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Conserving Culture Through Cambodian Silk

boiling silkworm cocoons

At Artisans d’Angkor in Cambodia, the ancient art of silk weaving is preserved. When larvae of the moth species Bombyx mori spin their cocoons, they are then dried and boiled to extract the silk threads.

By Laura Kraft

This post is the sixth in the “Travel Bug” series by Laura Kraft, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, who is chronicling her travels in Asia from an entomological perspective. See earlier posts from the series.

There’s a rhythmic clacking of wooden looms as you walk through the workshop at the silk farm of Artisans d’Angkor. Workers, predominantly women, concentrate while pressing foot pedals, shooting wooden rods between layers of silk, and turning out beautifully handmade, insect-derived fabrics.

Laura Kraft

Artisans d’Angkor is a nongovernmental organization based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It first started in the early 1990s as a vocational school to teach construction skills to young adults. In 1998, it shifted its focus to the building of traditional handicrafts, serving to teach community members around Siem Reap how to maintain their traditions while building a skillset for employment. Today, Artisans d’Angkor has workshops training Cambodians how to produce everything from wooden carvings of religious figures to paintings to silk weaving.

yellow and white silkworm cocoons

Yellow silk cocoons (left), are more commonly grown in Cambodia; white silk cocoons (right) come from hybrid silkworms that do not do well in the hot Cambodian climate.

Silk has a long history in Cambodia. Cambodia was first introduced to silk sometime in the 3rd century through trade with more northern countries like China. At the time it was first introduced, it was probably expensive and used only by royals or for official use. Sometime around the 7th century, Cambodia started to produce woven silk goods, though the thread was likely still imported from China due to Cambodia’s warm climate. Because of the high temperatures, local silk worms suffered and were slow to take off in producing the amount of silk needed for the country’s consumption. Even today, Cambodian silk is made with only yellow silk. While yellow silk is strong and high in quality, the worms that produce it create less silk than do the enviable white hybrid silk worms predominantly grown in temperate China. Today, yellow silkworms are grown successfully in Cambodia, and Cambodian-produced silk is seeing a comeback, thanks in part to tourism and local NGOs like Artisans d’Angkor.

Artisans d’Angkor produces some of the silk it uses, though much of it comes from local growers. These growers have the skill to produce the silk but not to clean and weave it, a process that takes many steps.

silkworm larvae

Silkworm larvae munch on fresh mulberry leaves.

Producing silk starts with the silkworm, not a true worm but rather a larva of the moth Bombyx mori. Tiny gray silkworm larvae, freshly hatched, feed on grated fresh mulberry leaves, which are produced on organic plots around the workshop and farm. Once they go through a few molts, silkworms slow down eating and become yellowish in color. At this time, the yellow silkworms are placed on large woven circular baskets where they begin to spin cocoons around themselves, a process that takes approximately three days.

silkworm cocoons

Silkworms weave silk cocoons on meter-wide woven baskets.

Once enclosed in their yellow silk skins, the silkworms are steamed to kill the pupae inside. Next, the cocoons are dried for four days before the silk can be extracted. Each cocoon produces an average of 200 meters of fine silk thread, though some larger cocoons can have double that.

The dried cocoons are placed in a boiling pot where the silk begins to unravel and is drawn upwards with a wooden fork, several strands at a time, and spun onto spools. This occurs twice, once to extract the loose silk from outside the cocoon, then to extract the fine threads of the cocoon itself. After their cocoons are completely unraveled, the dead pupae fall into the boiling water and can be eaten. (They taste like mushy green peas.)

boiling silkworm cocoons

Dried cocoons soak in boiling water, releasing thin strands of silk.

Next, the yellow silk is washed in hot water at 80 degrees Celsius to remove the proteins and chemicals from the silkworm saliva. The silk that emerges from the warm water bath is a beautiful, pure white. The white silk threads are then spun and twisted together to make a slightly thicker thread, the same way many embroidery threads produce a thicker cord. This silk is then ready for dyeing.

clean white silk

Clean white silk is tied off before dyeing.

