Previous Attempts at Starting an Australian Silk Industry
Over the years, there have been several attempts at creating an Australian silk industry.
The most notable, and oldest of these dates back to the 1870's. Today, in Harcourt - near Castlemaine - and a site of the Victorian goldfields, lays the ruins of the Victorian Ladies Sericulture Company.
Revolutionary for its time, the company had an all-women board of directors, while only female shareholders held voting rights. Sarah Bladen Neill was the leader of the company, and at the time claimed that "not even in America has there been a company formed entirely of women."
Silk has been a valuable commodity, dating back to its discovery in Ancient China, 2640 BC. Silk is in fact credited for the development of the aptly named "Silk Road", which was used as an ancient trade route to connect the Western world, Middle East and Asia as far back as the Roman Empire.
The company was given 250 hectares on Mount Alexander, thanks to the revolutionary nature and potential rewards of Ms Bladen Neill's project. There, they planted 35,000 mulberry trees (the silkworms' only food source), and built a breeding shed to house the silkworms.
In addition to building a profitable business, Ms Bladen Neill had a fierce desire to build an industry that could support women with work and an income. This included offering training in sericulture to "that class of persons now kept in compulsory idleness and dependence". Bladen Neill's hope was that these trained women would then instruct women to help train a growing workforce and help "many parents might then consider their daughters a mine of wealth, which may perhaps never have struck them before".
It is important to have a large number of high quality, tender mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms during rearing, as this leads to the highest quality silk which is demanded over the world.
No matter the determination of Sarah Bladen Neill, unfortunately her project had a simple, but fatal flaw: location. The site was susceptible to frost in Winter months, and severe heat in Summer. This damaged the freshly planted, immature trees and proved tough for the silkworms to subsequently thrive. Additionally, the site was hard to access and the soil was poor and full of granite boulders. Unable to feed her silkworms adequately after three failed seasons, the company had to get creative or risk collapse.
Determined and not yet ready to concede defeat, Bladen Neill set up a new farm in Corowa, on the NSW side of the Murray River. 5,000 of the initial 35,000 mulberry trees survived relocation, however unfortunately the enterprise failed to thrive largely down to her attempts of trying to rear silkworms before having a well-established mulberry plantation.
Australian Silk Industry Landscape Today
In recent times, there have been a number of businesses - both successful and unsuccessful working with silk, silkworms and mulberry leaves across Australia.
Seresilk founder / CEO, Taylor Battistella first started Everything Silkworms as a 12-year-old. It didn't start out as a business, but after raising 100 silkworms at home, in just one month he had 25,000 eggs and didn't know what to do with them! He decided to sell the eggs, and after being shut down on Ebay made a website. From there, he imported an artificial silkworm diet from overseas, and purchased silkworm resources for school projects. Today, a large number of his customers are Australian schools and retail customers. His goal is "to give birth to a larger Australian silk industry" by supplying Seresilk with cruelty-free, Australian silk and creating demand in a market for high-quality, Australian silk which will then hopefully allow him to expand productive capacity.
Margaret River Silk Road produced approximately 25,000 cocoons annually at the peak of its operations. As it takes 10,000 cocoons to produce a kilo of silk, that’s an output of about 25 to 30 scarves each year, way short of the quantity the farm shop needed to sell to be a viable enterprise. The owners, Rob Sheahan and Amanda Tagliaferri made up for the shortage in supply via a joint-venture arrangement with silk farmers in Cambodia, however unfortunately the business ceased operating in 2018.
Kureelpa Mulberry Company is a mulberry farm located on the Sunshine Coast, QLD. In 2016, Peter Lynch started thinking about retirement and found inspiration as birds flocked to his backyard mulberry tree. Alongside his wife Karen, they purchased a property in the Blackall Range and founded the Kureelpa Mulberry Company. Thanks to the seasonality of the mulberry tree, and short punnet-life of the Mulberry fruit, the majority of fresh fruit sales come from the farm and to local distributors. Along the way, Young has learnt a few handy tricks, one being that the fruit is produced on the new season's growth and the pick could be extended for months, by staggering the pruning of trees after the main harvest!
In addition to the Kureelpa Mulberry company, there are a number of other mulberry farmers in Australia - many producing Mulberry wine. One such example is Nockburra Creek Farm, where Peter Szabo started planting the trees as a way to insure himself against the ups and downs of the grape growing and wine production. Facing challenges storing the mulberries, Szabo has developed his own farming model and has learnt that details such and the date of picking the fruit impact greatly on its flavour. Equipped with this knowledge and the with Australia's first dedicated gin distillery on Kangaroo Island, Peter's mulberries are now being included in their drinks, gin and jams.
We will continue to zero-in on the topics explored briefly in this story. Interested in finding out more about silk in skincare? Join the Seresilk mailing list and message firstname.lastname@example.org for any topics you'd like to see covered in future articles.