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February 2008



Indigenous moth could ensure a future through science

Patsy Scholtz 


It is from the dusty cocoon of the African wild silk moth and after having once gone through a process of metamorphosis, from caterpillar to moth, that another magical process takes place – extracting luxurious silken strands from the discarded cocoon to find their way to haute couture. The moth (Gonometa postica) is of particular economic interest as the silk fibres obtained from the cocoons of G. postica are of exceptional quality comparable to that of the domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori. This holds promise as a potential income-generating resource for the indigenous people of southern Africa, while not harming or endangering the environment.

At the CSIR offices in Port Elizabeth, natural fibres such as wild silk are being used to create exciting new fabrics with excellent properties while being sustainable. Cocoons from the African wild silk moth are attached to camel thorn and mopani trees throughout the North West, the Northern Cape and Limpopo provinces of South Africa, as well as in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. From this unique fibre, yarns are spun – some by machine, others by hand. Used as pure African wild silk or blended with other natural fibres, the yarns are woven into unique creations.

The silk fibres of short lengths, the byproduct of long silk fibre staple spinning processing, is blended with cotton and can be spun and woven in a similar way to that used for the spinning of cotton. The fabric derived from long silk fibres processed on the long-staple spinning process has a rich natural honey colour and is woven to produce a soft, durable fabric with a luxurious feel. African wild silk is versatile and elegant – with a hint of its untamed origins in the camel thorn and mopani forests of Africa. In a pilot project located at Ganyesa and Morokweng in the North West, these cocoons are collected, cleaned and degummed.

As the moth has already emerged from the cocoon, the natural cycle is not disturbed, thereby ensuring sustainability of the resource.

Current activities at Ganyesa include degumming (through a process developed by the CSIR), hand spinning, hand weaving, sewing and dyeing. In addition, the North West small, medium and macro craft enterprises are utilising fabrics from cotton and silk, which expand the potential and through which more job opportunities are created. Particular fabrics are produced from the wild silk harvested. 

Processing at the CSIR involves a chain of modern processing equipment to convert degummed cocoons into fabrics. The process requires the silk fibre to pass through some 22 specialised processes to convert the cocoons into finished fabric. 

The southern African region is rich in natural resources of textile-based fibres, notably wool, mohair, cotton, sisal, wild silk and unexplored or under-explored fibres that could be derived from indigenous plants and animals. These include untapped sources of commercial fruit crops, such as banana and pineapple. The potential exists for complete beneficiation of these natural fibres within the region to produce export marketable, high-value, niche products, thereby creating employment and income-generating opportunities. 

For the region to fully realise the commercial benefits of these natural fibre resources in a sustainable and economically-viable manner, a holistic approach needs to be adopted for value-addition processes of these fibres. This includes the identification of the overarching need for export market research, research and development, training, technology upgrading, skills development, product development and innovation, assistance with technology improvement, and relevant education and training support. 

The CSIR has embarked on an investigation with the United Nations Industrial Organization (UNIDO) to ascertain the feasibility and facilitate the development of a wild silk industry in southern Africa. Collaboration amongst regional stakeholders is critical in the development of an economically viable and sustainable wild silk industry as this is wholly dependent on volumes of collected empty shell cocoons. This would also ensure a coherent approach to addressing poverty in the region while developing national S&T to promote sustainable socio-economic development. 

The establishment of a sustainable wild silk industry in Africa could pave the way for similar Africa-unique projects to capture the true spirit of the continent. That spirit that determines her worth and echoes in her truths: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle ... when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” (author unknown) – CSIR.

More information:

 Article and images courtesy CSIR Science Scope 

Enquiries: Sunshine Blouw email 


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