Silk Worms for Weaving, or Silk Worms for Eating?

Silk weaving has a long tradition in the Siem Reap area. Though the Khmer Rouge regime narrowly destroyed the industry, in recent decades, there has been a renaissance in Cambodian silk textiles. The magnificent Artisans d’Angkor company leads the resurgence in Siem Reap. During my stay, I visited their main workshop in Siem Reap, and then took a trip to their silk farm, located just outside the city.

Silk fibers, on display at Artisans d’Angkor

The  silk production process is complex and labor-intensive. It all starts with the incredible silk worms, who spend all their young lives munching on mulberry leaves (I can relate- I feel like I’ve also spent most of my time in Cambodia eating).

Up close and cute: silk worms

The worms spin cocoons to start the transition to moth. At the farm, some are allowed to hatch, but most of the cocoons are taken for their silk thread. The cocoons are boiled to kill the worm before it hatches, to keep the thread in one piece.

Trays of silk worm cocoons- unlike Chinese silk worms, which spin white thread, southeast Asian silk worms spin yellow thread

Then starts the human labor-intensive part of the process. The cocoon comes apart in two different threads, dividing into raw silk, with a rougher texture, and fine silk, the perfectly smooth thread.

The cocoons are heated so that the thread separates, and it is spun onto the wheel

The thread is spun again and refined

The silk is spun onto spools and dyed, using a variety of natural and synthetic dyes.

Many different colors of silk thread

Many dyed blue thread spools are spun together on a machine, with careful oversight

The process of making silk thread is complex, but it is only the beginning. In a nearby warehouse, giant looms clatter and sing as the women focus on their designs. Most of the women work with headphones in their ears, eyes intently focused, ignoring the tourist cameras. I’m mesmerized by the scripted dance that I don’t quite understand- their hands move up and down, adjusting frames, changing thread, tightening the weave. Weaving silk truly is a beautiful art, even in the middle of the process.

One weaver, completely focused on her work

I left the silk farm with a deep respect for everything that goes into silk crafts. Artisans d’Angkor does a wonderful job of sharing and preserving this art form and others, like wood and stone carving, lacquering, and painting. This organization employs over a thousand craftspeople, and it is a great example of socially conscious business in Cambodia.

Silk painting in Siem Reap

The next day, walking down a side street near the night market, my boyfriend and I happened upon Bugs Cafe. It is a tapas bar that focuses on making insects, long part of Cambodian cuisine, more accessible (or perhaps, fashionable) to foreigners. We ordered the insect fondue, sharing a plate of fried crickets and silk worms dipped in chocolate. Though I’ve had crickets, I had never tried silk worms. They had a nuttier, earthier taste than the crickets, which went well with the chocolate.

Savoring the taste, I thought back to the silk farm, and the trays of silk worms eating mulberry leaves. The silk worm- the powerhouse of silk production one day, the tasty snack at a hip new bar the next. Whatever its context, I have gained a new respect for this amazing insect.

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