On one of our two non-temple touring days, we hired a tuk-tuk to drive us outside of Siem Reap a ways to a Silk Farm.
The drive was lovely as we got to see a bit of rural Cambodian life. The boys enjoyed seeing all the baby cows. The drive took about 30 minutes down a fairly smooth highway. There was not a lot of traffic, so it was a peaceful drive.
The silk farm we chose to go to is operated by Cambodians from local villages trying to better their lives through learning a trade. They also employ several people with disabilities. Many of the employees have been affected by the disgusting number of live land mines covering Cambodia's countryside. The farm is set up as a tourist location and free tours are offered in several languages all day long. The prices at the shop are higher than at the markets, but you know you are getting the real thing and that your money is going to the people who actually did the work. Derek and I much prefer to spend a little bit more when we know the money is going to the right people.
We went on a Sunday, so they only had enough staff working to display how the silk making process works, but we were told that during the week, the farm employs over 600 local Cambodians. The farm does everything on site for the silk. They have a mulberry bush field and even grow the plants used to dye the silk on the site.
Our guide took us past the mulberry bushes and into a hut where there were thousands of silk worm chomping away on mulberry leaves. We learned about a silk worm's life cycle, which Owen found very interesting! Silk worms turn into a flightless moth that life only long enough to lay eggs. The cocoons the worms make is where the silk comes from. Each cocoon is in two layers: an outer layer of "raw" silk and an inner layer of "fine" silk. Each worm produces about 400 meters of silk threads.
They have several specially designed baskets that are used when the worms are ready to spin their cocoons. These baskets, which have been used for centuries, optimize the worms ability to lay a nice cocoon that will unravel neatly.
The whole cycle, from birth to death, takes under two months. Most of a silkworms life is spent eating the mulberry leaf. Upon emerging from the cocoon, the moth will lay around 300 eggs. Because these eggs are laid in optimal, controlled conditions, most survive at the silk farm. They only have capacity to handle a certain number of worms, so they only let about a quarter of the moths lay eggs. The rest of the moths are killed after producing their silk cocoon.
The cocoons are then bleached in the sunlight for several days to rid them of their natural yellow color. After they have lost most of their yellow, they are taken to be unwound. This is done in two steps: one for the raw silk and one for the fine silk. Essentially, the cocoons are just boiled and, very carefully, someone unwinds the threads. They used different machines for each step of unwinding.
Once unwound, they wound the threads around spools and then unwound and rewound to get each thread to the appropriate thickness. It was impressive to watch.
After the threads are perfect, they are taken to be dyed using natural materials: leaves, flowers, berries, sticks, ect. All of the dying materials are also grown right there on the silk farm.
They do not generally dye the whole strand one color. They often tie the threads with little plastic chords and dye patterns onto the thread. Then, as they weave the thread into a fabric, a pattern appears. As a math teacher, I was fascinated by the number of precision calculations that were taking place in order to get each pattern to line up perfectly depending on the width of the cloth in question.
To weave the fabric, first a vertical layer of threads is wrapped around a spool, usually all in one color. Then the specially dyed silk is threaded back and forth through the vertical threads to create a tightly woven cloth. Each time the weaver pulls the thread through, she pulled it tight with a special piece of wood. The ladies working all moved quickly, but it is clear that each piece took a long time to produce. For example, the scarf in the picture here, takes a worker one full day to complete. In this picture, you can see the little sticks on the seat of the loom with the purple thread. Those are the sticks that are woven through the vertical strands of silk to create the pattern you see.
After seeing the crafting process, we wandered through a museum that detailed some of the history of Cambodian silk. Then we visited the on site shop selling these amazing pieces of work. We bought too much there, but are completely in love with everything we brought home. I am going to a tailor later this week to have a dress made to match the scarf I bought! It's definitely the nicest piece of fabric I've ever owned.
The blog entries from our trip to Siem Reap during the Têt Holiday in 2014.