Textile Travel: Vietnam’s ‘Silk Village’

This past winter, I was lucky enough to visit Vietnam on vacation. While there were many places I wanted to explore, one that particularly enticed me was the ambient former port city of Hoi An, located on the eastern coast of Vietnam.

Hoi An and the surrounding area has been inhabited for an estimated 2200 years, emerging as an important seaport for the Champa kingdom. In the early 14th century, the Cham king presented a large parcel of land, now known as Quang Nam province, as a gift when he married a Vietnamese princess. During the “Age of Exploration”, it was one of Asia’s busiest port cities – fueled by trade of luxury silk textiles, porcelain, spices, ivory and other treasures.

Natural and dyed silk fibers

Natural and dyed silk fibers.

However, the main river connecting Hoi An to the sea silted over in the 19th century, bringing trade to a halt, and thus preserving many of the buildings and architecture in time, avoiding the inevitable slapdash construction booms that accompany most developing economies. It was not until tourism made a comeback to Vietnam in the 1990’s that Hoi An began to flourish once again, mainly in part to industrious residents who have found a sweet spot, combining the city’s history as a textile and commerce hub with the foreign visitor’s inexhaustible appetite for very affordable tailored goods and clothes.

Such is the city’s reputation as a textile mecca that custom tailor shops line every block. The goods sold inside fall anywhere on the quality spectrum from luxury to fast fashion; the more expensive stores display bolts of jewel-toned fabric, the mannequins in the windows wear ball gowns or the traditional Vietnamese ao dai. The cheaper shops, more popular with the backpacker set, have dozens of plastic mannequins lined up on the sidewalks, sporting various designer knock-offs. Shop owners and seamstresses ready with measuring tape in hand, beckon you into dense, windowless shops, fabric in every color and pattern imaginable lining the walls.

Here is it possible to get a three-piece suit made to order and ready in a day or two for around $150, or a sundress made in any color imaginable for less than $30. Since tailoring is such a huge industry in Hoi An, many of these shops are owned by individual families who pass down the skill from generation to generation.

Inside a Hoi An tailor shop.

Inside a Hoi An tailor shop.

The vast majority of silk goods are produced by domesticated silkworms, Bombyx mori, although there are many insects, and of course arachnids, that have the ability to produce silk. Silk is a protein fiber that is created as the silkworm transitions from a larval to pupal stage by enveloping itself in a cocoon. Silk in its raw state contains two proteins, fibroin and sericin; two strands of fibroin are produced by the spinneret (a gland located near the head of silk-producing creatures) and then coated with a waxy substance, sericin, which binds the strands together. These fibers are prism-shaped and able to refract light at multiple angles, which is why silk has a certain iridescent sheen.

Silk fibers on a loom.

Silk fibers on a loom.

Following the advice of “my mom’s yoga friend,”  I spent a few days at a plush, yet very affordable resort/spa/living museum called Silk Village, located on the outskirts of Hoi An. Centuries ago, Silk Village employed dozens of the local Quang Nam residents, who reared silkworms in the vast mulberry tree groves surrounding the grounds. Local artisans produced silk textiles and products for trade both locally and internationally. However, due to declining interest in expensive handmade cloth, and of course the industrial revolution, Silk Village was closed as a manufacturing site about 100 years ago. When re-opened as a resort, spa and living museum, its current owners kept its original design and intent in mind. Many of the buildings, while providing luxurious amenities, reflect the traditional local architecture style of centuries past. Many are low to the ground, have thatched or terracotta roofs, and are either open air or have stucco walls. Mulberry trees, as well as other various tropical flora, provide a lush habitat for silkworms and tourists alike. Even though Silk Village produces relatively few silk goods in comparison to their heyday, their dedication to traditional Vietnamese sericulture and textile production attracts visitors from around the world.

After languishing in the spa and sleeping off my jet lag, I decided to take the complimentary tour offered to hotel guests. I had yet to explore the grounds fully, so I was unsure of what I had in store ahead of me. We met in the lobby and then were promptly led to a complex of about 4-5 traditional-looking structures.

An adult Bombyx mori moth with eggs.

An adult Bombyx mori moth with eggs.

The first one we entered was by far the most musuem-like, with pictorial guides and posters highlighting a Bombyx mori’s lifecycle, from egg to moth. In captivity, the eggs are laid on specially treated paper, and as they hatch, transferred to a locale where they can feed continuously. It was then that I noticed two vast baskets in the corner, peering over the rim I could see thousands of silkworms wriggling around, one on top of another, munching on mulberry leaves.

Larval silk worms feeding on mulberry leaves.

Larval silk worms feeding on mulberry leaves.

After roughly a month in relative comfort and abundance they will begin to spin cocoons, where they will enter their pupal, or pubescent stage. Only about 10% of the population will reach adulthood, but apparently this is enough to keep the population stable.

