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  • Writer's pictureKirk

Cambodian Silk

Updated: Feb 1

I negotiated with a tuk-tuk driver to take me to an area on Silk Island where silk scarfs are manufactured. It was about a 45 minute ride from Phnom Penh and required a $1 ferry ride across a river.

Entrance fee into the place was $2 for the opportunity to see how locals manufacture silk scarfs. Since my trip was unguided, I received no instructions of the process. I just saw it unfold before my eyes. I'll will show you the process as it was revealed to me.

First the road by tuk-tuk to the silk factory:

The road was a dirt road, but was in very good condition. You could tell you were in the remote farmlands of Cambodia.

The silk cocoons

Silk worms make their cocoons out of one very long strand of fiber. The cocoons shown here are the raw materials for the process. Some silk can be made without killing the worm, but this process does not appear to be one of them.

I actually ate a silk worm here at the beckoning of my driver. He popped a few in his mouth first, then offered me. Reluctantly, I acquiesced, but I will likely not do it again. Knowing you're eating a raw creature somehow takes all the flavor from it.

To begin the process, the silk fiber must be unwound from the cocoon. This is what this young lady is doing. The cocoons are placed in hot water to dissolve the glue light substance that keeps the cocoon together. The girl finds the beginning of each thread, and then unwinds the cocoon into a bundle of silk. Some of the glue remain on the threads, but they are washed later.

After the thread is free from the cocoon and washed of all glue, it is dyed. The dyeing process was not seen by me, so I'm not sure if they use local dyes from fruits or commercial dyes.

After the fiber is dyed, it is now available to be spun. Here you can see them use the old-fashioned spinning wheel to accomplish this. The function of the spinning wheel is to unravel the dyed fiber onto a bobbin that can later be fed to a weaver.

You can see the dyed bobbins of silk thread as a result of the spinning wheel in the above picture.

The next part of the process is the weaving of the threads into the silk scarf material:

I really don't know how much they enjoyed me getting up so close to them as they did their work, but I knew I would never get this opportunity again, so I took advantage of it. If it did bother them, they didn't show it.

This woman is smiling when I begin to film her. But I'm certainly sure that it was only for the camera she smiled. This cannot be fun work. I expect they are like most workers in this part of the world and work very long days of 12 to 16 hours and get perhaps two days off per month. This is not air-conditioned work so in the summer I expect it can be quite brutal.

The silk weaving industry is actually dying in Cambodia. The terrible Khmer Rouge era of the late 70's which resulted in the killing fields I posted here on my last trip to Cambodia, also wiped out most of the Mulberry trees where silk worms spin their cocoons.

Today there are many more Weavers in Cambodia than there is domestic silk. As a result, silk must be imported if these weavers are to be put to use. There are still many homes in Cambodia with silk Weavers that just sit there being used only to hang clothes. The government is trying to help them by reducing or eliminating the taxes on imported silk, but it has not proved to be lucrative enough for this longtime tradition to be revitalized in many of the homes.

Silk weaving is a way of life for many Cambodians. It is passed on from mother to daughter through generations. It's sad to see this come to an end.

But I'm happy to have witnessed the process firsthand in Cambodia. I'm also glad to see that they are not exploiting child labor to do this work. Or at least they're not showing it here.

Lastly, and unseen in the process that I witnessed, is the finishing of the product. In the finishing, it is printed with any particular patterns that seem appealing, and then chemically treated to give it a luster that is common to silk.

I regret that I forgot to take pictures of the finished product. But they would be rather boring anyway because I'm sure everybody here has seen a silk scarf in their life.

That concludes what I witnessed and learned from my experience on silk Island in Cambodia.

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