Friday, November 2, 2012

Why We Love Worms (Siem Reap #2)

When I saw an opportunity to visit a silk worm farm, I knew we had to go  My love of all things fabric and a healthy helping of "how its made" curiosity made it an imperative side trip.  After all, I am the girl who stopped with her mom and sister in the midst of a shopping trip to ask a cotton ginner for a tour.  He obliged, but I'm sure he's still wondering why those three women stopped by.

First, we saw the field of mulberry trees.  Of course, we started looking for worms immediately.  Our guide quickly informed us that we wouldn't find any in the field;  the local birds would just eat them all for lunch.

All the hatching happens here.  In the cocoonerie.  Doesn't that have a nice ring - cocoonerie?  The building was on short stilts, and each pillar (including the stairs) had little moats of water around them to keep other critters out.
 You know, to protect the critters inside.  As soon as we walked in, we saw the worms.  Lots of worms.  These round baskets were in wire and wooden cabinets very similar to antique pie safes.  It gave me an idea for a use for MY pie safe.  All I need is a mulberry tree....Anyway, each basket held worms of a specific age and development stage. 

This woman was sitting in front of the worm cages chopping mulberry leaves to feed to her friends.  The worms get a fresh meal of leaves each day.  There were a lot of baskets, so I suppose she sits and chops all day.  Every day.

These worms are done eating, and they're ready to spin their chrysalises.  They are placed into baskets with troughs for the cocoons to hold on to.  B3 and AK were really intrigued by the entire process, and they were studying each basket. 

Now would probably be a good time to watch this time lapse video I found online.  Seriously, isn't it amazing ?

Even if watching worms eat leaves for 30 days doesn't thrill you, at least look at this chart to understand the whole process.

Now, our guide was very informative, and he answered all of our questions as well as he could.  And there were a LOT of questions.  But he was nervous.  Really nervous.  While his English was very good, I think he was simply very self conscious about speaking English to native speakers.  I really wanted to give him a squeeze and tell him he was doing great, but that's crossing all sorts of social and cultural boundaries that I try to respect.  Anyway, at this point in our tour, I accidentally made him even more nervous by asking a simple question.  He casually mentioned that only a percentage of the cocoons were allowed to hatch as moths to reproduce and perpetuate the process.  If the moth hatches, the silk fibers are broken and useless. So, I asked how they prevented that.  He got a little antsy and mumbled, "They die."  Well, clearly.  But how?  His eyes got wide and he nearly whispered, "we boil them..."  I think he thought we'd be horrified by the very thought of boiling helpless moths, but I'm not sure why.  I wasn't wearing my PETA t-shirt. 

These are cocoons that have been boiled and are drying in the sun.

These cocoons have been dried and are waiting to be unwound.

Now, here comes the good part . Are you ready?  The cocoons are placed in hot water again, and a wooden spatula-type tool picks up the individual cocoon silk fibers a few at a time.  These fibers are wound several at a time onto a skein winder. 
Can you see the individual fibers?  Look closely!

Now this process was a lot less technical and precise than I had imagined it might be.  Honestly, all she uses to pick up the fibers is that wooden spatula. This first process removes the outer layer of silk fibers.  This is the silk we know as "raw". It's the silk used in fabric that has a little texture and isn't completely uniform in size. I always assumed that those slubs were intentionally introduced, and I still think some are, but it's a different fiber, too.

 If you're shopping and find a silk fabric that has a perfectly smooth, "silky" texture, that's the fine silk that comes from the inside layer of the cocoon.  It's unwound a little differently. Once the fibers are picked up (using the same wooden spatula), they are fed through a spinneret to introduce a little twist as they are wound.

After it's unwound, it looks like this:
(outer layer of the cocoon - raw silk)

Inner layer of the cocoon - finer silk
If it's to be dyed or bleached, it happens to skeins like this.

Next, it's wound from the skein into individual bobbins.  Notice that her equipment uses bicycle wheel frames.

Next, the warp is prepared.  The warp consists of the threads that are wound on a loom for the long part of the fabric. 

Here's a good illustration of the two different silks at various stages in their process.

Next, the warp is taken to the loom and the loom is dressed.  The horizontal piece she's feeding the threads through is called the reed.  The reed has many vertical metal bars dividing it into tiny sections.  Each section will hold one thread, and it's called a dent.  The reed keeps the threads uniformly distributed.  The finer your fabric is, the more dents per inch you'll have, and this one had a lot of dents.  I could have stood there and watched them work on this all day.  And  I'm sure it took them all day to get it done.

In one room, we saw a small group sitting on the floor separating the plastic strips from a woven bag.  It was a sack used for rice or animal feed.  They were separating the strips and cutting them into measured lengths.  I wondered why, and when we went to the next room, We found out.  Threads of measured length have been wrapped around a frame, and these plastic strips are tied around groups of threads in a pattern.  Next, this frame will be dipped into a vat of dye, and the sections tied up in the plastic strips will not dye.  Each individual thread that will be used in the weft (the filling of the fabric - the short lengths that travel across the loom to create the fabric) will be dyed to match a specific pattern. 

After dyeing, each thread is wound onto its own bobbin.  Note again the bicycle parts: wheels, chains, and pedals. 

Aren't these beautiful?  They were laying on the bench of the loom where  this blue and yellow scarf was being woven.   I still can't figure out how they know which bobbin to weave next to create the pattern.

Notice the detail in the pattern. Amazing!

No photographs were allowed in their shop, but just believe me when I say their items are incredible.
You can visit their virtual store by clicking on this link.  It's the same organization I wrote about yesterday, so you can see the other crafts, too.

We asked someone where the items were made, and she enthusiastically announced that they were all made on the premises, on the looms we had just seen.  Yeah, we're not buying that story; they've got to have some mechanized looms somewhere churning out that much yardage.  Whatever.  It was still a fascinating tour, and I think we all learned a ton.  I do feel a little sorry for our guide, though.  Who know he'd be stuck with the guy who makes sewing thread for a living and his textile engineer wife? 

Beside the store, we enjoyed Blue Pumpkin ice cream.  The Blue Pumpkin is a Siem Reap restaurant, and their ice cream is for sale in many places.  To B3's delight, they also had sorbet.  Hooray!  A cup all to himself. 

He also enjoyed the cold washcloths they offered with our mid morning snack.  We were all thankful for those. 

Visiting this silk farm reminded me that God does, indeed have a sense of humor.  For hundreds of years, royals and rich men have been dressing in the finest silks.  And, where does this silk come from?  From a lowly little worm's rear.  Except, I'm confident that we'll never see a silk worm as lowly again.  It was truly an amazing day!


Andrea said...

Love this post!! Did you buy some silk when you were there? I can't wait to get over there in a couple of weeks!

kathryn patton said...

That is amazing. I'll read and study this again and again.