Hand-woven Cambodian silk not only makes a great gift, its purchase helps to support Cambodians and preserve their heritage.
THE work that goes into creating the fine quality of Cambodian silk is most painstaking, to say the least. Until one actually witnesses the entire process - from breeding the silkworms to spinning the single last thread - it’s difficult to appreciate the skill involved in producing these beautiful textiles.
A recent holiday to Siem Reap, Cambodia, allowed me to do just that. Half-baked from the searing heat of the sun after a visit to the famed Angkor archaeological sites and temples, my companion and I decided to take it easy the next day and made an out-of-the-way trip to the Angkor Silk Farm.
A worker is degumming the silk to unwind the thread from the cocoons which have been dipped in hot water to extract the raw thread.
Travel brochures don’t often mention the farm, and I stumbled upon it while running through pages of small advertisements inside a local guidebook.
Located about 16km outside Siem Reap town, our tuk-tuk driver initially looked lost when we asked for the farm, until we pointed him in the direction of the Puok district. You have to go through dusty laterite roads and a nondescript lane to get there but the Angkor Silk Farm is actually in a sizeable compound with several wooden workshops fronting row upon row of mulberry trees, with a placard in front of each one to indicate the different species.
We later found out that 18 species are grown at the farm, and besides a homegrown variety, they are also imported from places like China and Japan. Each species can be distinguished from the shape and size of its leaves, which are wafer-thin and delicate.
Meth Thong, who had just finished his lunch when we arrived, was more than glad to take us around.
“Mulberry leaves are natural food for silkworms to induce them to spit out their saliva and spin themselves into a cocoon,” he said.
At one of the workshops, staff were sorting out the different types of leaves and cutting them into fine pieces before scattering them over silkworm eggs that were laid in baskets.
A worker spinning thread before it is used for weaving.
These eggs are also covered up with cloth to keep them warm and to prevent flies or mosquitoes from attacking them.
A picture chart on one of the walls informs visitors of the life cycle of a silkworm.
“First, there’s the cocoon,” explained Meth. “After five days, the larvae inside hatches and become moths.
“After that, the male and female moths will mate within four to five hours, and once the eggs are laid the adult moths will die.
“These eggs will be incubated for 12 days, before they turn grey and the silkworms break out to feed on the mulberry leaves.”
A female moth can lay between 250 and 300 yellow eggs each time. The baby silkworms mature in four different stages; at each stage, the worms eat for three days and sleep for one day so their skin can shed and they can continue growing.
It is during the final growing stage that the worms spin themselves into cocoons to start the life cycle all over again.
To protect them, the wriggling silkworms are placed inside a tightly closed room, lined with mosquito netting.
Meth said 80% of the silkworms bred are used to extract silk thread, while the remaining 20% are kept to ensure continuous breeding and reproduction.
“Cambodian silkworms are unique, as they are yellow in colour compared to white ones in other countries,” he said.
In one of the workshops, the cocoons are dipped into boiling water and gently prodded to extract the raw thread. Once this process, called degumming, is done, the cocoon goes into another boiling pot to have the fine silk layer fished out.
One of the women working on this was happily munching away on some of the boiled worms.
She gestured to me to try one of her afternoon tidbits, and after much hesitation I popped one into my mouth. It had a rather watery texture, with a slightly salty aftertaste that lingered. It was not something I would try again!
Further down the line, women were spooling the extracted thread and wrapping it on big wheels to give it more tension.
Many of the women, said Meth, are rural local folks who have the opportunity to make a living from their skills and revive an ancient tradition and heritage.
According to Artisans d’ Angkor, the company responsible for running this farm and other skills workshops for local people in Siem Reap, silk weaving was introduced in Cambodia in the 13th century thanks to the Silk Road that once traversed South-East Asia. The craft is practised by women in rural villages using traditional looms set up below their stilted houses during the dry season when they are not working in the fields.
Another fascinating stage in the silk-making is when colour is added to the thread. The farm uses both chemical and natural dyes €“ the latter involves boiling ingredients like tree barks and rusty nails €“ items you would never think of.
During the weaving process, women dexterously use the tie-dye-and-dry technique that requires dyeing the weft thread (the one on the width of the fabric) to prepare the pattern.
For every extra colour included in the fabric, the tie-dye-and-dry step has to be repeated, and Meth said it takes between two and three days to dry one colour, depending on the weather.
“Silk in Cambodia is mostly woven by hand. It’s a time-consuming and meticulous process, but it’s a skill that Cambodians know best and something we must preserve.
“It’s our heritage, and one that we are proud to share with the world.”
Visitors can purchase handmade items like shawls, purses, apparel and even pillowcases at the Artisans d’Angkor boutique, which are produced straight from the weaving looms.
Prices are a little steep, but if you see first-hand the hours of labour and complex handiwork that go into every thread, you may find it’s all well worth the money you pay.
> The Angkor Silk Farm is open daily from 7am to 5pm. Guided tours are available in Khmer, English, French and Japanese, and are provided free of charge but a small token is always appreciated. For details, visitwww.artisansdangkor.com.