Learning the Fine Art of Sericulture & Weaving on a Cambodian Silk Farm

With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown. – Proverb

Throughout Cambodia, marketplace stalls overflow with mounds of beautiful shimmering silk. There’s everything from scarves and chic purses, to fabric designed for tailor-making shirts, dresses, and jackets.

As someone who is often tempted by these lovely accessories, I was eager to learn more about the silk-production process. So, we hopped on a tuktuk to travel to the Artisans d’Angkor Silk Farm, a social business. It’s just 16 km (about 10 miles) outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, making a great day trip if you’re visiting the temples of Angkor.

Cambodia’s Long History of Silk Production and Weaving

Silkworm breeding and silk weaving are believed to have been introduced to Cambodia in the 13th century.

During WWII, Cambodian silk production was accelerated. Silk was exported to Europe, where there were fabric shortages.

A few decades later, during the brutal Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979), the industry suffered a great blow. Many silk artisans were killed. And those who survived were forced to produce rice on collective farms instead.

In recent years, the industry has witnessed a revival. Historically, it’s been customary for women in rural areas to dabble in silk production and weaving, when they’re not working in the rice fields. Today, several NGOs are working to revitalize the industry, in turn, helping to create jobs for local artisans.

Silk Making, Step by Step

To begin, our guide, Lis, introduced us to the caterpillar that makes the silk — known as Bombyx Mori.

Next, Lis showed us the mating moths, their eggs and larvae, and finally the grown caterpillars, which feed on mulberry tree leaves for three weeks prior to spinning a golden cocoon.

Once a cocoon has been woven, the cocoons are boiled. The larva remains inside during this process. When I learned this, I started to feel some guilt as I calculated the number of silk worms sacrificed to make the scarf I had recently acquired. I was somewhat reassured when I learned that locals eat the boiled silkworms, so fortunately, neither cocoon nor insect is wasted.

Lis offered us the opportunity to sample a boiled silkworm, however, since we had a full lunch in our bellies, we turned down his offer. Supposedly, the worms taste buttery or nutty. Lis, as well as several other Cambodians we met, told us that they enjoy eating the boiled silkworms as snacks with beer. (I really shouldn’t be so squeamish about eating insects, as they are reputed to be an excellent source of sustainable protein)

After the cocoons are boiled, the silk is carefully extracted from the cocoon. It’s then washed, twirled on to bobbins and boil-dyed either via a natural or artificial coloring technique. Natural dyes consist of coconut husks, various types of bark, insect nests, indigo (a tropical plant of the pea family) and other fruits.

There are numerous types of Cambodian weaving techniques. The first technique, known as ikat, is extremely complex. Before weaving begins, the weavers tie portions of the thread, and then dye it, creating an elaborate, multi-colored pattern. There are other techniques, which yield fabric that bears different colors on each side.

In order to weave the thread into fabric or a scarf, the weavers use a complicated wooden loom that they power with a foot pedal, while quickly manipulating the loom’s wooden slats with their hands. A scarf can take several days to finish.

After making our way through the weaving workshop stations, Lis took us to a gallery that showcased examples of traditional silk costumes, as well as old-fashioned weaving equipment. He explained that the Cambodian royalty and government officials traditionally wore a different hue for the appropriate day of the week.

We left Artisans d’Angkor with a newfound appreciation for all that goes into creating this beautiful craft.

If only I’d had more room in my backpack so that I could have purchased just a few more silky souvenirs!

***

A few interesting facts:

  • Three to ten strands must be spun together in order to create a single thread of commercial-quality silk.
  • Today, silkworms spin cocoons in manmade basket trays, whereas traditionally they made their cocoons in bundles of branches.
  • In a mere three days, the worm can spin about 1.6 km (about 1 mile) of thread, causing it to be completely wrapped up in the cocoon!
  • About 3,000 silkworms are needed to make about 1 kilo (two pounds) of silk! Also, it’s estimated that worms must devour more than 90 kilos (200 pounds) of mulberry leaves in order to produce that much silk.
View from the back of a Cambodian tuktuk, driving on a red dirt road.
The view from our tuktuk. The ride from Siem Reap to Artisans d’Angkor took roughly 20 minutes.
cambodian silk fabric weaving siem reap artisans d'angkor silk farm
The entrance to the silk farm (right).

