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Todd Borgie Neil Dana reporting from Siem Reap, Cambodia:

Angkor Silk Farm


Today, I had the very educating experience of going to the Angkor Silk Farm, about 15 miles outside of Siem Riep.  I took a tuk-tuk out to the farm, which took about 45 minutes, since the driver was driving so slowly.  It was quite an enjoyable ride through the country.  In fact, getting out of the city, we almost ran over all the school kids getting out of class.  There were hundreds of students pouring into the streets on foot and bicycle.  It was quite a display of organized excitement.  Heading out towards the silk farm, we passed many small houses, rice fields, and other great scenes, such as a girl taking her bull into the yard!  You also see all the different modes of transportation as well, such as mopeds, ox carts, huge construction trucks with lopped-off roofs, funky tractor dragsters, and the old trusty bicycle.  And after a busy day on the road, you must wash off and cleanse yourself, so I was blessed to see some young kids taking a little "shower", so to speak. 

So I arrived at the Angkor Silk Farm just when all the workers were exiting for lunch, and I didn't get to see the operation in full force with everyone working.  However, I did meet the manager in charge, named Samol, and he was extremely helpful and toured me around the entire farm and explained how the entire silk process works.  I will give you a brief synopsis here.  There might be some holes in my story, as it was hard to catch and understand and remember everything he said. 

The Angkor Silk Farm was started in 1993 by the Cambodian Ministry of Education and Sport.  The land was donated by the Cambodian Government to help the people.  It was funded by the French Embassy up until 1998, at which time the European Union took over.  From 2001 up until the present day, the silk farm has survived on its own by selling all the gorgeous silks they create.  Now this silk farm is not only just a farm, but a training facility as well.  The workers are picked from areas all over Cambodia, as young poor children between the ages of 18-25 who have no other opportunities.  They are then brought to the training program for free for a year.  They are provided with hands-on training the entire time, with food and shelter and a comfortable working environment with normal hours of operation.  When they are finished with their training, they can stay and work at the farm and earn a living.   

So the process, in a nutshell, goes from tree cultivation, to worm breeding, to farming, and ends in textile production.  And it all begins with the Mulberry bush or tree.  When the farm started, they were using 30 different varieties of silk trees from around Asia, including Cambodia, India, Vietnam, China and Japan. Now they have a select 18 species that they have been using over and over again for years.  The silk worm eats the leaves of the tree, mmmmn, yummy.  Now you know that when you eat food, you like it fresh and tasty, not old and stale.  Well, these silly worms are the same way; they like the fresh leaves.  So this creates the technique they use of trimming the trees every three months and keeping them to a maximum of 20 centimeters off the ground.  This way, the trees stay small and they can reuse fresh leaves for the high-maintenance silk worms.  Be careful you ladies out there; if your hubby ever calls you a sweet silk worm, he may mean something different than you thought! 

Now you may be wondering, well, if they cut the leaves, are the worms already outside on the leaves being cut too, or lost?  Well, no.  The worms are all kept indoors in a greenhouse.  And who can guess the primary reason for this?  I thought for climate control or humidity or protection from the sun or harsh rains.  But the real reason is to protect them from their predators, such as ants, flies, and all kinds of beastly insects.  So not only are these silk worms picky about their eating habits, they need to be protected all the time.  Sounds more and more like Chanda, Ooooh, did I just say that!  hee hee.  So anyway, they cut the leaves every three months and bring them inside the greenhouse and feed the worms.   

Now let's get to the worms.  They have a lifespan of 47 days!!  Wow, and you thought our life was short.  Twelve hours of their lives are spent as butterflies in search of and attaining beautiful lasting relationships with one another.  Then the next 12 hours, they are in labor laying eggs.  Once the eggs are laid, they require 12 days to hatch.  On the 10th day, the eggs are yellow, and at that point, they spend the next two days in a box and turn gray before they hatch on Day 12.  So after they hatch, they spend 24 days growing up into big adults.  They spend the first 12 days eating five meals a day, and the last 12 days eating three times a day on those delicious Mulberry leaves.

And on the 25th day, they turn yellow!!  Then they go into their cocoon process, which lasts for 5 days.  The silk that people love so much is made from this very cocoon they produce in those five days.  In fact, from one cocoon, you can unwind 400 meters of silk!  That's incredible!  That is four football field lengths of silk from one little cocoon.  So after they cocoon, the silk worms take three days to turn into a butterfly, and then the whole process begins again. 

So that's the tree, silkworm, and farming process; now let's move on to the textile part of it all.  So, like I said earlier, one cocoon produces 400 m of silk.  And from each cocoon, 25% is for traditional, or raw silk, and the other 25% is used for improved, or fine silk.  The other 50% must get lost in the cleaning process.   It works like this:  The first layer of silk is the raw silk with knots on it, and the second layer is much finer, softer, and lighter in color. They use a wooden mechanism to extract the silk from the cocoon, which I believe is (KNEADING?); it is really neat looking.  They use different devices for the fine and raw silk.  Then it must be cleaned by taking out the knots, and also putting it in a solution of NaOH(?)  After this, they then dye the silks for hours until they attain the various colors they wish to use.  Then they let it dry in the sun for 3-4 days.   

After the silk dries, you can notice the different types of silk.  The white silk is Chinese, the yellow Cambodian, and the darker yellowish/brown is the Thai.  And of course there are the dyed silks, too.  Next, the silk must be wound by winding machines, which are very interesting wooden mechanisms.  And all this is done by hand.  After the silk is wound up, they put it on a warping instrument to get the silk on beams that are 100m in length.  And after all these different processes, the silk moves onto the famous loom.  And after the loom, then they have to reed the silk, which is kind of like combing it, like you comb your hair.  And THEN, it goes to the framing process, where they cross warp the thread with a pedal to lift up various cross sections and weave silks together.   

NOW LISTEN TO THIS!!  TYE DYE!!!!  I KNOW YOU LOVE TYE DYE SHIRTS, or at least you used to, or maybe your brothers and sisters and parents did, but tye-dye came from this region of the world, ASIA.  Correctly spelled Thai Dye, this is the process where they take the silk strands and weave plastic strands through the white silk in a pattern that they choose to create.  By dragging the plastic strands through the silk, it dyes it.  And by repeating the process in different directions and with an array of colors, they create magnificent patterns. Think of it as if you ran a piece of spaghetti with marinara sauce on it through someone's blonde hair that was stretched out.  You would create a line across.  Of course, with Thai Dye, it is extremely precise and very labor intensive.  That is why patterned silk material is so expensive.  It takes a month longer to make the Thai Dye process happen. However, it is well worth it and extremely beautiful and a masterful art.  The whole process takes 2-4 months, depending on the quality and style of silk being made. 

And I guess the last step is to put it up for sale or give it to someone you care about.  The silk here in the silk farm store is breathtaking, with quite a range of beautiful silks to choose, made right here in Cambodia, one of the sweetest countries I have ever visited.   

And that is the silk process as best I can describe it. 

Thank you for taking the time to read my little story about Cambodia; I hope it puts a little interest into your mind about this part of the world. Take care,