A first-ever internship in silkworm cultivation was offered over the summer to give new life to the tradition of Iyo raw silk production in Seiyo, the city in western Japan where the industry got its start in the early Meiji period.

Regional development volunteers organized the three-week program in Ehime Prefecture to contribute to the revival of an industry that has fallen on hard times due to a drastic decline in the number of people engaged in sericulture.

Highly valued for its luxurious glossy finish and soft texture, Iyo raw silk was worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her 1953 coronation.

"This was a great opportunity to get people interested in sericulture and Iyo raw silk," said Yosuke Ishikawa, 30, a regional development volunteer who led the project.

Photo taken on Aug. 28, 2023, shows Yosuke Ishikawa (L) and Celine Veaute gathering mulberry leaves during an internship at a silkworm farm in Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture, in western Japan. (Kyodo)

Whereas ordinary raw silk is treated with hot air for several hours when drying cocoons to kill the pupae and remove moisture, Iyo raw silk is refrigerated and dried in a raw state at a temperature of 6 C for more than three months.

The cocoons are then boiled in hot water, making it easier to pull out their threads.

Finally, a multi-thread reeling machine draws strands from the cocoons and twists them together slowly. Although less efficient than a high-speed automatic reeling machine, it produces a unique fluffy texture and an elegant luster, often compared to white camellia.

Iyo raw silk has long been the official yarn of the Japanese imperial family and is used by priests in ritual renewals at Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture in central Japan.

But with the emergence of synthetic fibers and the aging of the silkworm farmer community, the number of producers declined sharply. In the mid-Showa Era (1946-1963), there were approximately 1,700 farms in the city, but that number has dwindled to just six.

It is a trend that has played out nationwide. According to the Dainippon Silk Foundation, there were roughly 2.21 million silkworm farms at the peak in 1929, but the figure had plummeted to 163 by 2022.

Photo taken on Aug. 28, 2023 with Yosuke Ishikawa (front R), Norihiko Matsuyama (back R) and Celine Veaute (L), at an internship at silkworm farm in Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture, in western Japan. (Kyodo)

Ishikawa studied in Denmark for two years until January this year. After learning about weaving under a local designer, he said, "I had a deep desire to learn about Japanese fabrics."

In particular, he became intrigued by the high quality of Iyo raw silk and decided to lead a revival of the industry in Keiyo.

After taking up his post in June, he organized the internship program with the cooperation of the city's Nomura Silk Museum, which showcases historical materials related to the silk industry, and local silkworm farmers "to first give people a taste" of Iyo raw silk.

Getting more people interested in a dying industry is no easy task but is worth the effort, Ishikawa says.

After recruiting on social media, he selected two women in their 20s to participate in the internship for around three weeks from mid-August to early September.

One participant was Celine Veaute, 26, from France, who gathered mulberry leaves to feed the silkworm larvae, toured the museum exhibitions and learned about silkworm ecology and the history of sericulture. In the end, about 30 kilograms of cocoons were collected from some 20,000 large silkworms.

Photo taken on Aug. 28, 2023, shows Norihiko Matsuyama speaking with Celine Veaute (L) during an internship at a silkworm farm in Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture, in western Japan. (Kyodo)

Veaute said she became "convinced that what I want to do most is sericulture," lamenting that it used to be a major industry in France, but now there are fewer than 10 farms in the country.

She said after returning to France, she would like to first establish a location where sericulture can be carried out and then expand the industry by involving others who are interested.

Norihiko Matsuyama, 62, a local sericulture farmer in Seiyo who cooperated in the project, left his former long-time profession of pearl farming eight years ago because, he said, "I take pride in the local tradition."

"It is important to create an environment where people who are interested in sericulture can easily get started. This internship is a wonderful way to find new employees for the industry," Matsuyama said, adding that he plans to give Ishikawa his full support.

Ishikawa has his sights firmly set on offering more sericulture internships in the future. "I hope this will lead to excitement not only in Seiyo but also in the sericulture industry as a whole," he said.

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