Equipped with knowledge provided to them by Phontong Handicrafts Co-operative, artisans create every silk scarf from start to finish at the co-op. Starting with the mulberry tree and ending with weaving the silk, each step is crucial to the production of the fine Lao silk products.
The Importance of the Mulberry Tree
At Phontong Handicrafts Co-operative, there is a balanced ecosystem. The entire silk production cycle starts and ends with the planting of mulberry saplings. These saplings provide fruit for dyes, leaves for organic fertilizer and food for growing silkworms. The silkworms continue the cycle by producing cocoons and nutrient rich waste that can be used as fertilizer for mulberry and food crops.
The silkworm is crucial to the silk production process. The silkworm creates a cocoon made by secreting two filaments from its mouth. One is a very thin strand of silk, and the other is a cord of gum called sericin. When exposed to the air, the two strands harden together and become one length of thread. This cocoon is the beginning of what will be beautiful silk products that Phontong creates.
The raising of silkworms is a full-time job. The producer must keep the silkworms in a rearing house to protect the worms from pests, diseases and to maintain a humidity level. The silkworms must be fed mulberry leaves three times per day. Because silkworms are such delicate insects, producers must ensure that there is little variation in their living environment—even residue from tobacco on the producer’s hands could spread sickness among the silkworms.
As the silkworms create their cocoons, the silk producer is also busy ensuring that the worms are distributed evenly on a frame, known as a mountage, and maintaining a clean environment for the silkworms.
Harvesting The Silk
After five days of being inside the cocoon, the silkworm turns into a dark pupa in transition from a silkworm to a silkmoth (similar to the process of a caterpillar to a butterfly). At this time, the cocoon is ready to be harvested and transformed into silk thread. The cocoons are plucked from the mountage and sorted according to quality. They are cleaned and the loose outer threads that are frayed are removed by hand.
Up to 100 strands are pulled through simple tools in order to form one silk thread.
The new silk thread must then be soaked, cleaned and softened first in rice water, and then left over night to condition it to absorb natural dyes, and hung to dry. Once the silk has dried, it is ready to be boiled for many hours, this time in ash water to wash the sericin off the silk.
A soft texture will be created when the sericin boils away, and the silk is ready for weaving or dyeing.
With beating combs and dancing shuttles, the village weaver creates the silk cloth finishing the cycle of silk production. Using skills learned from Phontong, the weaver operates a traditional loom. The weaving position is favoured among women in the village because it allows them to watch their children and participate in village life. Most weavers are able to produce 1 to 1.2 m in an eight hour day.
With the silk produced, Phontong Handicrafts Co-operative are able to create trendy silk scarfs and other items for the fair trade market. Ten Thousand Villages Canada recently received two of these soft scarves.
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