While Thailand has capitalised itself as a known exporter of Thai Silk, the decimated hub of silk tade has left Cambodia in a fledgling state. In an attempt to regain its one golden status, numerous NGOs have come up to help the nation revive its standard in silk trade. When I made my itinerary for Cambodia, Silk Farm definitely topped in my must-do visit list. Thankfully or Luckily, the river cruise at Phnom Penh provided me the perfect opportunity to make that happen.
Village of Prek Bangkong
Stumbling across the narrow gangplank, I disembarked on the shoreline that leads to the family-owned Silk Farm which has started gaining some much needed tourist attraction
I think this is the first time I saw an entire generation of one family working together with a goal to succeed in their heritage.
I had retained the basic knowledge regarding the fine art of sericulture. But this was a whole new level of revelation. Though there are numerous insects who produce silk threads, none of them have been exploited for commercial purpose like the moth caterpillars. The “silkworm” is, technically, not a worm but a moth pupa.
As the young owner started explaining, the first stage of the silk production is hatching of the eggs in a controlled environment. Apparently, the female deposits almost 300-400 eggs at a time, and dies immediately after it while the males continues to live on for a short period of time (such injustice I tell you!!! :/) These tiny eggs are then incubated for a period of 10 days until they hatch into larvae or caterpillars.
The second stage comprises of feeding the caterpillars large amount of chopped mulberry leaves for almost 6 weeks in order to make them “fat” and to produce the finest of silk threads. While the young guide was amused by the fatness of his worms, I was happily singing the ‘Merry we go round the Mulberry bush’ in my head; it felt apt after listening to the description of feeding the worms.
Looking at the wiggling happy little things did creep me out for a minute, but then that’s just me – I hate creepy crawlies of all kinds.
To signal an end to the feeding frenzy, the little wigglies change color to yellow. Medically speaking, yellow is a sign of Jaundice. But in this case it just means all that hard work has finally paid off; Now the little wigglies are ready to spin a silk cocoon.
Third Stage of Pupating is where the silk worms attach themselves to a twig or a shrub and start secreting some kind of proteinaceous fluid from their salivary glands while rotating its body in a figure-of -8 movement some 300,000 times, constructing a cocoon and producing about a kilometer of silk filament.
Once the cocoon is ready, it is treated with hot air, steam or boiling water and the silk is delicately and carefully unwinded or ‘reeled’. Since the magical proteinaceous fluid protects the silk fibers at the time of processing, the fluid is left in until the yarn or woven fabric stage. At this stage, one of my fellow traveler decided to ask a pertinent question – how do you differentiate between raw silk and the soft ones?
Raw silk is the silk which still contains the magical fluid. Once it is washed in soap and boiling water, the fabric is left soft, lusturous and more lighter. Raw silk is twisted into a strand which is strong for weaving or knitting. Broken or waste filaments and damaged cocoons are retained and treated and combed to produce yarn, which is marketed as spun silk, which is of inferior quality compared to the reeled product, and is obviously much cheaper.
Almost 2500 silkworms are required to produce a pound of raw silk. Can you believe it?
For the purpose of coloring the silk fibers, all natural, organic colors are used in order to maintain the authenticity.
Once the dye is set, the actual process of silk weaving and spinning wheels starts. The traditional looms are constructed using wood and are big enough to provide a full width (1 to 1.4 m only) of silk fabric.
To buy souvenirs, the family owns a shop on the same premise where you can buy the silk handloom of your own choice. Prices are quite reasonable and are open to bargains.
From what I understood from the vast Cambodian history, three decades of conflict and Khmer Rouge regime has led to the loss of numerous mulberry plantations and has also resulted in breaking down the traditional process of knowledge and skill transfer through generations. Despite the fact that the civil unrest is finally over, it is difficult for many families to get back to the family business when survival is at stake.
Statistics suggests that Cambodia exports almost $4 million worth of silk in a year. Currently in a revival mode, Cambodian golden silk is back in demand, just like in ancient time. With the growing influx of tourists to Cambodia, there just might be some hope left for this nation.