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Isaan Handmade Silk

I only came across this story when Gaun, my wife, recently came out in the morning dressed like this:

The skirt was given to her by her mama many years ago, and it is made from pure silk. That in itself isn’t of great interest, but the fact that the silk was produced from worms raised by mama and the thread extracted, coloured and woven into this garment by her was.

Growing the silk and making it by hand is quite an achievement.

I was on a mission to discover more. Unfortunately, Gaun’s mama, along with the other older ladies of our Moo Baan (village) no longer cultivate silk worms. They are however still using the same weaving process at the moment to produce cloth for an upcoming festival, something I will cover shortly, but this is using cotton and not silk.

Your blogger was undaunted and accompanied by Gaun’s younger sister Yuan, we headed to another Moo Baan close to us where we heard that the worms were still being cultivated. In true Isaan fashion, all it took was a couple of stops to ask the locals, and we had two house based silk farms to view.

Young worms on a bed of their favourite food - Mulberry leaves.

A closer look.

An edited version of Wikipedia’s entry on silkworms reads as follows:

Eggs take about 14 days to hatch into larvae, which eat continuously. They have a preference for white mulberry. They are covered with tiny black hairs. When the colour of their heads turns darker, it indicates they are about to moult. After moulting, the instar phase of the silkworm emerges white, naked, and with little horns on their backs.

After they have moulted four times, their bodies become slightly yellow and the skin becomes tighter. The larvae then enter the pupal phase of their lifecycle and enclose themselves in a cocoon made up of raw silk produced by the salivary glands. The cocoon provides a vital layer of protection during the vulnerable, almost motionless pupal state.

If the animal is allowed to survive after spinning its cocoon and through the pupal phase of its lifecycle, it releases proteolytic enzymes to make a hole in the cocoon so it can emerge as an adult moth. These enzymes are destructive to the silk and can cause the silk fibres to break down from over a mile in length to segments of random length, which seriously reduced the value of the silk threads but not silk cocoons used as “stuffing” available in China and elsewhere for doonas, jackets etc. To prevent this, silkworm cocoons are boiled. The heat kills the silkworms and the water makes the cocoons easier to unravel. Often, the silkworm itself is eaten.

These are the trays used when the worms enter the cocoon stage.

The cocoons of silk. I think this is the “stuffing” the article above refers to.

Adult silk worms.

Each cocoon produces around 1,000 metres of silk thread and the end product looks like the following. The white thread is a cleaned version of the orange.

Spun silk.

The silk thread is sold for between 1,000 to 1,500 THB a kilo depending on quality. What a shame that these creatures have to die in order for us to enjoy their efforts.

I will now look at a handmade silk product with a lot more respect, having seen a bit of the effort and time that goes into making it. The weaving is very much the same as what is currently happening at our Moo Baan community centre where the yai, or elderly ladies, are busy making skirts for a Buddhist festival happening on 1 and 2 March, although I didn’t catch the traditional dancing where the skirts were worn.

Where the looms are set up.

These ladies have been working for weeks on this project.

Hand threaded.

Pre-coloured to match the pattern.

Gaun with the cotton threads waiting to be used.

Not exactly ancient technology.

All of these skills are dying out of course as the population ages and what a loss that will be for village life.

Thanks for reading.



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