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.
Where in the World?
- 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.