Making a Silk Purse From a Sow’s Ear

Reverend Jonathon Swift said, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” Swift’s way of saying

“You can’t get something of value (like a silk purse) out of something worthless (like a sow’s ear).”

But it turns out, Swift’s statement is false.

In 1921, Arthur D. Little, an MIT educated chemist, set out to prove that even the impossible can be accomplished with hard work and ingenuity. He followed these 7 steps to prove that it was, in fact, possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear:

First, he observed the silkworm producing silk, noting that the liquid emitted from the head of the silkworm changed once it mixed with air, becoming in viscosity something like glue.

Second, Little’s lab reduced 100 pounds of sow’s ears into 10 pounds of glue, which he then converted to gelatin by adding chrome alum and acetone.

Third, he exuded the mixture through a perforated spinneret.

Fourth, he soaked the brittle strands in a glycerin solution to soften them.

Fifth, he dried and dyed the fibers.

Sixth, he wove the cloth on a loom.

Seventh and finally, from the resulting cloth, Little fashioned two silk purses, one of which is on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

So What’s the Point? Actually, I want to Make Two Points


After converting a sow’s ear to a silk purse, Arthur D. Little’s lab issued short report that included this gem:

Things that everybody thinks he knows…are poisons to progress. The only way to get ahead is to dig in, to study, to find out, to reason out theories, to test them…

So the next time someone tries to convince you of the absoluteness of a certain position–whether it’s why a particular approach will or won’t work, or a social media post claiming that W. (or Obama) is the anti-Christ)–question it. Do your own research. Find the facts, which may be very different from YOUR facts, THEIR facts, or CONVENIENT or INCONVENIENT facts. THE facts can  help you decide for yourself what really is and what isn’t truth.

2. CAN doesn’t mean SHOULD

Again, from Little’s lab, the report acknowledged that the two purses were extremely costly to produce, and the finishing product yielded a “silk” that was neither very strong nor silky. Finally, the report admitted that end result showed no industrial value or future promise outside of its novelty.

Do you know what a sow’s ear does best? It helps a sow hear.

Likewise, let me ask you these questions about work: What do you do best? When do you really come alive?

If you work hard enough and get the right kind of training, you could probably do just about any task you’re asked to do. But why? Just because you can do something, learn something, or accomplish something does not mean that you should. Because it doesn’t mean that you’ll be tapping into your greatest strengths.

Summary Questions

So…what do you need to question today?
And…what do you need to do more of today (the things you do best)?
And then…what do you need to say NO to today (the things that you can’t bring value to)?


0 Comments Add yours

  1. Lia Mote says:

    Great reminder for those of us who love coming up with crazy ideas. Good Stuff. thanks.

  2. Ken Grant says:

    Wonder if anyone has ever challenged that “blood from a stone” theory. I agree completely with the statement “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

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