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Weaving a new future for silk

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Heng Ney Sim removes dead mulberry silkworms from the live ones at her small silk farm in Prek Bongkong village. Photograph: Ruth Keber

In a little farm in Prek Bongkong village, in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district, one industrious Cambodian family is bent on keeping the silk industry alive in the Kingdom.

Older generations of the family used to raise their own silkworms and make silk, but the practices were forgotten during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Led by 27-year-old Heng Ney Sim, the family started raising their own silkworms again four months ago.

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A sari made from eri silk.  Photo Supplied

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The eri silk worm (above). Kalyan Mey shows a potential investor his work (below).  Photo Ruth Keber

The worms are raised in giant rattan baskets, and the nursery is filled with mulberry leaves – nutritious chow for the fledgling worms.

Clutching one of the rattan nurseries, Ney Sim lifted the lid and revealed hundreds of tiny dead worms. She said she had spent the morning trying to save the remaining live ones from the high temperatures over the preceding days.

Silk weaving in Cambodia has a long history, dating back to the first century. But practices were lost and ideas forgotten when artists were killed under the Khmer Rouge.

Today, several factors are contributing to the death of the industry: a lack of knowledge about how to modernise and develop the silk industry, inadequate finances to fund research into the sector and environmental factors such as a disease that affects over 50 per cent of silkworms in Cambodia.

Ney Sim said she typically buys imported silk from Vietnam or China, but in the last five years, prices have soared.

“Five years ago, one kilogram of raw silk from Vietnam cost between $20 and $22. Now, it costs up to $55 a kilogram.”

She said she believes it is urgent for Cambodia to produce more of its own silk.  “It’s very important for Cambodia [silk farming], for the culture, to help increase the economy.”

One type of silkworm – not yet used by farmers, but available to researchers – could prove saviour for the country’s silk industry.

Already popular in India, Japan and Thailand, the eri silkworm is more resistant to heat and disease, and research is under way into whether it could be used here in the Kingdom.

Millions of farmers in India already depend on the eri worm, according to Kalyan Mey, the director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Cambodia silk programme.

The new worms arrived in Cambodia less than four months ago, but the FAO funding for them at the Bantey Dek Silk Station in Kandal finished at the end of February.

Kalyan and a few friends have stepped forward to personally pick up the basic costs until further funding can be found.

Researchers already know the eri worm is more resistant to disease and high temperatures, and it feeds exclusively on cassava and castor leaves, he said.

“I see a lot of potential for the eri worm from an economic point of view; we could produce a silkworm that is disease-free.

“Currently, we import 400 tonnes of silk a year from different countries with surpluses of silk, but they give us the cheap product.

“We produce two or three tonnes per year locally.”

Kalyan said the main issue in Cambodia is a silkworm disease known as pebrine.

He said he saw that over 50 per cent of worms had been affected by the disease after visiting different villages in 2007.

“On top of this, our silkworms are not productive,” he added.

For that reason, Kalyan formulated the research project with the FAO almost three years ago.

But it was only in the last four months that he became aware of the eri worm, also known as the “wild worm”.

“I discovered there is a lot of potential in it: it is more resistant to climate, disease and to rough treatment. To cultivate these worms, all the farmer needs is a bamboo basket. There are cassava leaves available all over the country to use as food. Supply is definitely not a constraint for eri.”

Textile technologist and managing founder of India’s FabricPlus Dilip Barooah, who has been working with silk for over 25 years, said eri silkworms have been used in India since the late 1700s.

“The name ‘eri’ was developed from the Assamese word ‘era’, meaning the castor plant. But back then, it was called Assam silk.”

Dilip said eri was once a wild silk moth in India, but it has since become domesticated.

The use of eri is becoming more common because of its sustainability with low environmental and high social impacts, Dilip said.

“It’s becoming very popular amongst those who practice absolute non-violence and who do not use any products obtained by killing any living creatures.

“Buddhist monks in India, Bhutan, Nepal, China and Japan prefer this silk due to its cruelty-free process.”

The pupae or larvae can be extracted straight from the eri cocoon without harming it.

He said in some communities, eri shawls are used inside coffins with the belief that they will protect humans even after death.

Silk made from the eri worm also has exceptional thermal insulating properties, which are rare in other textiles, he said. “It can be blended with wool, cashmere, bamboo linen and many other materials.”

Kasetsart University Professor Tipvadee Attathom, who specialises in insect pathology, said that eri silkworms have been cultivated in Thailand for more than 30 years.

“It took quite a long time to gain knowledge on efficient rearing and making use of the eri silkworm.

“Eri silk material has a coarse texture and is not as shimmery as mulberry silk. It is more or less like wool, which is most suitable to wear in winter. However, due to its coarse texture, it can become cool when worn in summer.”

Attathom said eri culture could be very profitable to the different sectors of the silk industry in Cambodia.

“Not only to farmers but also to textile industries. Farmers can gain extra money from producing cocoon and pupae [as food] with a small amount of investment.

“The standard of living for farmers will be improved, but above all, members of the family can work and stay at home together [as they do not have to leave home to find an extra job after the cassava planting season]. There is enormous socio-economic value for the farmers.”

There is a growing demand for eri-based cosmetic, food and fertiliser products around the world – and within Cambodia, according to Kalyan.

In Japan and South Korea, eri-based cosmetics and soaps are already on the shelves of supermarkets, he said.

Meanwhile, here in the Kingdom, iL Brille spa owner Kato Kazunori has already approached Kalyan regarding the use of eri products here.

Kalyan said that if research into eri silkworms continues, farmers could be raising their own eri worms within three years.

“So this is my dream. I can see a lot of opportunity in this, but I am desperate now. The funding from the FAO has run out.

“We are talking about planning for our country, it would be a waste to start it again.”



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