Our tour guide lead us to our next stop, an open air structure with a thatched roof. Despite the lack of walls, the air was thick with a particular smell – something between boiled linen and a baked potato. Two women were seated on stools, steam pouring out of cauldron near their feet.

Women unravelling silk from cocoons.

Women unravelling silk from cocoons.

This is where the lifecycle of many a Bombyx mori comes to an end, and where silk production begins. The cocoons, plump, white and full of potential, much like an Ivy League graduation procession, are thrown unceremoniously into this large vat of boiling water.

Silkworm cocoons immersed in boiling water.

Silkworm cocoons immersed in boiling water.

The heat kills the pupa in its chrysalis and loosens the tightly wound thread-like fibers. It is undesirable for pupa to fully mature and hatch in the cocoon, as its growth causes the silk strands to break. In traditional silk production, this thread is deftly located with two long sticks resembling chopsticks, and wound around a spindle (the pupa is often eaten). One cocoon can produce up to 1500 meters (nearly a mile!) of silk, however, only about 500-800 meters are usable for production.  A single thread is too delicate to be used for weaving, so a few threads are woven together at this point to create a stronger material.

Once the silk fibers have been extracted, they are processed, spun and dyed. Most silk thread will be washed in a soapy water or enzyme solution, which dissolves the waxy sericin, creating a much more soft, pliable and opalescent product. Raw silk lacks this extra process, so it is unique in that it has a rougher, almost bumpy appearance and feel.

Next, our tour guide led us into another room where a woman sat in front of a complicated looking wooden contraption. This woman was weaving in the traditional Cham style, and many Cham women still weave and produce textiles using this centuries-old method. A traditional Cham loom is much longer and thinner than a modern loom, constructed of rough-looking wood, bamboo and coral.

We all watched transfixed, as the woman expertly tugged on seemingly random pieces of coral (used here as heddles) causing them to bob up and down, creating a beautiful and complex brocade pattern. An experienced Cham weaver can weave up to 300 meters a day.

A woman weaving a brocade pattern on a traditional Cham loom.

A woman weaving a brocade pattern on a traditional Cham loom.

Next, we were greeted by the steady thwack sound of a large, slightly more modern and vastly more mechanized loom. Strung across the top part of the loom were seven bobbins, all different colored silks, luminous blues, pearlescent silvers and whites, rich golds and reds, being woven into a striped, aquamarine colored cloth.

A traditional Vietnamese loom.

A traditional Vietnamese loom.

Much of the silk textiles produced in Vietnam are created on looms similar to the one pictured here, although most likely on a larger scale. Textiles are created in various grades and blends, there is fabric that is 100% silk, raw silk, silk and cotton blends and, of course in most mass-produced “silk” fabric, you will find some polyester or acrylic.

The tour ended with, you guessed it – the gift shop, but it was the most interesting gift shop experience I have had to date. After briefly browsing the racks and marveling at the handmade silk fabric for sale, we sat down for the final phase of the tour. Our guide had a small bundle of fabric that she set down on the table.

“Let me show you how you can tell if a fabric is pure silk”, she said. She took a scrap from her bundle and lit it with a lighter.

“Smell that, what does it smell like to you?’’, it was a familiar smell, but I couldn’t put my finger on immediately, mostly due to the fact that we were in a tasteful boutique, but after a few whiffs it became apparent, it was the unmistakable odor of burnt hair.

“That is pure silk,” she informed us. She took another scrap of fabric out, and lit it.

“Now, what is that?”, again, another familiar smell, recalling campfires, kindeling . . .

“Burnt paper?” we all mused together. Yep, that is a cotton/silk blend. The final piece of fabric she lit filled our lungs with sharp, acrid smoke – burning plastic – because that’s what it was, a poly-silk blend.

Various silk and silk blended fabrics at Silk Village

Various silk and silk blended fabrics at Silk Village.

Silk is perhaps one of the oldest known luxury goods, records of its production dating back to the Huang-Di Dynasty in China some 5,000 years ago. Our desire for its unique beauty, strength and versatility helped launch the Silk Road, and expediting commerce and cultural exchange between the east and west. Besides textiles, silkworms have been used more recently by the scientific community. Because of their larger size and rapid lifecycle, they have been used to study insect physiology. Bombyx mori are popular in genetic experiments for these reasons as well. Recently silkworms injected with spider DNA have been bred to produce an even stronger silk material, and silkworms have been used in the transgenic production of human drugs. I left what I thought would be a rather perfunctory tour with a great appreciation for these versatile creatures, and additionally, for the people trying to keep their traditional textile story alive.

Sources:

Menachem, Lewin and Eli M. Pearce. Handbook of Fiber Chemistry. 2nd ed., M. Dekker, 1998.

Grimaldi, David and Michael S. Engel. Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Stewart, Iain, et al. Lonely Planet Vietnam. 13th ed., Lonely Planet Publications, 2016.

Special thanks to Hoi An Silk Village and my wonderful tour guide. Additional information provided by Vy Plaza.

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