Sunday Read Preview
We hope you will enjoy this excerpt from The Sunday Read where we talk about everything associated with natural fibers. We learn how nomads have survived for centuries in the High Himalayas raising cashmere goats., and we travel to Afghanistan to learn how two generations of war has impacted the silk trade. We learn how cultural traditions evolve and why they fade. We also spend time exploring the obscure, but no less fascinating.
As New Yorker editor Harold Ross used to say, the magazine's objective is to engage and entertain.
Our goal is to do just that.
(Photo: Mrs. Thuan with her hat made of lotus leaves.)
Wet and Sticky, Soft and Silky
Story and Photos By Linda N. Cortright
Mrs. Thuan with golden hanks of lotus silk
Ms. Thuan is seventy-one-years-old, a fact she is quick to share in a country that reveres its elders. Her family has been raising and weaving silk for three generations (she began reeling cocoons when she was five). Thuan understands silkworms the way Cesar Millan understands dogs—well, maybe not exactly, but she knows what makes them happy.
Happy silkworms spend the first thirty days of life eating perfectly ripened mulberry leaves, increasing their weight 10,000 times. They need to be fed every four to five hours, no exceptions. However, despite their robust appetite, they are actually quite delicate and susceptible to disease—a good silkworm farmer (sericulturist) keeps an arsenal of antibiotics on hand. But most importantly, once the voracious dears have spun their precious cocoon (another two or three weeks), it’s vital the farmer intervene before the final stage when the burgeoning moth pierces the cocoon with a “chemical weapon” enabling it to escape and fly away.
For a sericulturist, escape spells disaster. Once the cocoon is pierced, its mile-long strand of elegance is broken into a thousand pieces. Without a moment to lose, the farmer steps-in and boils the little buggers to death.
Not surprisingly, vegetarians have a difficult time with silk farming. Wild silk, which is harvested from broken cocoons is akin to a veggie burger. But experts agree, it’s just not the same as that “smooth as silk” feel from a murdered moth.
Just fifty kilometers outside of Hanoi, Ms. Thuan lives in mulberry heaven. Technically, Lâm Đồng, located in the central highlands is the silk capital of Vietnam, but Thuan’s home in Hanoi’s My Duc District is considered the hub of mulberry farming in northern Vietnam.
But I have not traveled halfway around the world to learn about raising silkworms. Instead, I have come to learn about Ms. Thuan’s relatively recent enterprise, weaving the fine threads of the lotus stem known as lotus silk. Although lotus silk was discovered in Myanmar more than a century ago, it is still relatively unknown even among the fiber elite.
Thuan’s venture into lotus silk began in 2015 when she won first prize in a nationwide contest for creative farmers. Her blue ribbon was awarded after she “trained” silkworms not to spin a cylindrical cocoon, but to spin silk across a flat, wooden surface. This is her Cesar Millan moment. Typically, a silkworm will make its cocoon by using the tightly spaced branches to spin the silk to and fro. Because Thuan has studied this process for years, she realized that if the silkworms weren’t given a branch to attach the cocoon, they would ultimately release their silk along a flat surface, or, for that matter—anywhere. As Thuan explains, the farmer must constantly pick-up the worms as they arch-up their heads in search of an area to spin, and then relocate it a few inches away from the others to ensure they are equidistance apart.
It’s like bumper cars for silkworms in reverse.
Outside the factory, cocoons grow inside a maze of branches
"Trained" silk worms with no cocoon.
This novel method is used for creating silk-filler in quilts, not the luscious yarn that is traditionally reeled and woven. The resulting sheet of “self-woven,” raw, flat cocoon is subsequently washed, boiled, and placed inside a layer of silk cloth and then eventually stitched into an obscenely soft (and warm) quilt.
The Vietnamese government was so impressed by her innovation they decided to expand her talents by sending her to Myanmar to learn about lotus silk. As the saying goes, “It’s all very simple, as long as you know how.”
By chance, my visit with Ms. Thuan comes the day after a television crew has been to her home. They are news people, not fiber junkies. And so, when she learns I am a journalist specifically interested in natural fibers, she grabs my left hand with delight. (She also doesn’t let it go for the next thirty minutes.) I know this gesture is a sign of endearment, but I rely on my hands to talk—particularly when I’m in a foreign country and feel the appropriate hand gestures will somehow make my words easier to translate. But I suspect even if I wasn’t in a foreign land, I would still need both hands; my words don’t sound the same with just five fingers. Except I really don’t need any words at all, Thuan immediately starts chatting excitedly about silk with no prompting. I quietly listen while her husband quietly refills my cup with green tea. (Because of Covid, I am a bit rusty on some of my cultural queues, such as an empty teacup means you obviously want more green tea, not you have had enough!)
I keep nodding my head as she talks about the different phases of rearing silkworms, when one of the workers softly enters the room carrying a small plate containing a half dozen bright yellow cocoons and two newly hatched moths; they are frantically having sex.
The woman sets the China plate on the table in front of us (were this a different scenario, I would expect it to hold a small, tossed salad with tomato wedges on the side) but instead, this is a fiber interview, so the conversation temporarily pauses while we engage in a bit of lepidopterist voyeurism.
“You know what they are doing?” She chirps, in a squeaky voice befitting her stature.
“Ahhh…. yes, I do.” Not exactly sure where on the cultural spectrum discussing moth sex falls, but she keeps smiling and pointing and so I smile and take some video with my phone, which necessitates her finally letting go of my hand.
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