The Silk Road
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
An hour out of Melbourne on the South Gippsland Highway, the land is flat and loamy. Here, tucked among alpaca paddocks and vineyards, flower farms and market gardens, stands two hectares of healthy mulberry trees. Fringed with chilli plants and olive saplings, this prototype farm has been established by Sarita Kulkarni, an Indian-born woman determined to revive Australia’s long-lost interest in silk growing. Pioneering though it may seem, Kulkarni’s vision for silk farming taps into one of the oldest forms of Australian agriculture since colonisation.
A zoologist with a Masters in sericulture from Karnataka, India, she came to Melbourne in 1987, following her engineer husband. Kulkarni approached Monash University with a PhD proposal to study Australian sericulture but, to her astonishment, was advised to choose another topic: there was no such activity here. In South India, silk factories had been on the rise because of the crop’s high efficiency; only small plots of land are needed for abundant silk production. Taking less than two months to harvest, silk also compares favourably to the three to nine month period required for most other crops, and modern egg refrigeration and incubation procedures allow for year-round hatches independent of the seasons. With a climate not dissimilar to South India’s – ideal for profuse mulberry growth – and with ample farming land, south-east Australia seemed to Kulkarni ideal for silk development.
Silk production sounds like the stuff of fairytales: caterpillars feed on nothing but mulberry leaves and grow through five stages or ‘instars’ to maturity, before spinning protective cocoons of a single thread within which to metamorphose into breeding moths. This thread, a protein fibre measuring up to a mile long, is then loosened and reeled by human hands. Around the world, every single silk garment chosen by the discerningly attired is the result of domesticated insects.
In the earliest days of colonial Australia, when it was discovered that the hardy mulberry tree grew so well here, thoughts were given to establishing an industry with trade opportunities in China and Italy. As early as 1825, the Australian Agricultural Company expected good results from silk, as it did from vineyards, olive oil, opium and orange groves; despite this, no steps beyond backyard experimentation were taken to develop the potential industry.
Later, silk was considered again, and viewed by many settlers as an ideal supplementary crop – an easy addition to any farm’s main harvest. Because only light labour is required in the short time it takes for silkworms to finish their growth cycle and spin, silk farming was regarded as something women and children could attend to, allowing them to make a valuable contribution to the national economy. This idea was seized upon by Mrs Bladen Neill of Corowa who, in 1849, established the Victorian Ladies’ Silk Association – Australia’s first silk co-operative, set up to promote silk cultivation and to educate poorer women in rural areas. In her 1866 book, A Treatise on Sericulture in Queensland, Ann Timbrell wrote that “a clever quiet girl of ten is not only as fit but fitter to manage silkworms than a man.”
By the 1860s the gold rush had passed its peak and there came a move to “unlock the land”, with emphasis shifting from large landholdings to smaller acreages in more marginal areas. However, many small landholders had little success with the usual maize, wheat, wool and sugarcane and, over the next decade, there was a concerted search for alternatives. Like grapes and olives, silk was a crop with which settlers from Europe were well acquainted.
Silk enthusiasts such as Bladen Neill and Timbrell were planting mulberry farms and lobbying the government to establish a local industry. At first, growers were mostly individual entrepreneurs with a penchant for science. Later, the poor Italian immigrants of ‘New Italy’, south of Lismore, would successfully draw on their ancestral knowledge of silk growing and reeling to improve their struggling lot, and here it was believed the industry could establish sustainable roots.
Australian silk became recognised as among the best in the world. Healthy silkworm eggs were being produced in Australia at a time when the mighty European silk industry had been devastated by disease and the major silk-producing countries, Italy and France, were importing all of their eggs from Asia. This presented exciting prospects but it wasn’t until 1891 that then NSW Premier Henry Parkes officially appointed Reginald Champ to initiate a silk industry in New Italy with government-funded loans to farmers.
Yet, despite the advocacy of Champ and fellow officials from the Department of Agriculture – and the ongoing ingenuity shown by the New Italy community – the industry never gained a foothold. Parkes resigned as premier shortly after the appointment, depression hit NSW in 1893 and then fire ravaged the New Italy settlement, destroying reeling equipment and putting an end to sericulture as a government-sponsored venture. Subsequent governments lacked interest in the scheme and, when cheaper artificial and synthetic fibres were introduced in the early twentieth century, the silk market became much more competitive and the idea of a commercial industry was abandoned completely.
Ultimately, it seems the failure of silk came down to notions of national identity. We did not see ourselves as a silk growing people; the idea was too strange, especially to our leaders, who continued to cling tightly to the customs of the UK. But more than a century on our national identity is changing. The wine industry is one recent Australian success story of cultural reinvention. Olives, avocados, macadamias, essential oils and alpaca wool are all non-traditional crops that began experimentally and have gone on to demonstrate commercial profitability. As farmers, scientists and governments attempt to adapt local agriculture to our increasingly stressed environmental conditions, they cast around again for innovative practices that are suited to our climate of extremes, our fragile soils and our erratic water supply.
Today, silk remains the world’s highest-priced natural fibre. And, while the demand for silk is increasing, production is decreasing, mostly due to the industrialisation of countries such as China, India and Japan, where arable land is quickly being lost. Between 1995 and 2005, Australia imported over $500 million worth of silk products and, although it is unlikely Australia could compete internationally with China (which produces about 75% of the world’s raw silk), we are well placed to satisfy our internal demand for silk.
In 2000 a feasibility study was carried out by the University of Queensland zoologist Dr John Dingle, who concluded that commercial silk production in Australia was indeed achievable; the university was given funding to establish a mulberry plantation at its Gatton campus and to employ two PhD students to carry out research work and study sericulture technology overseas. At the same time, Kulkarni was granted a small subsidy towards the independent practices she had already established on her own silk farm in Victoria. But by 2005, Kulkarni was the only scientist left in the silk game: the two Gatton PhD students had left the country and – with no continued funding – the university’s silk plantation was ripped up.
The following year, Kulkarni’s work was recognised by the federal government Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC). With additional funding, Kulkarni was able to foster her connections with the Indian sericulture industry and, most crucially, obtain purebred eggs from which quality silk could be produced beyond two or three hatches. She also travelled to China to study farming practices there, though much Chinese sericulture technology remains a closely guarded secret, as it has been for millennia.
In the last seven years Kulkarni’s project has had its share of successes and setbacks. Her trees are thriving and her silk production is premium quality but she has had problems getting permission from Australian authorities to import breeding stock and she has lost a number of valuable egg batches from India. In 2008 there were RIRDC budget cuts and her project was one of several that lost its funding. She has turned to harvesting other produce, even mulberries when in season, in an attempt to keep her farm afloat. This year, she produced her first batch of mulberry liqueur.
Despite serious health concerns, Kulkarni has energetic plans to build a silk museum on-site, hoping to snare motorists on their way to weekenders on the Mornington Peninsula. She wants to continue the educational silk unit she has established at her son’s primary school and to develop a co-operative among small-scale silk farmers. Hearing all this I sense a stirring from the distant past, the ghosts of pioneering scientists and pragmatic migrant farmers who believed that silk would one day become part of our identity.