Going wild over indigenous silk

Janine Erasmus

Silk is one of the most luxurious and desirable fabrics we know – but it does not come cheaply. A pilot project that has been running under the auspices of the North West provincial government has found that silk from the cocoons of the African wild silk moth Gonometa postica is of a very high commercial quality, certainly good enough for the discerning fashion and home décor industries.

Partners in the project include the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which supplies technical support, the Department of Trade and Industry and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (Unido), while relevant regional government will be consulted as the project moves from region to region.

Gonometa postica and its close family member, Gonometa rufobrunnea, feed on the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane), well known in Southern Africa. The wood of this tree is heavy and extremely termite resistant, and is becoming popular as a material for crafting musical instruments. It is best known, however, for its role as a food source – not only for the two Gonometa species, but also for the mopane worm, the large plump caterpillar of the moth Imbrasia belina. These caterpillars are a rich source of protein and the mopane worm industry provides an important source of income for rural communities because it forms the basis of a lucrative food industry.

It is hoped that the collection and processing of the African wild silk moths’ cocoons will do much the same in providing people with an income. And because the cocoons are collected only when the moths have already emerged, the moth population is not affected – unlike the culinary mopane worm industry, which has led to overexploitation of the insects and a resulting decline in their numbers in certain areas. The caterpillar of the wild silk moth, although inedible, nonetheless has the potential to make as great an economic impact as its lepidopteran relative.

The wild silk project could create thousands of badly needed jobs because it could potentially be extended to all areas of the Southern African region. Says the CSIR’s Sunshine Blouw, leader of the research team, “Gonometa postica, the African wild silk moth, is commonly found on camelthorn trees which are quite widespread, and so this project need not be limited to the regions where only mopane trees are found.

“So far we have been focusing on Ganyesa in the North West, but we envision the project becoming a regional initiative. Once we have the Ganyesa project up and running at optimal capacity, with all issues ironed out, we will roll it out to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, as well as other areas in South Africa.”

Unido has been brought on board, says Blouw, because they are already running a similar project in Madagascar, with excellent results. “We are going to refer to the model they have used because we believe we will achieve the best results in this way.”

And it’s not only worms that are under the spotlight.

“We are planning to develop the local cashmere industry in a similar way,” says Blouw. “Already some of our cashmere garments have been successfully shown at Paris Fashion Week, so an opportunity exists that must be explored.” Cashmere, gathered from the soft undercoats of indigenous goats, is a highly sought-after material especially in luxury clothing, because it is soft, warm and delicate. Local goat breeds suitable for the cultivation of cashmere include the South African Boer goat and the Savannah, among others.