Nov
5
2010

Order Tara's Bicycle Touring Cookbook Today!

Artisans d'Angkor Silk Farm

by Tara

Saving the temples of Angkor for tomorrow, we backtrack sixteen kilometers out of town in order to see the free Artisans d'Angkor silk farm and workshop. I love most anything that involves crafts and textiles, especially when it's a behind-the-scenes sort of deal, so I'm pretty excited.

It's another clear, sunny day in Cambodia, and the roadsides are abuzz with people tending to their fields or animals, cooking, basket weaving, and a plethora of other activities. Time passes quickly with so much to look at, and soon we turn off the main drag onto a red dirt road. A short, bumpy ride deposits us at the professional-looking grounds of the silk workshop.

Rolling in to the gravel parking lot, we are greeted by a man named Yoan. After helping us find a safe place for our bikes, he informs us that he will be our guide for the visit. I am impressed by his English skills, his professionalism, and the kind, gentle radiance he exudes.

Yoan and Tyler

Yoan leads us through a lush palm garden, and then we find ourselves in front of a simple wooden outbuilding. He pushes open the screen door, and welcomes us to the first exhibition room, where nicely printed signs explain the beginning processes involved in making silk. Here, Yoan teaches us about the silk moth's life-cycle.

First, the large, fuzzy moths lay pin-head sized eggs. These are so tiny that in order for the artisans to be able to see and collect them, they must be laid on a piece of white paper. These eggs are then kept safe in flat woven trays under cloth covers, laid on a shelf in a screened cabinet, free from drafts and bugs.

Silkworm Moth Silkworm Moth Eggs Macro Silkworm Moth Eggs

When the eggs are mature, they hatch into fuzzy, grey, beady-eyed worms. The creatures are fairly delicate at this phase, and need a lot of careful observation. Something as benign-seeming as a camera flash or a loud noise can cause them to die. They have a small display which we're allowed to take pictures of, but the rest are off-limits.

Silkworms

For their duration of their short lives, they will subsist on a diet of mulberry leaves:

Mulberry Leaf Prep for Silkworms

The fragile little moults grow into large worms over the course of a few days, devouring an enormous amount of mulberry leaves on the way. The artisans dump bucketfuls of foliage on top of them, and within a day the worms eat their way upwards through the cover, just in time to be fed again.

Silkworms

When the time comes for the worms to make their cocoons, they are placed in a woven tray of concentric rings, where they each find a home and begin wrapping themselves up like mummies.

Silkworm Cocoons

Remarkably, a cocoon is made of one completely intact silk thread, something like half of a mile long, wound around and around and around to form a fluffy yellow bundle. Inside its little pod, the worm rotates almost half a million times in a figure eight pattern as it extrudes filament to make its home.

Pealing Coarse Silk from Cocoon

When they are ready, the artisans collect the cocoons, and boil them in hot water, killing the live pupa inside (who would destroy the cocoon and its precious silk fibers if allowed to hatch). Next, they harvest the long, thin golden strands. As the wet material is spun together to form a more substantial thread, the cocoons unravel.

Silk Threads Silkworm Cocoons Spinning Silkworm Cocoons to Thread Silk Spinner Wheel

It takes about 10 pounds of mulberry leaves to feed 200 worms, which in turn produce a full pound of cocoons. Collected and harvested, they provide more than 100 miles of silk thread. When all of the fiber is removed, the crysalis looks like this:

Harvested Silkworm Chrysalis

Inside this watery capsule is the silk worm pupa. At first, I was disappointed by the fact that they kill these creatures to get the silk off the cocoons, but then Yoan informed me that everyone here eats the boiled pupa. Workers share a joke that if you eat too many, you'll start pooping out threads of silk.

We're laughing as Yoan pantomimes his joke, but our chuckling stops immediately when he plops a pupa into Tyler's palm, offering us a taste. We visibly shudder and grimace, but he just laughs, encouraging us to try it as he pops a few into his mouth like candy. Waste not want not!

Apparently it tastes like corn.

Silkworm Pupa

It takes a minute of squeamish head shaking, shuddering and mental wrangling before I can quell my queasiness. We resolve to eat it, so Tyler slices the bug in half. The outside is like the tough translucent skin of a corn kernel, while the inside is watery like corn that's been boiled for too long.