In Southeast Asia, threads are woven and dyed in a traditional method called ikat, which involves dyeing the thread before weaving.

In the next room, workers tightly stretch sections of thread a third of a centimeter thick between two pieces of wood, holding them taut. Then, the workers use pieces of recycled plastic rice bags to tightly tie off sections of the thread to produce the design desired. Each section of thread is then dyed. In order to get the dye to permeate the inside of the section of threads, the silk must be hit rhythmically between getting soaked. The plastic ties are then removed, and other dyes are used to fill the white spaces that remain, leaving the design.

ikat dyeing

First dyed yellow, this silk will be dyed again after the tight plastic ties have created a design on the silk, as part of ikat dyeing technique.

silk winding

Ikat-dyed silk thread is carefully wound onto wooden rods to be used during weaving.

The next part of the process is, in theory, simple, but it requires a large amount of concentration. The threads are sectioned off onto wooden rods and must be kept in order or the design will come out wrong. The weaver then uses the wooden rods, shooting them between the threads on the loom, then pulling the frame towards her to yank the thread tight against the cloth coming together in front of her. Over and over. She must remember the order of the rods and make sure the colors of the dye on the thin new strands line up with her fabric as she weaves. The weaving stage alone takes two and a half days to produce a scarf.

silk weaving

Carefully keeping the wooden rods (on bench in lower left-hand corner) in order, the worker weaves by shooting the wooden rod (in a blue plastic container in her left hand) through silk threads on the loom from left to right, then right to left, slowly revealing the pattern that has already been dyed into the silk as part of ikat weaving.

Artisans d’Angkor currently hires 426 local Cambodians in 10 different workshops around Siem Reap. When they are looking to hire new workers, they find a village interested in learning about weaving and bring them to the main workshop to train them for anywhere from three months to a year while they build a new workshop in their village. After their training, the workers can work at the new, local workshop built for them. This means villagers do not have to travel far and can be near their families as they start to produce the woven silk items. The work provided by these workshops especially benefits women who can work while their children are at school to bring in extra income and still have time to go home to cook and clean in the evenings.

Besides helping these families economically, Artisans d’Angkor is also preserving the tradition of silk weaving in Cambodia, which is dying out as more locals buy cheap, synthetic products to sell at market. Synthetic fabrics fool many customers, as they feel very realistic. As Pav Eang Khoing, director of silk production at Artisans d’Angkor, tells me, the test to determine if a product is made from silk is very simple: Remove a thread from the product and burn it. Silk will smell like burning hair or fingernails, but synthetic fabrics give off the distinct smell of burning plastic.

Pav Eang Khoing

Pav Eang Khoing, silk production director, oversees scarf designs produced by Artisans d’Angkor.

Because Artisans d’Angkor holds high quality standards, much of Khoing’s work includes quality control. Cotton threads are used to help hold silk skeins together before they are used in ikat dyeing, and the color and texture at that stage is nearly identical. If a cotton thread accidentally gets caught in with the others, it will be immediately clear upon dyeing. The dyes used darkly color silk, but not cotton, which comes out dull or not dyed at all, allowing for easy removal. This way, Artisans d’Angkor can assure its customers that products are truly 100 percent silk.

cotton and silk

Cotton (light blue) and silk (dark blue, more lustrous) can be differentiated easily after being dyed with the same dye. Using this substrate-specific dye helps Artisans d’Angkor produce 100 percent silk products.

The gift shop at Artisans d’Angkor is full of colorful scarves with beautiful diamond patterns inspired by temple relief stonework. It is tempting to buy something, but even easier to do so when you consider that the product supports training local artisans. But what is truly amazing to me as I run my hands over soft, woven scarves, is the sheer amount of work and ancient tradition woven into this timeless fabric—all derived from the larvae of an otherwise unassuming insect.

Laura Kraft is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia who is taking a year off to travel the world before returning home to start a Ph.D. program in the fall of 2017.

(Photos by Laura Kraft)

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