Dreams of Silk – Silkworms were originally tamed in China and are now so domesticated that they cannot even hang onto the leaves of their food plant, but have to be kept in cages and have food leaves given to them. The tale of their domestication is part Chinese Folklore. Silkworms were introduced by European settlers into Australia in the nineteenth century. Attempts are still being made to set up a Sericulture industry in Australia. Australian environmental conditions are very suitable for the development of sericulture industry including silkworm rearing and cultivation of mulberry plants. This had been recognised by the 1820”s with the question of turning to commercial advantage the profuse growth of mulberry trees in Australia.
There had been a number of attempts to cultivate the trees especially for the breeding of silkworm, with the strongest advocate for the industry being Reginald Champ. Between 1881 and 1886 Reginald Champ had worked for a firm of raw silk merchants and in 1886 had gone to Canton to have a closer look at one of China”s well known resources. On three occasions, December 1888, May 1889 and July 1889, Champ wrote to Sir Henry Parkes, suggesting that the government encourage and facilitate the development of a silk industry in Australia. At the request of Sir Henry Parkes Champ then visited New Italy in October of 1889 to measure the level of interest amongst the settlers in pursuing a silk industry. He had been told that a loan of 1500 pounds would be made available to meet initial expenses.
The opportunity to establish a sericulture industry at new Italy was welcomed by the Italian settlers, to whom the establishment of a viable rural industry was paramount to the survival of the community. It was through thrift and resourcefulness that the New Italy settlers survived, and outside sources of income allowed them to support their livelihoods and families. The men were usually away from the settlement during the week, with timber and sugar cane being the two most important industries that helped support the settlers. By the late eighties the men were away from the settlement and their families on an average of six months a year. So it was with hope that the settlers enthusiastically embraced the idea of silk production at New Italy.
In September 1890, The Inspector General of Forests, J.E. Brown, accompanied Champ to New Italy to assess the suitability of the site for intensive breeding of silkworms. In separate reports both Champ and J.E. Brown concluded that soil-wise and human-wise sericulture could do very well at New Italy. The settlers then took matters into their own hands, addressing a petition to Parkes, assuring him of their willingness and ability. The then Italian Consul in Sydney, Dr. Morano, personally conveyed the petition to Sir Henry Parkes. Champ was appointed official advisor in early 1891 and arrived at the New Italy settlement in March. Life at the settlement was transformed as the breeding of silkworms became the major occupation of many. Greater areas of land were cleared with mulberry trees being planted 90 to the acre, everyone convinced that only mature trees were adequate to support the breeding of the silkworms.
However by early 1892 the community was delighted to see the silkworms doing well on the one year old saplings. The settlers once again showed their resourcefulness with silkworms being bred everywhere, sheds, kitchens to bedrooms, some even creating breeding shelves by stretching bushel bags over rough sapling frames. By June of 1891 sixteen families had received loans at 5% to help establish the silk industry at New Italy. However in October of 1891 the Parkes government was overturned and this resulted in a dwindling of government interest and participation in the sericulture venture at New Italy. A request that the government buy the settlement a recently imported reeling machine was made by Champ in 1892, but no response was received. Faced with a large number of cocoons ready for reeling Pezzutti and Martinuzzi used their ingenuity to devise and build their own reeling machine. In November of 1892 the Director of Agriculture F.S. Campbell visited New Italy to ascertain the success so far and the future of sericulture at New Italy.
On this visit he highly praised the reeling machine they had developed. This visit was in response to a petition to the Dibbs government the previous month asking for their continued support. Campbell was impressed by the results obtained and the enthusiasm for the venture in both the young and older generations at New Italy. He recommended the building of a filature, where silk reeling could be more professionally carried out. However this was not to occur, for 1893 was a bad year, with New South Wales experiencing a sever depression Meanwhile a fire ravaged and crippled the New Italy settlement, putting an end to sericulture as a large scale government sponsored venture. From this point silk making became a hobby for a few, the most notable being Giacomo Piccoli. Piccoli reportedly treasured his silkworms and would wear many garments of silk and even stuff his pillow with cut offs of silk. He won the first prize at the Sydney Exhibition in 1899 and at Milan in 1906.