With the two milky halves rest on his palm, we take our bisected boiled silk pupa pieces, and pop them in our mouths. Chew, grimace, chew, swallow. It's not so bad, really. Just like corn!


I'm still picking silk pupa casing out of my teeth, when Yoan brings us over to the weaving facility. There, we see how gorgeous silks are made. We start by watching women prepare for elaborately colored work, binding off various warp and weft threads with plastic ties.

Silk Dye Masking

They follow nothing but a design on a photograph!

Silk Dye Masking

Then, we watch people spinning:

Spinning Silk Spinning Dyed Silk Silk Spinner Laughing Cambodian Woman Winding Silk

…and weaving too:

Silk Farm Silk Weaving Preparing to Weave Silk Pin in Woven Cloth Silk Loom

When Yoan completes our tour, we thank him and give him a generous tip, shaking our heads in disbelief that this place is free. We've paid so much more to see so many things that weren't nearly as cool or well-presented as they were here.

As we browse through the gift shop full of colorful, silky scarves and purses and clothing, we're so impressed with this place. Unless there's some behind-the-scenes sweatshop we don't know about, it seems like a very pleasant environment in which to work.

Perhaps the most inspiring part of the organization is that the employees come here from surrounding villages to learn the silk trade, and once they've mastered it, they are given their own silk worms and mulberry plant to return home and start their own business. Providing jobs and educating people in traditional skills: awesome!


Riding home, we talk about how unexpectedly uplifting Cambodia has been so far. Though we've only had a few days to know it, this is hands down the most heartwarming country we've visited yet.

Cambodian Kids & Mother on Bike Cambodian Kids

Previous Entry
-
Next Entry
-
G
Topics:

7 comments

This post is awesome! Thanks! I knew that silk WORMS existed, but I guess I'd never considered that you had to raise worms to harvest silk. That was some serious ingenuity from the first person who figured out to make fabric from a moth cocoon.
Posted by Jeff on December 15th, 2010 at 5:48 PM
I've really enjoyed reading this - so educational! And the pictures are stunning as always :)
Posted by Magalie on December 16th, 2010 at 4:21 AM
It is possible to let the worms break from their cocoons and still use the fibre (you spin it as a cut fibre then, but, it doesn't have the smoothness and sheen of the continuous fibre being spun). I did this one year after raising silk worms from eggs. They nearly denuded my poor mulberry tree (they've got a huge appetite for such little guys). Once they emerge from the cocoon as moths they NEVER eat again and spend a fortnight indulging in some very adult silkmoth pastimes before dying. They are quite plump. pretty little moths, beige in colour. For all the work involved I ended up with 3 woven bookmarks, LOL. But, I got to spin silk and really enjoyed watching the silkworms develop.
Posted by BB on December 19th, 2010 at 10:15 AM
I'm really struck by how beautiful the Cambodian people are.
Posted by Mary on December 19th, 2010 at 2:55 PM
Jeff-- Thanks, Jeff! Pretty ridiculous huh? There are scientists working on genetically modifying them to spin spider drag-line too (stronger than steel). Nuts.

Magalie-- Thanks!

BB--

Wow, that is really cool that you took the time to raise silkworms! What gave you the idea? Do you have pictures of the bookmarks anywhere we could see?

Mary--

They really are. Some of the most beautiful and radiant people we've met!
Posted by Goingslowly on December 20th, 2010 at 11:07 AM
Hey Tara,
We were lucky enough to visit this site when we visited Cambodia a few years ago. It wasn't til we arrived in Vientiane and visited Carol Cassidy's workshop we gained a full appreciation of just how fine the Camobodian silk weaving really is. Well worth a visit too if you're heading that way.

By the way, Happy New Year. Hope the new year brings you two many new adventures.

P
Posted by Paula Bradshaw on December 30th, 2010 at 10:10 PM
Thanks for the advice, Paula! I'm always up for crafty excursions. We'll definitely put the weaving studio on our Laos to-do list.

Happy new year, and ditto to you and Rik!
Posted by Tara on January 5th, 2011 at 10:51 AM
...and sign up for our newsletter!
Post a Comment
receive email for new comments
check this box to prove you are human

HTML allowed:<a><strong><b><i><u><em><strike>