Craftpeople revive ancient Ma Chau silk

|     Bui Hoai Nam     |

QUANG NAM, Vietnam (Viet Nam News/ANN) – Silk was among central Vietnam’s most prosperous industries in the 15th Century, traded with Europeans at the busy Hoi An Port. But the trade faded by the late 1990s. In recent years, however, the last local silk makers have revived the traditional craft of Ma Chau silk while introducing modern techniques and marking methods.

Tran Huu Phuong, 48 and his daughter, Tran Thi Yen, 25, and five craftswomen in Nam Phuoc Town are on a mission to revive the Ma Chau silk brand. Starting with little more than a lingering hope in 2010, they have restarted hand-made silk production and begun marketing their products internationally.

The Ma Chau silk co-operative, which emerged in 1978 not long after the country’s reunification, once boasted more than 300 members working day and night for domestic sale and for export.

As market reforms were introduced through the 1990s, the trade could not compete against cheap machine-made textiles and garments. Raw Ma Chau silk fell into bankruptcy. Most craftsmen left the trade to seek better jobs.

“Our trade was on the edge of death. Silk fabric, which was used as material for fashion, was seen as not suitable for modern fashions among the young generation. Workers then left the co-operative. Only five middle-aged craftswomen still remained in the trade, earning their living from odd pennies,” Phuong recalled.

“I was at a cross-roads. I had a long talk one night with my daughter about the idea of reviving the trade,” he said. The father and daughter then designed marketable samples for finished products rather than selling raw silk to other craft villages nationwide or to traders.

“It was really a risky decision. We and the five craftswomen shared funds to set up a joint-stock company to replace the old co-operative,” he said.

Phuong’s daughter, Tran Thi Yen, said she shared her father’s worries in restarting the old trade from deadlock.

“I joined the risky adventure with my father when I left a job at a bank to follow the craft from the beginning,” Yen said.

Ma Chau silk is dried and softened before being sent to fashion designers. – VIETNAM NEWS/ANN

“Poor marketing and diversity of silk products available at the market as well as a lack of trade promotion had kept our business down. I boosted online marketing and advertising to attract customers. More products and new designs came out with the changes of technology from manual looms into more productive machines,” she recalled.

Yen said samples of ties, scarves, long dresses and hand bags were designed and mass produced from 100 per cent silk. Natural dyes, diversified pattern designs and a range of sizes were added.

She said in the debut of new designs of Ma Chau silk in Hoi An, a metre of pure silk with natural dyes was sold at VND480,000 (US$21), while a mixture of silk and cotton cloth was priced at VND115,000 ($5).

Yen said the price was double that of synthetic industrial-made silk categories.

Natural dyes, with recipes passed down from the older generations, used extracts of green coconut shell, fermented almond leaves, green tea bud, melaleuca wood, purple cabbage, styphnolobium japonicum (yellow colour), material of medicinal herbs and different roots, barks and fruits available locally. Phuong said he collected 20 colours from natural dyes from 15 families to create unique colours for Ma Chau silk among dozens of traditional silk villages in Viet Nam.

He said that in previous centuries, each family involved in Ma Chau silk production was in charge of their own colour creation. However, the old recipe of natural dye had been disappearing with the decline of the old trade.

The owner of the Ma Chau silk company said the unique colours and persistent hand-made silk fabric were the product’s most precious asset, adding that stylish consumers can recognise the difference between natural hand-made silk and synthetic silk.

He said hand-made silk production costs, including labour, silk yarn and mulberry farming, account for 50 per cent of the total cost.

The workshop with five workers-cum-shareholders in Duy Xuyen could produce 1,500m of silk each month with an annual revenue of VND20 billion ($884,000).

Craftswoman Tran Thi Moi, 60, said she had earned a living from the silk trade for 40 years, and she did not want to change the job.

The silk trade also creates good income for those who grow mulberry trees (whose leaves are used as feed for silk worms).

Hoang Thi Phuong Lien, owner of LiA fashion brand, said she had used Ma Chau silk for her fashion collections since 2016.

“By using Ma Chau silk, our fashion brand has helped Phuong and his daughter realise their dream of a breakthrough to the fashion industry and getting the silk trade closer to consumers,” she said.

Lien said she hoped Ma Chau silk would be more widely developed in the near future as lovers of Vietnamese culture embrace the unique traditional silk trade.

Ho Viet Ly, director of the HCM City-based Toan Thinh Silk Company, said he was well aware of the beauty of the Quang Nam-based silk.

Quang Nam had over 2,000ha of land under mulberry dedicated to silkworm breeding and silk cloth production at the industry’s peak in the 1960s. Now, silk producers make use of just 11ha concentrated in Duy Xuyen, where only 30 households work on the trade.

Unstable production and price concerns deter people from expanding their mulberry farms for silkworm breeding.

Le Muon, vice director of Quang Nam Provincial Agriculture and Rural Development, said farmers prefer breeding silkworms for food rather than cocoons and yarn production.

He said a kilogramme of cocoon, using three kilogrammes of silkworm, was sold at VND110,000 ($4.8), while three kilogrammes of raw silkworm is sold at VND160,000 ($7).

Muon said the unstable silk market and limited production also blocks farmers from expanding their mulberry fields. A master plan for international-brand silk development has not been mapped out, so the future is uncertain.

Nguyen Phuoc, an owner of a silk company in Lam Dong, said “Viet Nam is yet to show the world how special its silk is and how skilled its craftspeople are”.

Phuoc suggested that Ma Chau silk and Quang Nam authorities should build a modern silk trade emphasising their unique value, while fashion designs made with silk fabric can be used daily by consumers.

He warned that poor quality silk production in pursuit of quick profit would lead to serious damage of the traditional trade, and Ma Chau silk must persuade picky customers to pay more for traditional silk.

Phuong and his daughter have opened a showroom in Hoi An, offering tourists a chance to learn about hand-made silk. Yen said she also launched the Ma Chau Facebook page to promote the trade worldwide.

Phuong said she had called investors in hand-made silk production to build up silk value chains to create more profit for traders, farmers and workers, which would help revive the 500-year-old silk brand.