Thailand: Small-Scale Silk Production

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A worker uses her wooden paddle to pick up the beginning of the unwinding silk thread which is then wound onto the spinning wheel.

On a recent trip to Cambodia, I toured the Artisans Angkor’s silk farm

By Bronwyn Smyth
All Photos by Bronwyn Smyth
City Farmer
January 2019

If you have visited us at City Farmer this past summer, you have likely been introduced to our silk worms. Depending on when you may have visited us, you may have seen the eggs, the worms the cocoons, or the moths.  

At City Farmer, we haven’t extracted the silk thread from the cocoons, but have instead let the worms complete their life cycles. When they emerge from the cocoon as a moth, they create a hole in one end of the cocoon. Once this hole is formed, extracting a continuous silk thread from the cocoon is impossible. However, the cocoon can still be used in creative ways, such as the flowers Maria Keating created this past year. 

A flower created by Maria Keating using silk worm cocoons reared at City Farmer.

Silk production itself is an interesting process. On a recent trip to Cambodia, I toured the Artisans Angkor’s (http://www.artisansdangkor.com) silk farm to get a better look at traditional small-scale production of silk. Though silk can now be produced less expensively through mechanization, Artisans Angkor have purposely chosen the more labour-intensive production methods as a way of keeping the traditional methods alive, and as a way of providing more jobs for local residents. 

The tour itself walks the visitor through each step of the silk production, including the dying and weaving methods they use.  

To begin the tour, we were shown a field white mulberry trees (Morus alba). Left to their own devices, the trees will grow tall, making harvesting of the leaves difficult. In order to avoid this, and to facilitate the daily hand harvest of leaves for the growing larvae, the farm keeps the trees pruned to a height of 6 feet.  

The white mulberry trees (Morus alba)used to feed the quickly growing silk worms.

Each day, when the leaves are harvested, they are brought to the cocoonery and fed to the worms. The worms will eat for about 24 days, transitioning through their 5 instar phases. After the 24 days, they stop eating and are removed to a mesh without food, where over the next 5 days they spin their cocoons. 

Growing silk worms munching their way through white mulberry leaves.
Silk worms that have stopped eating and are beginning to spin their cocoons.
The growing worms are kept in screened cabinets to keep predators out.
Each cabinet, whether housing the growing worms, the cocoons, or the moths, sit in small basins filled with water to prevent predators like ants from climbing the cabinets and potentially wreaking havoc.

The species of silk worms used in silk production in Cambodia produce a yellow, rather than a white cocoon. Of the cocoons spun at this farm, 80% are used to create the silk, while the remaining 20% are allowed to complete the life cycle with moths emerging and laying the next generation of eggs. 

The yellow cocoons.

During the dry season (November-April), the cocoons are spread out in containers that are made of a wire mesh on the bottom, wood on the sides, and open on top. In these containers they sit in the sun for 3 days, over which time the sun bakes the cocoons, killing the worms. The sun also helps bleach the cocoons. During the rainy season, the cocoons don’t receive this baking treatment, and are instead placed directly in the boiling water to kill the worms. 

Cocoons baking in the sun. The sun kills the worms and helps bleach the yellow of the cocoon.

When it comes time to extract the silk thread, the cocoons are placed in boiling water. The person extracting the thread gently skims the surface of the water with a wooden paddle that has small slits in it. The small slits help pick up the unravelling silk thread, which is wound on to a spinning wheel. The cocoons go through this process twice, as each cocoon is made up of 2 layers of different types of silk – raw and fine. The outer layer, and the first to be extracted is the raw silk thread, which is the more knobbly type of silk. 

A worker uses her wooden paddle to pick up the beginning of the unwinding silk thread which is then wound onto the spinning wheel.
Raw silk being extracted from the cocoons.

When the first layer of silk thread is removed, the cocoons are transferred to a second pot of boiling water to extract the inner fine silk thread. Once the inner layer has been removed, the worms are lifted from the water, and eventually make their way into local cuisine. 

Worms with their cocoons removed. They will eventually be used in the local cuisine.

The next step involves bleaching of the threads, which is now done chemically, then spinning those threads into much longer threads that will be used for weaving the silk fabrics. After the bleaching and spinning occur, the silk threads are ready for dying. In the past, natural dyes were used, but now, with synthetic dyes costing a fraction of the price, and with a better ability to retain their colours, they are used.  

When the dying process is complete, the silk threads can be woven into fabric. Since Artists Angkor promotes traditional production methods, all the fabrics are hand woven, a process that takes multiple days. Solid coloured fabric can be woven in approximately 2 days, whereas fabrics with the same dimensions but bearing a multi-coloured pattern take 6 days. 

Weaving of a fine silk scarf on traditional looms takes 2-6 days. This woman is working a complex pattern, which between the dying process, setting up the loom, and weaving, will take 6 days to complete.

The tour of this silk farm was informative, and also left me with a greater appreciation as to the time and skill involved in producing silk. 

See the silk farm in Thailand here.

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