Cambodia Hopes to Spin its Way Into Global Silk Market
For 63 years now, Khun Deab has been producing silk. She carefully tends mulberry trees, painstakingly cuts the leaves into food, and diligently rears baby silkworms, whose sole purpose in their three-month life is to produce the silk that will eventually be made into shimmering dresses and other Khmer garb. It is all the 78-year-old has known since she was a teen—producing silk in the traditional way she learned from her family.
Khun Deab and others like her are part of an ancient Khmer silk tradition. But the government, seeing greater potential in Cambodia’s silk, has decided to take production to the next level. Cambodia now imports about 140 tons of silk per year; Cambodians so far only produce about 20 tons. The government would like to see that change, not only to eradicate the importation of silk, but to actually produce enough to export it.
“I believe that right now, local people are using silk from Vietnam, and there is too much importing,” said Chan Tong Yves, secretary of state for the Ministry of Agriculture.
The plan could boost jobs and increase the diversity of Cambodia’s exports.
“I think this is a good plan to improve living conditions of people,” said Meach Sam Ell, a doctor of agronomy for the Ministry of Agriculture. “It can help people get more jobs, and it is a way to stop villagers coming from the countryside to Phnom Penh.”
At the heart of the government’s plan is a massive training program, one that would teach traditional growers how to produce more silk, faster.
At an inter-ministerial meeting last month, presided over by Council Minister Sok An, members of a wide array of ministries agreed on working toward boosting silk production, according to officials at the meeting.
“Right now, the government just needs to teach people a new modern technique to increase farming,” said Soy Sokha, economic adviser to the Council of Ministers.
The Ministry of Agriculture will send educated officials out to various provinces to begin teaching villagers the benefits of silk production, supplementing the trips with radio and television spots.
Some of the improvements would include modern machinery to cultivate the land, fertilizer, and equipment to help separate higher quality silk, said To Kimsean, co-national director for the Project to Rehabilitate Silk in Northwest Cambodia. Training in how to choose quality worms will also help, he said.
“If we want to have enough silk to serve the country, the government has to send down experts to villages where farmers are interested in this work,” To Kimsean said.
Some of the new techniques will enable mulberry trees to grow faster, he explained. While mulberry trees normally take more than two years to grow enough leaves to feed the worms, new procedures can cut that time to four or five months, To Kimsean said.
“I have some experience planting mulberry trees in the old style,” a bald Khun Deab said in a recent interview at her Kandal province home. She then carefully outlined the step by step process of silk production.
When the trees have enough leaves, they are removed and chopped into tiny pieces before being given to the worms, the best of which are chosen from a previous crop.
A male and female are kept together for 24 hours, wrapped in paper where they will mate and produce lice eggs, Khun Deab said.
“The feeder must look after the lice properly by giving mulberry leaves to eat,” she said. “The worms have to feed under a mosquito net, and the worm food must be fresh and not wet.”
The worms are temperamental. Wet food will kill them, and mosquitoes can give them disease. And if any other person other than the feeder comes around them, they will become a “yellow color” and get sick. “Then the worm will produce less silk.”
When the fickle worms mature—after about two months—the male and females are again separated, spread out on large bamboo trays and fed more mulberry leaves.
After about a week, the worms begin to spin silk, wrapping themselves in the gossamer strands. Once they have covered themselves, they are picked up and dropped in boiling water, which separates them from the silk and kills them. Total life span: about three months.
The silk will go on to be used for a variety of garments. While locals will buy silk dresses for weddings and ceremonies, and foreigners like silk curtains or table clothes.
However, the government plan to export does not include exporting these types of garments, rather focusing on exporting the raw material.
“If we export silk to Europe, Japan, America and other Asian countries, it is better than if we export silk clothes,” Soy Sokha said. “People [abroad] might not be interested in buying silk sarongs, krama or shirts from Cambodia.”
And even if a market can be created in the international community, Cambodian silk will have to live up to buyers’ expectations, officials agree.
“Yes, yes, we want to encourage exporting local production,” said Sok Siphana, secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce. “But Meanwhile silk production must be as good as international standards.”