Artisans Angkor sign Siem Reap Cambodia

A Cambodian man points to a map at the Artisans Angkor Silk Farm, near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Our guide, Lis, gives us an overview of the silk farm.
The trees and gardens on the grounds of Artisans Angkor, near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The peaceful grounds of Artisans Angkor.
A mulberry bush (left) and a chart illustrating a silkworm / cocoon life cycle.
A mulberry bush (left) and an illustration of a cocoon’s life cycle (right).
Bombyx Mori moths laying eggs on a silk farm in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Moths (Bombyx Mori) laying eggs. A moth can lay hundreds at a time.
Silkworm larvae emerging from eggs, inside a Cambodian silk-making workshop.
Silkworm larvae emerging from eggs.
Silkworms eating a pile of mulberry leaves on a wicker tray..
The silkworms, now transformed into small caterpillars.
Silkworms eating mulberry leaves on a wicker tray.
A page from a Khmer-language newspaper lines a tray filled with silkworms.
silkworm size compared to hand
Bombyx Mori silkworms devour mulberry leaves in Lis’ hand.

About 20 Bombyx Mori silkworms eat mulberry leaves on a tray on a Cambodian silk farm.

The caterpillars prepare to spin a cocoon.
The caterpillars prepare to spin a cocoon.
Yellow silkworm cocoons fill a wicker tray in a Cambodian silk making workshop.
Silkworms — concealed by the cocoons they’ve woven — on a wicker tray.
Cambodian silk farm tour Siem Reap
Shawn and Lis, (left) and bundles of branches filled with silkworm cocoons (right).

silk worm cocoons at Cambodian silk farm

silkworm cocoons in Cambodia
A large bin filled with cocoons, which have not yet been boiled.
Pulling apart threads of a silkworm cocoon.
Lis shows us the cocoon’s structure.
An employee of a Cambodian silk farm shows how to extract a strand of silk from a cocoon.
Lis demonstrates how to extract a strand of silk from a cocoon.
An employee stirs a pot of boiling water containing silkworm cocoons.
An employee stirs a pot of boiling water containing silkworm cocoons.

Close-up of silkworm cocoons floating in boiling water.

Using a machine, a woman extracts silk from a cocoon.
Using a machine, a woman extracts silk from a cocoon.
Three boiled silkworms (Bombyx Mori) sit in a basket at a silk farm in Cambodia.
Worms, after boiling and after the silk from their cocoons has been extracted. Lis said that many locals like snacking on them.

Cream-colored silk thread at a silk farm in Cambodia.
Cream-colored silk thread.

A woman at a Siem Reap, Cambodia silk farm performs the meticulous task of coloring silk thread for Ikat fabric.
A woman performs the meticulous task of coloring silk thread for Ikat fabric.

spools of silk thread weaving Cambodia

Cambodian male and female employees weave silk fabric
Employees weaving using floor looms.

Cambodian Ikat silk weaving using blue and grey thread.
Silk thread that will be used to make the traditional Cambodian Ikat fabric.
A woman operates a floor loom weaving silk for a traditional Cambodian Ikat.
An employee operates a floor loom as she weaves silk for traditional Cambodian Ikat fabric.
A woman operates a floor pedal weaving loom.
An employee operates the foot pedals (treadles) of the floor weaving loom.
Two traditional Khmer outfits — one for men, and another for women — hang in the Artisans d'Angkor showroom.
Two traditional Khmer outfits — one for men, and another for women.
Artisans Angkor shop near Siem Reap Cambodia copy
Testing out the equipment in the showroom.
Cambodian silk traditional Khmer dress
Traditional Khmer dress (right) and a designated color of silk for each day of the week (right).

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The Artisans Angkor Silk Farm is located about 16 km (10 miles) from downtown Siem Reap. We hailed a tuktuk in Siem Reap, and our driver had no problems finding the site. The ride took about 20 minutes.
  • My Cambodia page offers more ideas and trip-planning resources.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

7 thoughts on “Learning the Fine Art of Sericulture & Weaving on a Cambodian Silk Farm

  1. This is a very interesting article.It reminds me of my grandmother. When I was a child, in the village where she was living, people were using a similar technique to provide silk and I live in Romania.
    Regards,
    Miruna

    1. Miruna, glad you enjoyed the piece. It’s incredible that silk is still being produced and woven in so many countries! Makes me think that if I had grown up in a different part of the world, perhaps I, too, would’ve had grandparents who knew how to make silk fabric. In an age of mass-produced clothing, it’s a joy to see scarves and garments with so much character. Mulţumesc for your comment!

  2. Such an amazing technique for garnering silk. It still amazes me that silkworms produce silk, that are woven to create something I can buy fr a small amount of money in a store. To me, silk is one of the most beautiful fabrics and the way it is created just baffles me! Thanks Tricia, for sharing this. I’ll need to read it over and over a few times, just to believe that silk is generated in this way!

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