Saturday, November 22, 2008

Khmer Gold

The Spider and the Silkworm

Having received an order for twenty yards of silk from the Princess Lioness, the Silkworm sat down at her loom and began to work. She worked slowly and deliberately but with great ardour and passion. Spider soon came around and asked to hire a web-room nearby.

The Silkworm agreed, and the Spider began to spin and weave with great speed. She worked so fast that in a short time the web was finished. "Just look at it," she said, “see how grand and intricate it is. You cannot but acknowledge that I'm a much better worker than you. See how quickly I was able to finish."

"Yes," answered the Silkworm, "but your work is designed only as base traps, and they are destroyed whenever they are seen, and brushed away as useless dirt. Mine are stored away, as ornaments of Royalty."
Aesop Fables

While we were up in Siem Reap we were invited to visit a silk farm owned by some friends. It was quite a way out of Siem Reap towards Banteay Srei, the last part of the trip was on a muddy crevasse filled road that has been rendered almost impassable by the huge trucks that dominate it every day. It seems even to get to the silk farm required significant skill and hopefully a four wheel drive.

Sericulture, the art of raising silk producing silkworms, has been an industry for so long the moths have evolved to become flightless and completely dependent on humans for food and reproduction. Silk weaving in Cambodia has a long distinguished history dating back to Angkorian times. Stone carvings record stories of textiles traded for land and slaves, and fabrics, the details of which are suggestive of the same motifs and symbols used today. There is evidence silks were used to, and still often are, clothe Angkor’s sculptured deities. During its peak Cambodia was a trading centre along the famous Silk Route between China and India.

Sericulture in Cambodia is primarily and proudly done by women and is a skill often handed down through families. This was however halted by the Khmer Rouge who completely obliterated the industry and destroyed all but 15 hectares of vital mulberry bushes, the food of the silkworm. Once peace and stability returned to the region various attempts were been made to revive the industry. Much of the inherited knowledge was gone, women had to relearn the art of silk making. In 2006 the revitalised silk industry was estimated to be worth about four million in export dollars with an impressive five year goal of 25 million. Exported silk goes primarily to France, Italy, Japan and Switzerland, Australia, Germany and Singapore. Our friend has shown her silk in France and has had interest from some pretty swanky designers.

The Cambodian silk worm is indigenous to Cambodia and like its Chinese counterpart is raised on the mulberry bush. The mulberry, the Khmer silkworms prefer, has a smaller leaf which means more plants are needed to sustain the worm until it reaches its cocoon stage.

Worms are raised on trays like these. Everything is raised off the floor and the tray legs sit in containers of water to protect the worms and helpless moths from predators.

Thousands of silkworm eggs are placed on sheets of paper like this until they hatch.

The silkworm eggs hatch into tiny black worms who gorge themselves on young tender mulberry leaves so their hatching must time with the availability of the new leaves. They eat and grow multiplying to 10 000 times their hatched size. They turn from black to gray and then white moulting 4 times as they grow.

Equal numbers of male and female moths are placed in a container to mate. On the left of the picture are some spent moths. On the right if you look closely you can see a huge hole in one of the cocoons. Look at their beautiful colour though!!

When they are ready to cocoon a tray is placed over the worms, which they attach themselves to, and then they begin to spin. The cocoon of the silkworm is spun in one long continuous thread sometimes more than a mile long. When the moth hatches out of the cocoon the thread is broken and thus rendered useless.

Timing is crucial. The cocoons must be plunged into boiling water to kill the moths, before they make a hole in the all important silk thread. The hot water also helps to unravel the long treasure.

A mixture of degummed and 'natural' silk hanging in the spinning shed.

The silk is then degummed to remove the sericin the natural substance that protects the fibre in a similar way to the way lanolin protects wool. This sericin, mostly discarded with the waste water in Cambodia, is often used as a protective protein and antioxidant in hair and skin products, medicines and food and used as a antibacterial coating for air filter filaments and in products such as disposable nappies and wound dressings to protect skin from the natural or artificial fibres of the material.

The ‘washed’ yarn is then spun on homemade wheels and dyed using natural dyes, from bark, berries and fruit, to produce a range of colours that are used in unique designs.

Looms are set up according to the particular pattern of the silk being woven. The loom is 'warped' (strung with the warp threads) and pulled tight. Heddles, in this case white cord you can see in the picture, are used to separate each warp thread. As there is one heddle for each thread of the warp there can be a thousand heddles used for fine or wide warps. The warp threads are strung through the 'eye' of each heddle so that when raised or lowered the heddle brings its warp thread with it. The shaft, the long wooden pole at either end of the heddle, is what is used to move the heddles. The warp is threaded through heddles on different shafts in order to obtain different weave structures. The shaft is raised or lowered according to the pattern. Raising the shaft pulls warp threads up so that the weaver can pass the shuttle with the weft thread on it through the gap.

The girl in the picture above is setting up the heddles and shafts in the correct order so that a particular pattern can be weaved. I find it completely exhausting just thinking about how complicated the set up must be when weaving an intricate design such a brocade pattern.

Some of the girls had their babies with them crawling around the floor or sleeping in a hammock or even at the breast while they were working. They will become the next generation of spinners, stringers and weavers.

The space created between the warp threads as the heddles pull them up and down is called the 'shed'. The weft thread (above) is wound onto a bobbin which is placed into a shuttle. The shuttle is slid through the shed from one side to the other as the weaver moves the shafts and heddles in a mesmerising dance. The raising and lowering sequence of warp threads gives rise to an almost infinite number of possible weave structures from the simplest plain weave to more mind boggling and complex interlacings.

These warp threads are ready for the weaving process to begin.

Some designs, such as ikat, require an extra step where the thread has to be tie died before being woven. Before the warp strings are attached to the loom they are arranged into bundles which are tied and dyed separately. The process is repeated for each colour. We saw girls tying plastic string on threads, strung on a small loom, in an intricate geometrical pattern.

Weaving! This one is a scarf judging by the width of the warp and finished fabric. The girls make bed covers too which are woven on a huge loom with a warp the width of a queen size bed.

A finished ikat. Ikat is an Indonesian word literally meaning to tie or bind indicating the manner in which the pattern is created. A double ikat is when both the warp and the weft threads have been dyed.

These silks are of the cheaper kind, made of white silk, found at the markets in Siem reap and Phnom Penh. It looks as if they are dyed using artificial dyes too but what gorgeous colours!!

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