Australia's Silk Story

In May 2000 a report was commissioned by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) for Dr. John Dingle to conduct a feasibility study into the viability of developing an Australian Silk Industry with the potential of commercialising silk production for domestic use and for a competitive export market. Dr. John Dingle was a zoologist with the Queensland University at the time of collating his report for the RIRDC. Document can be read here

Australia has stocks of silkworms and mulberry tree species, and the East Coast of Australia was identified as the most suitable prime growing region for silk production. Studies were also extensively conducted by Sarita Kulkarni, a native of India who also is a zoologist and sericulture expert, whom set up a silk growing farm in South east Gippsland in Victoria. So passionate was Sarita about sericulture and the potential commercialisation of an Australian sericulture industry she lobbied state and federal governments into subsiding funding start-ups for many years. Read more about Sarita here

Silk was and still is the highest priced natural fibre in the world. The demand for silk is still increasing worldwide, with Australia’s silk commodities imports for the first 8 months of 2019 were around US$328 Million. Main imports coming from China (US$222milion), India ($19million), followed by Italy, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

China produces 75% of the world’s raw silk products. Australia could not compete but certainly could satisfy internal requirements and niche high quality export demands. Silk production requires only small land holdings and is light work that could supplement main farm or household income. Up to two hectares is considered to provide a substantial amount of raw product.

Australia has had a history of sericulture as far back as 1849 where Mrs Bladen Neill of Corowa established the Victorian Ladies Silk Association. This was the first silk co-op and Mrs Neill wrote a book titled ‘A Treatise on Sericulture in Qld’ in 1866. Silk enthusiasts began planting, educating and lobbying governments to establish a silk industry. South of Lismore was a settlement of new Italian immigrants known as ‘New Italy’ where a new centre for sericulture was established based on the past knowledge of high-quality silk manufacturing of their Italian ancestors. In 1891 the then NSW Premier, Henry Parkes, initiated a silk industry with government-funded loans to farmers. By 1893 the scheme collapsed due to the lack of support shown to the Italian community, the resignation of Parkes, the NSW depression at that time and a fire that destroyed the silk processing equipment. Read more about here.

Since then consecutive Australian Governments have seen traditional silk production strange and have followed the more traditional British heritage farming exploits. With the introduction of cheaper synthetic fibres and cheap imports of silk it is now less likely for governments to invest in any sericulture commercial industries. There have been some small serious sericulture farms set up over the last two decades, but none exist today for primarily silk, they have continued with Artisan by-products such as Mulberry wine, jams and tourism. For your interest follow here for an article to one such sericulture farm that was in production in WA, but now closed.

Sarita Kulkarni is still passionate today and believes that indeed a successful sericulture industry can be developed. Sarita is lobbying governments, even if Australia cannot compete directly with the major players, it could still produce very high-quality silk and be competitive in niche markets globally. Dr. John Dingle presents a strong argument and viable report in his paper for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Today all that exists for Australian silk are the science projects in schools with children having fun watching the beautiful silk caterpillars develop into moths, and the avid craftsperson who diligently tends lovingly to their hobby ‘army of caterpillars’, eagerly waiting to harvest their treasured silk cocoons once spun and beautiful white moths emerge.

Come on Australia lets continue working to commercialise silk in Australia!

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