Siem Reap – Silk farm of Les Chantiers Ecoles and Artisans d’Angkor

On the afternoon of our first day in Siem Reap Vanessa and I went to visit Les Chantiers Ecoles, an establishment that teaches traditional Khmer artisanship to local youth.  The goal is to help them develop skills that will help them support themselves in the region, thereby reducing both poverty and the flight of young people to the big cities.  While the school teaches everything from lacquer-making to stone-carving, the heart of the operation seems to be their silk farm.  We arrived in time to take a free tour of the silk farm and see, first hand, the silk-making process.  Here’s what we learned:

Silk worms only eat the leaves of mulberry trees.  Accordingly, the farm has mulberry orchards dedicated to feeing the little worms.  Given the risk that birds and other predators might eat the valuable silk worms, the leaves are stripped from the trees and fed to the worms indoors.
 

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Mulberry trees

To prevent ants from getting inside the buildings, they’re built on small stilts with mini-moats full of water surrounding each ground touchpoint.

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Ant protection

The worms are tiny white creatures that have a very short life span.  We learned all the details of their stages of life — and of course by now I’ve forgotten pretty much everything.  I think the life cycle is about a month long.  About half-way through, the worms spin themselves into fuzzy cocoons made of a single strand of silk.  At this point there’s no risk of the worms’ wandering away.  They’re literally left on these giant flat baskets in the middle of the open room. 

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Some of the worms will be allowed to hatch from their cocoons, as moths, and mate to produce new worms.  The majority of the worms, however, will be killed before they hatch.  This is necessary, you see, because the success of the silk farm depends on harvesting all those strands of silk intact — and the moth’s exit from the cocoon inevitably breaks the strands into unusably small pieces.  To kill the worms, the cocoons are placed on racks in the blazing sun. 
 
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Once the worm has died, the cocoons are collected and taken to be spun into thread.  Each cocoon has about forty yards of silk, all in a single strand.  But that strand is too fine to be woven by itself, so it must be spun into thread.  The cocoons are placed into pots of boiling water to loosen the strands.  A barbed stick is used to stir the pot until the strands catch on the barb.  The strands are then fed into a spinning wheel device and spun into thread.

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Raw silk spinner

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There are actually two stages in the initial spinning process.  See how the cocoons and thread in the pictures above are yellowish?  That’s the raw silk.  Once you get past the raw silk, the strand becomes finer and turns white.  This is the fine silk.  Given the different qualities, raw silk and fine silk are spun separately.  So once all of the raw silk has been spun off of a cocoon, the strand is cut and the cocoons are moved to a different cauldren for the spinning of the fine silk.  The process is essentially the same, but the machinery is, not surprisingly, finer.



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Fine silk spinner
 
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If you look closely, you can see the super-fine white strands of the fine silk
going up from the cocoons into the spinner.

Here’s a photo of the different types of silk hung side by side, so you can see the difference between fine silk and raw silk.

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The initial spinning creates the threads, but those threads are often gummed up with worm feces and other cocoon matter that must be removed.  Women sit and work through skeins of thread pulling out all the gunk by hand.

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Once the silk has been cleaned, it must be bleached and then dyed.  Most of the colors can be obtained using natural dyes.  The baskets below contain some of the plants and minerals used to dye the silk.

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Once dyed, the silk is spooled using this machine.

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Once spooled, some of the silk is spun again into heavier warp threads.  Warp threads are the threads that run the length of the cloth.  The finer weft threads are woven over/under the warp threads.
 
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The original spools are in the frame on the right-hand side of the photo.  The threads run from
the spools and are fed into the spinner between the man and woman.  The threads are then
combined into a heavier thread and wrapped around the wooden circular frame (all the red
stuff you can see is the finished warp thread).

The threads are then sent to the looms, where the weavers work their magic.  I’ve included photographs and video clips to give you a sense of how they work.

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See the stick-spools of thread on the bench?  She’s weaving an ikat.  More on that below.

Needless to say, I found all of this fascinating.  Not only were the silkworms impressive, with their miraculously strong cocoon fibers, but the skill and labor that goes into turning those fibers into gorgeous silk cloth was astonishing.  I became convinced that I needed more silk in my life — a conviction that the school was more than ready to help with.  They have a beautiful showroom retail store called Artisans d’Angkor on-site at the farm, and another in town.  After the tour, Vanessa and I spent quite a while going through the shop thinking through how we’d like to redo our respective bedrooms and livingrooms back home… 

I instantly fell in love with the rich yellows, reds and pinks and decided to focus on pillow covers for my bed.  Narrowing my options down to just one set turned out to be impossible, so I bought a few different sets.

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This gorgeous raw silk pillow cover shimmers between bright yellow and a deep reddish gold.
I bought two standard pillow cases in this fabric to serve as a backdrop of color on the bed.
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Two throw pillows to go with the yellow pillows:  A large pink square with floral motif,
and a smaller rectangular pillow in multicolored stripes and red tassles.
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I also got a large square pillow cover in this “jasmine” floral motif.  I went with a slightly
toned down red and gold pattern, instead of the pinks and purples and yellows that I loved
in the other set, because I realized that I have no pinks, etc., in any of my other decor at home.

I also bought some ikat, which is not only beautiful but also really cool once you know how it’s made.  Remember how I flagged the photos/video of the girl weaving the ikat?  Well, here’s how it works.  Instead of creating a pattern by weaving threads of different colors (see the jasmine pattern above — that pattern was woven with gold-colored threads against a background of crimson threads), the patterns in ikat are created using a single thread that has been tie-dyed into multiple colors.  As you weave the thread through the warp, using it up and laying it against itself over time, the pattern emerges.  What’s amazing to me is that they’ve figured out how to tie-dye the threads at such precise intervals that they can create beautiful and complicated patterns this way. 

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Girls spooling the tie-dyed ikat threads
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The threads are wrapped around narrow dowels.

The ikat threads don’t look like much when they’re just sitting there.  But feed them into the loom and, voila!, a stunning pattern emerges.

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This pattern goes marvelously well set against the yellow of my other pillows.
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So I bought a large square ikat pillow and a smaller
throw pillow in burgundy raw silk to complete the look.

Of course, I have all these lovely silk pillow covers but nowhere to use them.  My bed currently is done up Moroccan style after my trip to Morocco last year, and I’m not quite ready to switch out that bedding yet.  And my living room is basically built around the sofa pillows I brought back from Istanbul a few years ago.  I guess this just means I need to move into an apartment with another bedroom that I can design around these silks . . . .

(And for any of you who might want some silks of your own, Artisans d’Angkor does operate online and will ship internationally.  Just sayin’.)

2 comments

  1. I want to go to there.

    (Which is my more reasoned and articulate reaction to this entry; because when I saw the picture of the skeins of silk my response was, and I am quoting myself accurately, “WANT!”)

    Like

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    Wow, very interesting, labor intensive (so glad my job is not de-gumming the silk!), beautiful…no wonder silk can be so expensive. Lady

    Like

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