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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 at left, widow from the Khmer Rouge on Silk Island in Cambodia.)

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The Mighty Mekong
Story and Photos By Linda N. Cortright

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Dredging vessel pumping hard along the Mekong

At one time, long . . . long . . . ago, Cambodia was the epicenter of progress. The carvings along the temple walls at Angkor Wat tell the story of a land that was repeatedly at battle, and repeatedly won, for more than 600 years. At its peak, nearly 1 million people lived in Angkor (modern-day Siem Reap), while only 20,000 people lived in London.

 

Perhaps, it is no coincidence, that the very thing which led to its rise was subsequently the source of its downfall—water.

 

The Mekong River is the twelfth longest river in the world. The word Mekong is a contraction of the Thai words Mae Kong, meaning Mother of Waters. Beginning in the 9th century, “water engineers” began constructing a network of canals and reservoirs that distributed the water for agricultural expansion and saved it for times of need. Rice paddies flourished, while miles of meandering waterways fed a thriving trade industry. Farmers were able to produce more rice than they needed, which meant they had “free time” to do other things—like build massive temples and fight wars for their king. There was no other system like it in the world and the Khmer empire just grew, and grew, and grew.

 

Along with feeding thousands of people along its shoreline, the Mekong also provided the fertile ground for a burgeoning sericulture industry. Groves of mulberry trees were the foundation of Cambodian silk, which is prized for its golden sheen, and the Khmer began developing intricate ikat weaving patterns that were the pride and privilege of royalty.

 

Today, the Mekong is taking away all that it gave—and more.

 

Koh Dach (aka as Silk Island) is a thirty-minute ride via tuk-tuk from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Along the way, there are shopping malls, manicure parlors, and the omnipresent smell of sizzling oil and street food. The unceasing clanging of steel cranes erecting giant condominiums —largely funded by Chinese investors—all but eclipse the city’s skyline. Just as the Mekong once provided the foundation for fertile agriculture, its deep sandy bed now provides millions of tons of cement to support the building explosion. The Mekong is no longer a romantic vista of ancient sampans and floating villages. It is an angry flotilla of dredging vessels, belching smoke, and fatal landslides.

Feeding mulberry leaves to silkworms

Silk Island is just ten miles long and two miles wide. Its narrow dirt roads are lined with stilt houses, clucking chickens, and a declining number of handweavers. Although nearly all sectors of the natural fiber industry have seen a precipitous drop, Cambodian silk was all but annihilated during the Khmer Rouge that not only destroyed roughly one quarter of Cambodia’s human population, but also ravaged its mulberry groves by converting them into rice production. After years of political and civil unrest, Cambodia went from producing 150,000 kilos of silk per year to just 800 kilos.

 

Despite government intervention and a number of development organizations, Cambodia’s silk industry continues to decline. Farmers, often wary of market instability, are reluctant to plant mulberry trees, preferring to grow cassava instead. It is estimated less there are than 100 active silkworm growers left. Meanwhile, young handweavers are discouraged by poor wages and frequently turn to garment factories for steady employment.

 

Less than a mile from the ferry landing lies the entrance to the Weaving Center on Silk Island. A large sign with a heart in the middle welcomes visitors. Although there are countless handspinners living closer to town with wooden looms set up on the ground floor of their homes, (they are more than happy to have visitors come to both look and buy), the center is the only place that actually produces its own silk. Pre-Covid, it was a popular destination for tourists not only wishing to escape the mayhem of Phnom Penh but to gain a better understanding of this traditional craft. Understandably, it is limping forward as tourism recovers at a snail’s pace.

 

The center is vertically integrated. One section is a dedicated to a small orchard of mulberry trees whose leaves are harvested and fed to the silkworms. In another area, several women sit on the floor of a three-sided hut, feeding ripened leaves that have been carefully chopped into bite-sized pieces to feed hundreds of hungry silkworms spread about on bamboo trays. When the silkworms are ready to spin their cocoons, they are placed in a tangle of leafless branches. Once fully matured, the cocoons are boiled over an open fire and then reeled, before being spun onto bobbins.

Apart from the orchard, the initial stages of production take up less space than a two-car garage. However, in order to accommodate not only the visitors but also the handweavers who both work and live at the center, the handlooms are set up in multiple buildings. Of course, there is a well-stocked gift shop featuring both silk and cotton products from scarves to tablecloths.

 

Many of the handweavers living at the center are widows and orphans from the Khmer Rouge. For centuries, weaving traditions were passed down from mother to daughter, but conflict aborted that cycle of knowledge. Part of the challenge in reviving Cambodia’s textile traditions is not only the availability of raw silk but transferring expertise from one generation to the next.

 

Sadly, less than 1% of the silk thread used in Cambodia is locally grown. Instead, they depend on importing on raw silk, predominantly from Vietnam and China—a system that is becoming increasingly problematic as the price of raw silk has risen more than 60% in the last few years. Although the amount of silk produced at the center is a fraction of the country’s demand, it serves as a valuable learning center to understanding a tradition that goes back more than a thousand years.

(full article available with subscription)

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