Path towards the silk

“My dear, could you find me a silk-worm”

When during the years of 1991/1992 Serbian/Montenegrin hordes ravaged and devastated Konavle, they managed, not only to destroy numerous households, burnt down many beautiful stone buildings, the pride of our rural architecture they also plundered centuries-old valuable objects. This barbaric invasion destroyed women’s own personal treasure – their priceless national costumes.

In 1993, when DEŠA started to organize first embroidery workshops, the hotels for refugees were crowded with proud women who, patiently and without complaint, managed to endure every difficulty that they were faced with. The women from Konavle were the first among the refugee women who joined DEŠA’s workshops. The members of DEŠA used to talk to these women, looking for the best way to help them. That is how we found out the details of the circumstances under which these women had to abandon their homes when they were attacked by Serbian/Montenegrin army forces.

Once I met an older woman, dressed in national costume from Konavle. She came to me, took me by the hand and whispered in soft voice, “My dear, could you find me a silkworm?” Then she continued with her story. She was in the fields when they started to bomb her village. All the people were running away and they tried to persuade her to do the same, because there was no way back to village. “I went with nothing, in the old clothes that I had on,” she told me. “The clothes I am wearing now was given to me by my neighbors. I feel ashamed to be dressed in other people’s clothes. Our two houses were burned down by “četniks.” I had 20 garments and 5 kg of “imbrišim” (washed, clean silk for embroidery), but now, everything was destroyed, and I’m left with nothing. The hardest thing of all is that I can’t restore my costume because I don’t have any silk. That is why I need a silkworm.”

Then I understood everything: this old woman was looking for silkworm so she could produce the silk thread in order to restore her precious national costume. In this way she could regain her self-confidence and pride. I understood that her costume was a part of her identity and the tradition of her ancestors and their way of living.

The search for the silkworm took us a whole year. Numerous women’s associations all over Europe and the rest of the world took part in the search and were acquainted with our need for a silkworm. At the beginning of February 1994, we received some news from DEŠA’s honorary member in Paris, M. Dolibić. She said that a French women’s association had found the silkworm in the south of France, in the province of Cevenness, where people cultivate silkworms and produce silk.

On Easter 1994 we obtained the first 11 grams of silkworm eggs, that we smuggled to Dubrovnik and distributed to the refugee families who were interested in silk production. The “silk-worm” had arrived, for the second time, via a secret path to our region. Long time ago, it had arrived to Europe hidden in the bamboo canes of missionaries; this time it reached Dubrovnik in the brassiere of one of our ladies.

The first threads of silk were produced in a refugee room at hotel “Plakir” in Dubrovnik. This event motivated other families to become interested in the restoration of sericulture. Silk production in Konavle had a centuries long tradition, but in 1960s it ceased away. Nowadays, about ten families from Konavle are engaged in silk-worm breeding, from Vitaljina on Prevlaka, up to Močići.

Up till now, the greatest quantity of silk thread has been produced by Jele Ruso, a refugee woman from Močići, who raised a plantation of small mulberry tree “Kokuso” that were imported from France. For these activities, DEŠA was financially supported by a Croatian National Television production of “Wheel of Fortune” as well as the German association Frauenwerk des Kirschenkreises – Husum – Bredstedt.

In February 1998, DEŠA was invited to Županja in order to present an exhibition-workshop, “Restoration of Island of Mljet Attire”. We were surprised by the great interest of visitors for our project. Lots of people were already familiar with our re-newal of sericulture, due to the TV-show “The Wheel of Fortune” as well as a documentary film produced by Croatian National Television, “Kad List Murve Bude Poput Mišjeg Uha”.

A desire to help to restore everyday life in Konavle, as well as national costumes as a symbol of dignity of Konavle, was the main objective of the project “Restoration of sericulture” during the war. Nowadays, the original project is a strong foundation for future opportunities. By restoring the old and forgotten handicrafts, people from this region will enrich their production and tourist offer with autochthonous product and souvenir – silk embroidery from Konavle.

DEŠA’s next step is to restore an old building in Čilipi that was burnt-down, and to establish a small silk factory, organized as a cooperative. Women could grow silkworms and produce cocoons which would be supplied to the factory, where the silk-threads would be drawn-out. Visitors could see the entire process, from eggs to silk threads. At the same building, an exhibition and sale premises could be arranged. Besides silk embroidered things there could be offered all other homemade products, such as honey, dried figs, prosek (local wine), and mantala (cake made out of grapes).

Women involved into this project could have opportunities of extra income, they would become economically independent, as well as to take part in promotion and preservation of traditional values and customs. This project could involve and use know-how of older women who will regain the self-confidence after a long period of exile.

Moreover, this is entirely an ecological project which uses neglected natural sources of energy and organic products.