Left: Worms feeding on mulberry leaves; Right: Beautiful silk gifts at the gift shop

Anita modelling a silk patchwork skirt
Silk is undisputedly, one of, if not the most beautiful of all the natural fibres. It is strong enough to incorporate into any patchwork project, and can be used for a myriad of different purposes. It also absorbs dye better than any other fabric, giving an array of beautiful hues to choose from. Throughout the ages, silk has been a luxurious and costly fabric, but it has also been the cause of espionage, murder and even war. Men and women have travelled thousands of miles for silk garments to reach wealthy Europeans. Silk is not difficult to produce, nor is it dependent on a particular climate. It is, however, extremely timeconsuming to produce and this is why it has always been and will remain an expensive fabric. Of course, its ability to be smooth, sumptuous and shiny all at the same time has also ensured its continuing popularity and connotations of extravagance.
Discovered thousands of years ago in China, how to make silk was kept secret for many centuries. The Silk Road (a famous trade route for, among other things, the export of silk), which stretches between the East and Europe, where the Greeks and Romans paid small fortunes for the fabric. Due to the silk battle that occurred in 751AD between China and Arabia, Asia is thought to have stepped up and taken a prominent position in the production of silk, with much silk clothing found in Europe dating back to the early medieval period. It was in those days most likely to be a reserve for the aristocracy and rich merchant families.

Left: Artisans D’Angkor sign; Right: Soaking the lavae cases in boiling water

Left: Workers check the feeding silkworms; Right: The mulberry tree – silkworm’s food source

Transforming Threads

For those who are serious about silk, there simply is nowhere better to purchase this material than from its original source. Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia, where labour is very cheap, produce the material on a large-scale, leaving the local shops and markets awash with silk cushions, silk scarves, silk skirts and naturally rolls of the stuff to buy, at more than affordable prices. The Artisans D’Angkor, based near the magnificent Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is one of the few silk weaving farms that allows visitors. Just off the dusty, beaten track, it is little-known by tuk-tuk drivers, so you may have to ask around, but the visit is more than worthwhile. A local will give you a tour of the ‘factory’ and explain how those little silkworms are the starting point of a long and laborious process to produce sheer 100% pure silk. A truly fascinating feast for the eyes to see! The humble silkworm which feeds on mulberry tree leaves, spins a cocoon of silk thread around itself, in preparation for its metamorphosis into a moth. It produces the fibre from its mouth and using its tiny forelegs, spins the silk into place. An incredible length goes into each cocoon.

Left: Spinning the silk onto winder; Right: Rusty nail dyed silk

Left: Worker using the weaving loom; Right: Patterned yarn ready for weaving
Following its transformation, the lifecycle continues with the moth breaking free from the cocoon, mating with other moths for reproduction. The female moth lays eggs, which then hatch leaving a hungry silkworm looking for some mulberry leaves. And so, the lifecycle goes on. However, if the moth is allowed to break from the cocoon during that process, it would split the silk thread. For purposes of reproducing the silkworm, some of the moths are allowed to leave the cocoons. Those used for producing silk are baked in a hot oven (some methods freeze the cocoon, believing it to be a more humane way to kill the moth) then dipped in boiling water to gently soak away the silk cocoon. The end of the thread is placed on a large winder and the cocoon is then unrolled. The process doesn’t end here. A number of various stages can then be added to the production line at this phase, such as dyeing the cloth or introducing patterns to a garment during the weaving. An old rusty nail is traditionally used to gain an orange-coloured silk. Other naturally found items are used to gain more colours especially herbs and flowers. The final stage is the actual weaving. Different patterns and colours are incorporated to make a range of silk homewares and clothing.

Left: Finished fabric on weaving loom; Right:Beautiful silk gifts at the gift shop
It takes some 1,700 cocoons to make a silk dress! The manufacturing of one single garment is a lengthy process, requiring many hands at different stages. It really is quite astounding what goes into making this great natural material. The farm at Artisans D’Angkor includes a mulberry tree plantation area, large huts where the worms are contained for their lifecycle and for cocoons, factory huts where the silk is removed from cocoon and transformed into a fabric. The shop on-site houses a collection of the sheer silk available for purchase at a fraction of the cost here in the UK

Great Global Impact

The art of silk weaving is a very ancient one, which has influenced not only the creative world of crafts such as weaving and sewing (and of course patchworking), but also affected the political landscape of the world. If you’re planning to travel distant shores this year, make sure you don’t come home without a large stash of pure silk.

First published in Popular Patchwork July 2006