Silk - soft, smooth, expensive, sheer luxury. That is the popular image of silk, but do we in the West exploit poorer countries such as China and India, where most silk is produced? And are natural fibres better than artificial ones?
What do you think these little crawly creatures are, and what are they doing (silkworms spinning cocoons which produce the silk thread)? How is the silk produced (hundreds of metres of fine thread are unravelled from each cocoon; the larvae are killed so they don't break the thread when they emerge)? Which countries produce most silk (China, Japan, India) and where are they? Why do people like silk (soft and shiny; dyes well, so can be brightly coloured; looks and feels good, especially in a hot climate, absorbing moisture)?
Where do natural fibres come from (plants and animals)? Give examples of natural materials for clothing that come from animals, such as silk, wool, leather, skins and furs, and from plants, like cotton (see Big Picture, February 19 1999), flax (linen), hemp (sackcloth). What artificial equivalents are there (nylon instead of silk, plastic for leather)?
Do you prefer natural or synthetic materials and why? Do natural materials "breathe" (some artificial fibres can also be made to let air through, for instance Gortex)? What about disposal and recycling (many natural materials can be re-used, some synthetics do not degrade easily)? Isit right to use leather or fur, or to kill silkworm larvae?
Write some funny speech bubbles for the silkworms in the picture ("Now which one did I put our Billy in?","One penny for a mile of my silk; I'm complaining to the union","Look out, the cocoon thief is coming!").
Or describe how silk is made to a visiting Martian.
* Ted's talking points
The production of silk raises an important issue for geography, RE, PSHE or tutor group time: "Do we rip off the Third World by buying silk cheaply but selling it expensively?"
We exploit poor countries, paying peasants a few pence for the fibre, but then sell silk dresses and suits for a fortune. The poor take the risks, we make the profits, so the division between rich and poor nations gets wider. We're all guilty, not just the fashion designers. We should boycott expensive silk clothes, until the fashion houses pay the silk producers of China and India more money.
Poor countries earn valuable income from exporting silk. They would become even poorer if their main markets collapsed. They might have to turn to something anti-social, such as cultivating crops that produce drugs. If fashion designers have the know-how, why shouldn't they be well paid for their creations? As for a British boycott, forget it. Other countries would simply buy up all the silk and steal our customers.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter