SITTING under her wooden house in Banteay Meanchey province, 73-year-old Phiv Pi patiently unwinds fine threads using wooden spinning tools from silk cocoons raised in her home.
Boiling the cocoons in a pot, Phiv Pi says that her family has traditionally been silk farmers – one of a dwindling number in Cambodia to make their living this way.
“We never make much money from silk, but the money we make from selling it can sometimes help cover extra expenses,” she says in her home at Paoy Snoul village, Paoy Char commune, in the province’s Phnom Srok district.
Only two areas in Cambodia – this and another in Srei Snam district in Siem Reap province – still make golden silk for weaving. They produce just three tons of silk each year, with buyers in Japan, Germany, Greece and Australia.
Most of the raw silk used for textile production is imported from Vietnam, but Cambodia’s golden silk is known for its quality and its traditions date back to the Angkor era.
Silk and textiles have been a focus for life in Paoy Char, about 45 kilometres from Banteay Meanchey, for the past 60 or so years. Mulberry-tree farmer Sou Le, 65, says about 90 percent of village families used to produce silkworms in the 1960s, but that number has decreased markedly.
“Even in Khmer Rouge times, people still produced silk here,” he says. Last year, however, the price of golden silk dropped to 120,000 riel (US$29) per kilogramme, forcing more farmers to switch to growing rice.
But now the price has rebounded to 200,000 riel (US$50) per kilogramme, and Sou Le hopes for a good year ahead. It’s a steady income, he says, because silkworms mature into cocoons every six weeks, so the cocoons can be harvested for silk eight times a year.
Patience and hard work are needed for the job, he says.
First, villagers have to select silk cocoons by shaking them to find out whether the worm inside is male or female. Heavier cocoons are normally female.
Sou Le’s village keeps about 400 cocoons for breeding thousands of silkworms, which lay eggs and take about 10 days to mature into a worm. These are fed on mulberry leaves, cut into small pieces.
“When we raise silkworms, we never put any chemical poisons or smoke next to them. We have to protect them with mosquito nets. When the worms turn golden, we make piles of branches for them to ascend to make their cocoons,” Sou Le says.
To get silk thread, farmers boil the cocoons and untangle the threads with their traditional wooden tools. Each cocoon can produce about 700 to 800 metres of silk.
“Silk is not so easy to make. When cocoons get moist from the rain, it’s hard to untangle the threads, so we always raise silkworms in a good dry place that’s not too hot or too cool,” says Sou Le.
Paoy Char commune chief Peng Bunthara, 50, says that about 50 out of 2,000 families in his commune are still making silk.
Additional help has been given by the European Union, which founded Economic and Social Relaunch of the Northwest Provinces in Cambodia. This group has trained 478 silk farmers in new techniques. They have introduced a new species of mulberry tree to the area which has larger leaves, enabling farmers to feed more silkworms, and brought new tools to help unwind the silk threads and weave them into cloth.
Several demonstration farms are also being set up across Cambodia to improve silkworm techniques by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. If the industry develops further, it will create jobs for about 25,000 people and save around $10 million annually in silk import costs, the FAO estimates.
Golden silk is sold at the Khmer Silk Village Communities shop at 26 Street 55, Phnom Penh.