Finding its silk saviour

ANN/VIET NAM NEWS – Born and raised in Hanoi, Luong Thanh Hanh, 34, started her career as an interior designer, but a love of nature-based traditional silk fabrics lured her into an adventure to revive an obscure and almost defunct silk village in the northern province of Thai Binh.

Hanh first visited the centuries-old tussore silk village of Nam Cao Commune on a trip to her husband’s coastal district of Tien Hai in late 2011 when most of the weavers had cast off their looms and hand-weaving craft had been fading away for decades.

Despite indifferent feedback from craftsmen in the village at first, for a whole year she insisted on the revival of the silk trade, eventually winning the villagers around.
“They suspected me! The silk village had been left vacant for decades, and some families had even destroyed their looms for firewood. My parents-in-law supported me by gathering veteran craftswomen and arranging silk weaving work for them again,” Hanh said.

“They (crafts families) agreed to try the basic processes of growing mulberry [the leaves are used to feed silkworms], caring for the silkworms and cocoons, thread spinning and fabric weaving as they had experienced for years previously,” she said.

“The most skilful craftswomen were assigned on quality control. Silk makers used to work from the start to the end of the product but it took time and labour. We devised a work division so that each family was in charge of a certain step in the production process, and helped check each other for the final product.”

ABOVE & BELOW: A weaver makes tussore silk fabrics in the northern province of Thái Bình; and a handloom used to weave the best tussore silk. PHOTOS: HANHSILK

Tussore silk fabric with jazzy patterns is sun-dried

Tussore silk, or coarse silk fabric, is made entirely by hand, so the best silk needs careful quality checking by every family.

The Nam Cao Tussore Co-operative was eventually established, using the modern Hanhsilk brand for promotions and marketing.

ENTIRELY HANDMADE

Nguyen Thi Mui, 65, a silk weaver, says making tussore needs patience and good feeling in the fingers.

“We collect the cocoons after 21 days of feeding the silkworms with mulberry leaves.

The cocoons are then boiled for 15 minutes before steaming for six hours. The long heating makes the silk threads more durable,” Mui said.

“Workers then soak over-boiled cocoons in cold water to remove silk threads, and their skilled fingers are used to tune the thickness of silk threads.”

Mui, who is the third generation of a weaving family, said that each spinner can only obtain a very small amount of tussore thread, ranging from 70 to 100 grammes each day.

Nguyen Van Tue, 68, Hanh’s father-in-law, supervises the quality control of every process at the commune.

He said the co-operative has expanded the mulberry area to 100 hectares, and set a target of producing at least 100,000 metres of tussore silk fabrics a year.

“We cannot speed up the process because thin silk is easily broken or tangled by careless fingers. Making tussore is a very slow, meticulous and patient process,” he said.

Le Thị Lieu, 53, who is in charge of spinning silk threads, says the trade would have soon been defunct if Hanh had not made the trade preservation plan.

She said the ancient craft is seen as a spiritual symbol of the rice farming village, which has been passed down through the generations over the centuries.

“Silk is not only a life making craft, but an honour and a job loved by the village. Our product creates beautiful fashion for all, and we are proud of that,” Lieu said.

The artisan said the silk making even lures the oldest people in the village, with easy manual work, such as reeling silk threads, feeding silkworms or trimming silk.

NEW ERA

Nguyen Thi Thai, a 60-year-old weaver, said tussore weaving is mostly made by women between the age of 40 and 80. Many families have preserved the trade for three or four generations.

“The sericulture is not hard work. So, 95 per cent of the production is done by women. At least 200 households have joined making tussore in the commune,” Thai said.

Thai said tussore silk can be used for suits, shirts and daily clothing for both men and women.

A project leader with the Japanese International Co-operation Agency in Minamibousou City, Japan Fumio Kato suggested that a silk festival in central Vietnam should build a modern silk trade with unique value, and silk products designed for daily use.

He said traditional silk fabrics should be preserved with new, usable designs for the modern day, while every process of silk making must be conducted meticulously.

Founder of the Hanhsilk brand Hanh said tussore silk can be used for daily office fashion, as well as for towels, mattress and pillow covers, scarves, and ties. She said that thousands of Hanhsilk tussore towels are exported to Japan, while the US and European markets account for 50 per cent of her exports.

The Hanoian businesswoman has been exploring the use of natural dye and skills from different silk craft villages to create unique made-in-Vietnam silk with traditional value and heritage from ethnic minorities in mountainous regions.

The commune has also been developing an organic-based handmade silk to be part of the One-Commune-One Product (OCOP) umbrella of items.

Hanh said the greatest value of the commune’s tussore is that it is created from the love, and the skilful hands of craftswomen who have had the knowledge passed down for centuries.

She said she believes that the silk villages of Vạn Phuc, Nha Xa, Phung Xa, Ma Chau, Tan Chau My Nghiep and Bao Loc can mix with the handloom weaving and natural dyes used by the ethnic Mong, Tay and Thai to produce excellent, unique made-in-Vietnam silk.