April 18th, 2017

Meeting the Silk Worms

I’ve been trying to place my first memories of silk, before any awareness of it’s grandeur.  When I first noticed the feel of it, the weave, the way it seemed to reflect light, so different to the flatness of cotton or itchiness of wool.  I remember being obsessed with a certain satin edged blanket when I was really young, a woollen blanket with a silky trim, I loved the contrast of the fabrics, it was all plush and comfort combined.  Fast forward to my teens – the joy of finding a Chinese silk blouse from a second hand shop in Glasgow’s West End, with intricate silk buttons and embroidered neckline.  I hardly wore it, but loved it hanging there in my wardrobe, instantly lifting the standards among the battered cords and v-neck jumpers I otherwise wore to death.  Its time would come.

For all my love of silk, I never really thought about its origin, it would be well into my twenties and a textile degree later to get more engaged.  As a student and a new designer, I was always more devoted to the colour, the print, the design on the surface of a fabric.  The printing base for me was about how to best show the imagery, the fabric was secondary.  Strange now I come to think of this, as I was – and still am so fussy about the fibres I want to wear.  Starting C F McEwan was entering new territory – I had to consider the wearability of my print, to shift from print designer to product designer, be my own customer and find the best fibre for the job.   Printing my scarf designs onto silk for the first time in 2013, was a revelation.  A lofty word to describe what was a lovely moment, how print and cloth can work so beautifully together, how they can compliment the other.  The print was vibrant, the lustre and drape of the silk made the print seem fluid, as if in movement.  Customers responded, they remarked on the softness.  I watched children (with clean hands!) reach instinctively to feel the scarves at fairs, reminding me of the innate power behind our sense of touch.

I think any success of C F McEwan over the last few years is thanks to the quality of the silk.  The print is enjoyed, but it is the wearability of the silk that lingers and I take no credit for that.  It becomes clear it is the little creatures known as silk worms I must thank and my compulsion to meet them grows.  The business, with all the people involved; weaver, printer, machinist, photographer, web developer, stockist and customer – their presence all hinges on the life force of the silk worm, with it’s quiet dedication to eat, sleep and grow pure protein and turn it into silk.

You might just get an inkling then, of my thrill to meet them.  The main reason for visiting Vietnam was to find these silk worms and learn more about how silk is produced.  China would be a more obvious place to start, the number one world leader of silk production and the origin of silk for my scarves.  But it’s Vietnam at number six, that would finally sway me to get over to South East Asia, the landscape and colourful textiles following next on my list of reasons to go, and so I set off last November to explore.

Records show Vietnam has been producing silk for over 2000 years, originally a fibre reserved for Kings, Queens and mandarins.  In 1000 – 1054, King Ly Thai Tong encouraged a big increase in silk production, boosting the country’s economy and eliminating the need to rely on Chinese merchants to get hold of silk.  Silk villages sprung up around the country.  More recently in 2015, Vietnam produced 420 metric tonnes to China’s 170000 tonnes (data from the International Sericultural Commission).  It’s well regarded for its unbleached and natural quality, particularly for it’s raw silk.

And so to these silk worms…while in Hoi An, I went along to the Silk Village for a tour, a resort in the ancient town focused on conserving and celebrating the history of sericulture (rearing of silk worms for silk production).  Staff are employed to look after the silk worms and demonstrate the stages of making silk.  First stop – the room of the worms.  I heard them before I saw them – munching on the mulberry leaves, hundreds of them…

I’ve put together a little video of my visit, a combination of silk in action in Vietnam and later on my trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where much is also being done to promote it’s production at Artisans Angkor.  The video shows my own rough and ready footage of the stages towards a piece of woven silk fabric.  I’ve also captured some examples of ikat silk weaving, just a few of the styles being produced daily in Siem Reap.  The video soundtrack is a recording from a performance I saw while on a trip to the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam.

I’ve got a few new memories now to join my silk collection, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about the delight in meeting these creatures.