While Thailand has capitalised itself as an exporter of Thai Silk, the silk trade of Cambodia ias been left in a fledgling state. In an attempt to regain its one golden status, numerous NGOs have come up with ideas to help the nation revive its previous silk culture. 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.
Village of Prek Bangkong, Phnom Penh
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 a very basic understanding regarding the fine art of sericulture. But this was a whole new level of education. The “silkworm” is, technically, not a worm but a moth pupa. Though there are numerous insects who produce silk threads, none of them have been exploited for commercial purpose like the moth caterpillars. As the young owner started explaining, the first stage of silk production is hatching the eggs in a controlled environment. Apparently, the female deposits almost 300-400 eggs at a time, and dies immediately. 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. As the young guide was pleased with the fatness of his worms, I was happily singing the ‘Merry we go round the Mulberry bush’ in my head since it just fit the moment!
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.
In the Third Stage of Pupating, the silk worms attach themselves to a twig or a shrub and start secreting a proteinaceous fluid from their salivary glands, while rotating its body 300,000 times in a figure-of -8 movement, to construct a cocoon.
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 undisturbed until the yarn or woven fabric stage.
Difference between raw silk and processed silk
Raw silk is the silk which still contains the magical proteinaceous fluid. Once it is washed in soap and boiling water, what is left behind is soft, lusturous and more lighter. Almost 2500 silkworms are required to produce a pound of raw silk! Broken or waste filaments and damaged cocoons are retained and treated and combed to produce yarn, which is marketed as spun silk. These are of inferior quality compared to the reeled product, and hence, much cheaper.
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. A traditional looms, constructed using wood, produce a full width (1 to 1.4 m only) of silk fabric.
Three decades of conflict and Khmer Rouge regime has led to the loss of numerous mulberry plantations and resulted in breaking down of traditional practices and generational skilling. 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.
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