Silk Cocoons around Dubrovnik by Jelka Petrak
According to a Chinese legend, silk was discovered in the garden of Emperor Huangdi around 2,700 BC. The emperor wondered what was damaging his mulberry trees and ordered his wife, Xilingshi, to find out. She discovered that white worms were eating the leaves of the mulberry trees and were spinning shiny cocoons. She accidentally dropped a cocoon into hot water while preparing tea and, as she was trying to remove it, saw a delicate silk filament unraveling from the moistened cocoon. Thus, Xilingshi discovered silk by accident. The Chinese kept the secret of silk for centuries and centuries. Thus, the first time the Western world had ever even heard of the strange worm that spins silk threads was in 300 BC. And then it was just a rumor. No one in the West actually saw the silkworm or how the silk is made. They could only buy that royal fabric, usually at fabulously high prices. A legend says that in about AD 550, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (527-565) in trying to find a trade route that would bypass Persia, sent two monks to China as spies. Risking death, the monks smuggled out silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in hollow bamboo canes, and thus the mystery of silk was finally revealed.
The Silk Road from the Far East to the West is deemed one of the most important roads in human history. This road connected mountains and ports, merchants and fairs, ideas and customs. In the 800s and 900s, the Muslims brought silkworms to Spain and Sicily. It is believed that silkworm breeding in the Mediterranean region, and on Croatian side of the Adriatic Sea, took root in that period. Silk culture flourished in Europe for many centuries, especially in the Italian city-states. At fairs in the ports of Ancona, Leghorn, and Venice merchants from all parts of the known world exchanged their goods. Among those merchants were also those from Dubrovnik Republic. At the end of the 16th century, the silk manufacturing declined in the cities, and was taken up by the rural population, particularly by women.
The history of Konavle silk and brilliant Konavle regional costumes begins at that time. Konavle is the rural area in the hinterlands of Dubrovnik, known for its natural beauties (cliffs, mixed cypress, pine and oak woods, vineyards, olive-groves, and so forth), as well as its national costumes and hospitality of its people. Konavlian women are known for their diligence. Until the 1960s, they were breeding silkworms (Bombyx Mori) and used silk threads to embroider the most beautiful parts of their folk costumes.
Silk manufacturing in Konavle began in a very traditional way. Women wrapped tiny silkworm eggs in cloth and placed them in their bosom, where it was warm enough for eggs to hatch. Actually, at the body temperature the eggs developed faster. During that time women would move around slowly and very carefully, and they stayed at home whenever it was possible. The young silkworms were then put on wattles (the so-called jesa) covered by paper. They had to be fed mulberry leaves (murva or dud, in Croatian) 3-6 times a day for 35-40 days. After that 40-day period of alternate phases of continuous feeding and sleeping, fully-grown silkworms, which were about 5-8 centimeters in length, would stop eating. That was the sign that they were ready to spin their cocoon. The so-called koruna, the branches of the aromatic Dalmatian plants with leaves (rosemary, immortelle, Spanish broom, and so forth) were placed around the wattles for the worms to climb on and start to spin their cocoons. After about 4-5 days of spinning, the cocoons would be completed and ready to be picked from the branches. Then the process of reeling the threads would begin. The women worked in pairs. After putting the cocoons in coppers with hot water, one of them continually stirred the hot water with a sprig, thus reeling the delicate threads off the cocoons. The other woman reeled up the threads on a holder, which was made of fig leaves wrapped into a white cloth. The silk was then dried, rewound, blanched with plenty of soap and a small amount of cooked ashes, and thoroughly rinsed with rain water. Konavlian women dyed the silk themselves in sophisticated pastel colors. The dyes were prepared from various plants and fruits.
Over time, these marvelous costumes, passed on from generation to generation, were worn less and less often. During the Homeland War (1991-1993), when people were expelled from Konavle and their homes burnt, hundreds of such inherited costumes were destroyed, too. But, like often before in history, it was impossible to conquer Konavle forever. Immediately after the war, diligent women of Konavle returned to their old tradition. They started breeding silkworms again and making embroidered costumes, which they proudly wear on the occasions of traditional ceremonies.