Like most people, I knew little about silk. I knew that it came from silkworms, but the question of how, that remained a mystery. Ask most Laotians and they’ll probably know. That’s because at one time nearly every family within certain provinces produced their own silk. It was a common material and many household goods were made of it, from sarongs to diapers. It was at a farm called Mulberries late in the afternoon where I learned the story of the domesticated silkworm.
“Would you like to see the worms?”
Heck yeah I did!
When we stepped into the rearing house, I thought, well this is a new sight. A few middle aged women squatted next to a cluster of wooden trays. Behind them was a shelving unit extending the length of the room, and on it were many more trays covered in blue netting. They held little worlds inside, each one representing a different stage in the silkworms’ lives. Some trays were full of mere infants while others were nearing their final days.
I picked up a silkworm and it danced in the palm of my hand. Its skin was slightly translucent and it glowed a pale yellow. It bore an uncanny resemblance to a seahorse with deep set eyes and long nose, although Brad thought it looked more like a wolf. A wolf? Seriously? Maybe Brad ought to stick to Nacho maintenance.
Even though the silkworm can do spectacular things, its day to day life is rather mundane. It primarily revolves around eating and pooping. But this is crucial for its big task ahead. It is the responsibility of the crouching women to continuously remove waste and uneaten foliage from the trays while restocking the worms with more leaves to eat.
The silkworms have incredible appetites and will consume 30,000 times their weight in food during their life span. As a result, Mulberries has acres upon acres of mulberry bushes, used mostly for worm food, but have other purposes as well: the berries are for eating and making dye, the bark is for tea, and the remaining leaves are used as fertilizer.
After three weeks of binge eating and pooping the worms are plucked from their communal trays and given new homes; “private flats” if you will on a revolving gridded tray. It is here that each worm will begin and complete the big project: making a cocoon. For five days the silkworm busily secretes two filaments from its mouth: a strand of silk and a cord of gum, which when exposed to air harden into one strand. This filament is worked around the worm’s body in a figure eight pattern until it’s fully enclosed in its cocoon.
Finally the job is done. The worm is happy and it lays there in the darkness, dreaming of the day it will emerge a level-one badass: a magical worm with wings. Yet what happens next is quite unexpected and tragic. Without any notice it is pulled from its tray and thrown into a pot of boiling water.
This is the only way to remove the silk from the little seahorse-wolf creature. It is flipped around and around as its silk is pulled away, through a collection of bicycle wheels and pulleys. The system is archaic but efficient and the cocoon’s figure eight pattern quickly unwinds leaving the worm naked and lifeless in the water.
The result from one cocoon is 250 meters of gorgeous yellow or cream silk.
Nothing goes to waste. The worms are eaten by the workers and the unusable outer floss of the cocoon becomes stuffing material for pillows and blankets.
To prepare the usable silk as weaving material it continues through a multi-day process: it is soaked overnight in rice water, rinsed, dried and then boiled in a pot of ash water to create a softer more silk-like texture. It’s then hand twisted in a single or double thread and finally dyed using the plants in Mulberries gardens. On this particular day, a few thick bundles of radiant orange and dark blue silk hung from the post drying in the sun.
Our final stop was the weaving room, a tightly packed space of inward facing looms.
“It’s sticky rice season so no one is weaving right now. Everyone’s in the fields working but maybe they’ll return in a few weeks. You wouldn’t believe how loud this place gets. People are just talking and laughing all day long.”
It was easy to imagine. I walked around the perimeter and peered into a place so incredibly rich with creativity. All of the artists were at different stages; some looms exposed a few feet of design and color scheme while others had just finished the skeleton of their work, a tedious process of arranging the threads through wefts and combs. In time, every project in the room would reach completion and a new set of projects months down the road would begin again.
Before leaving we stopped by the small on-site shop that sold silk products made on the farm. I admired the shawls and scarves that had taken weeks to make by hand using the cocoons of thousands of magical worms. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Brad running his fingers over a silk shirt.
We quickly agreed that a $100 silk shirt was not in the cards, and “besides”, I told Brad, “you could never pull of wearing a silk shirt”. Instead we settled for some mulberry tea and a silk soap sleeve. At least this way we could keep ourselves smelling like berries.