (ACE) Designation Development Fund.