Story: Winlinh
Photos: Kim Dung

With millennia of history, the art and craft of silk production remains alive and well in Vietnam

Quality cocoons

Silk has always been one of the finest fabrics, thanks to its natural origins, having been woven by silkworms. Legend has it that the Vietnamese mastered the arts of sericulture, reeling, and silk weaving during the Hung dynasty. Vietnamese artisans have spun countless yards of exquisite and smooth silk. In the old days, silk was reserved for emperors or people from wealthy families. Nowadays, silk is popular because of its natural origins, high ability to absorb moisture, lightness, and the ethereal and elegant qualities it bestows on the wearer. Silk-making is an elaborate process that involves many steps, such as mulberry cultivation, silkworm farming, plucking, degumming, reeling, weaving, and dying. Each step requires great effort and dedication from the artisans, which often goes unrecognized.

Silkworms must be fed mulberry leaves for maximum food absorption to produce the most durable and beautiful filaments. Mulberry plants should be cultivated on fertile alluvial soil with low salinity levels. The life cycle of a silkworm lasts from 25 to 30 days and consists of five stages. The artisan will nourish the worms according to their development. Since silkworm farming directly affects the quality of silk, the artisan must pay close attention to the worms’ health and growth. As an old Vietnamese saying goes: “A swineherd lays down to eat, a silk farmer must eat standing up”. The artisan must stay on guard to ensure the best care for the silkworms.

After six days of constant eating, the silkworms reach their maximum size and start to build a cocoon. The artisan will then quickly put the worms on a twig frame. A twig frame is a trellis made of intersecting pieces of jute mallow, bamboo, or wood. Mature silkworms are placed on a twig frame and begin to spin silk for three to eight days. The worms’ saliva contains a protein that solidifies upon contact with the air, creating sturdy and stretchy filaments that envelop the cocoon. The worms will continue spinning until they are completely enclosed. During this process, the twig frame will be exposed to mild sunlight to better solidify the cocoons and give them a golden hue. A quality cocoon must be firm, fibrous, even, easy to unwind, and not too gummy.

Drying silk

The next step is degumming. The artisan will stir the cocoons gently and constantly in boiling water to dissolve their gummy sericin coating, making the cocoons softer and more pliable. They are then “thrown” through several guides and wound onto reels. The newly-formed threads are then left to dry. After drying, the threads will be plied and spun to form yarns before the weaving process begins. We can classify silk threads based on their quality, treatment, and spinning methods. After being woven, silk fabrics can be further differentiated based on weaving techniques.

Some traditional handicraft villages renowned for their silk include Van Phuc and Phung Xa in Hanoi, Nha Xa in Ha Nam Province, Co Chat in Nam Dinh Province, Duy Duyen and Ma Chau in Quang Nam Province, Tan Chau in An Giang Province, and Bao Loc in Lam Dong Province. Visitors may go to Co Chat to see the artisans reeling silk threads, Nha Xa to admire a beautiful village with more than 600 years of silk-making experience, or the riverside Phung Xa Village to listen to the frantic spinning of the shuttles. The most memorable destination will be Van Phuc Village on the banks of the Nhue River. Renowned as the birthplace of Northern sericulture, its famous Ha Dong silk dresses have long been synonymous with elegance for many Hanoians. Visitors to Central Vietnam can go to Ma Chau Village to acquire yards of fine silk spun by silkworms fed leaves from mulberry trees growing on the fertile alluvial banks of the Thu Bon, Vu Gia and Ba Ren rivers. Last but not least, don’t forget to visit Bao Loc, the capital of silkworm production in Vietnam. The city accounts for 70% of the national yield value thanks to its efficient production methods and favorable climate and soil.

Generations of Vietnamese artisans have produced lustrous and soft silk yards spun with the utmost care and passion. Today’s artisans will continue to carry the torch of their ancestors, thus maintaining and building this legacy.