I’ve realized in writing my blogs that I am apparently fascinated by how things are made. Stencils in Laos, weasel coffee in Vietnam and now a blog about silk.
On the same tour of the countryside around Dalat, Vietnam that took us for that cup of weasel coffee we also stopped at a small silk factory. I felt like I had stepped back in time a hundred plus years to the height of the industrial revolution. The factory was a simple one roomed building with all of the machinery – much of it indeed dating back about that many years – loudly clanking away with women lined up focusing on their work.
Although I knew silk is made from the chrysalis of the silk worm, I never really considered how the fibers got from there and were transformed into those incredible silk scarves and shirts that line the aisles of boutiques around the world. Well, let me tell you how it’s done…
The process of making silk dates back nearly 5,000 years to China. The silk worms are bred and the larvae are given a healthy diet of mulberry leaves which they eat constantly for about four to six weeks before building their magical little chrysalis’. The silk worms create a cocoon made from raw silk fibers as they transform from worm to moth.
Each of these cocoons are made from a single thread of raw silk that can be up to 1,000-3,000 feet long – that’s over half a mile! In order to preserve that single thread the silk worms unfortunately are not allowed to develop and break out of the chrysalis. In order to break out of the cocoon they produce a chemical that cuts through the cocoon, thus severing the single silk fiber.
In processing the fiber the cocoons are first put into boiling water, both to soften the silk in order to unwind the strand and to kill the pupa. Although PETA might not enjoy this fact, the worms don’t go to waste and instead can be found in local markets as a nice mid-day snack.
One end of the strand is pulled from the cocoon and inserted into the machine that unwinds it and spins it onto reels.
The reels are then combined, nicely wound up and get ready to be loaded onto the looms.
The looms are then prepared and the fabrics are churned out. I couldn’t get over how old the looms were. They definitely aren’t something you’d see in any western factory. Stick a finger in the wrong place and that thing is guaranteed to be chopped off in any of the machines in this place. The most interesting thing to me about the looms though were the patterns that were used to create the fabrics. They were fed into the top of the machine to control the warp threads being used (I think I got that right??) and reminded me of the music sheets fed through a player piano or music box.
Once the fabric has been made it is dyed in a single color and dried. After this, I’m a bit shady on exactly what happens, but it is treated with some kind of chemical which results in the second color on the fabric and tah dah! You have an absolutely gorgeous piece of fabric.