Australian Michael Smith explores the amazing world of silk at a small family-run factory in a mountain town near Dalat.
Silk is one of the most prized fabrics on earth. Along with Asian spices and tea it is a symbol of the East, which epitomizes both wealth and romance and serves as a reminder of great adventurers who traveled the silk route centuries ago.
About an hour from the Central Highlands town of Da Lat is Nam Ban. Just a narrow strip of a town nestled among the hills, it is home to many silk growers and a factory called Cuong Hoan where the miles of thread spun by each worm are collected to make cloth.
Some of the “Easy Rider” motorbike drivers that hang out on the streets of Dalat know the factory and are happy to negotiate with tourists for a short tour. It’s an eye-opener to see how the shimmering cloth is made.
Cuong Hoan is a family-run factory with about 45 employees, a third of whom have been there since the company started in 1990, said 43-year-old Pham Van Cuong, who runs the factory with his wife, Nguyen Thi Hoan.
“When they work with us for a long time they are like members of the family,” said the owner, who started the business from scratch.
Most of the employees are women and Cuong and Hoan train their staff on the job. There are about 40 women who take the silk off the cocoon. These women receive a year of training. The five women who work the looms have had about two years of training.
The cocoons come into the factory in flat bamboo trays and are put into racks to be sorted. The cocoons are grown around the villages all year round. Each family can generate between 20 and 50 kilograms a month. A kilo contains about 650 cocoons.
When a silk worm spins a cocoon it spins itself from the outside in. The ultra-fine thread has to start somewhere on the outside and there is a knack to finding it.
Cocoons are plunged into boiling then coldwater. The loose silk is tugged until the end is found.
Seven or eight strands are spun together on a wheel to make a thread.
The factory produces 50 kilograms of silk a day.
The boiling water that is needed to set the silk thread is supplied to each girl through hot pipes that run across the top of the production line.
For the girls at Cuong Hoan factory, this is the perfect place to cook a quick snack. They place the silk worm pupae from the used cocoons on the hot pipe to cook. They nibble on cooked pupae throughout the day and say they taste like peanuts.
Cuong has two large weaving machines that make about 60 meters of cloth a day. He dyes about two thirds of it and leaves the rest white. You can buy whatever is in stock – freshly dyed. Prices vary from VND30,000-120,000 (US$1.80-7.21) per meter. He sells the cloth throughout Vietnam and Thailand through a big silk factory in Dalat.
“The dyes are my secret recipe,” he said. He has seven basic colors from which he can make every color under the sun.
The tailor on the premises, who has a 10-year history with Cuong Hoan, can make whatever you want or you can select from the rainbow of Cuong’s secret colors on the shimmering dress racks.
From the factory, the Easy Riders go to the silk worm growers in Nam Ba. We went to the house of Ho Thi Thu Huong. She was culling the weak and sick specimens from the nine racks of worms preparing their cocoons in the yard.
“Women farmers work very hard,” she said.
Huong, 41, grows many different crops including coffee and chickens. Silkworms are just for a bit of extra cash, she said.
She takes the racks into the house each night and whenever it rains.
In the earlier stage of the worms’ lifecycle – after they hatch and grow big on mulberry leaves – she keeps them in the house day and night in big round bamboo trays covered in leaves. The worms have a distinctive but not unpleasant odor.
Huong who has raised silkworms for seven years has three children aged between 17 and 21. She is putting the oldest two through mechanics school in Dalat while the youngest still lives and helps out at home.
“I love animals. I love everything I have, even the work,” she said.