Silk cocoons and mulberry leaves at a silk weaving village in Laos.
In the West there is a sense that “silk” is very delicate. Silk, in fact, is a protein fiber like our hair. Fabrics made from silk have lasted for centuries and can be seen on view in museums. In Thailand it is used for bullet proof vests — woven in layers with the warp and weft in opposite directions.
Silk is actually made by various different insects of nature from worms to spiders. The most common form is made from silk worms that eat mulberry leaves. From Wikipedia:
“The best-known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fibre, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors. Silk is produced by several insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing. Other types of arthropod produce silk, most notably various arachnids such as spiders.
To make natural dyed batik with silk, the fabric is first washed with special soap to remove surface oils, then the silk is stamped with hot wax, dyed in multiple baths of dye, then the fabric is boiled to remove the wax. Therefore, the idea that silk is “delicate” is not real.
Silk does not have to be dry cleaned — the ancient textiles and clothing in museums were not “dry cleaned.” A traditional method of cleaning silk uses boiling water poured over hibiscus leaves, the leaves are squeezed to release a natural detergent and the silk is washed. D. Bali uses natural shampoos to wash silk, and uses natural conditioners periodically to condition the silk.
A recent report caught our eye about the development of silk from spiders. Take a look here for yet another amazing miracle from nature reported in The New Yorker: “In the Future We Will All Wear Spider Silk”
There are many types of silk fabric including crepe de chine, chiffon, organza, habotai, and tussah (made from wild silk).
This short video from Cambodia is a good view of how silk is made.
For many years I have been working with a very special silk weaving studio in Isan (Thailand), just near the Mekong River. Many of the residents share ancestry and cultural history with the Laotions just across the river. This includes their long tradition of raising, spinning, and weaving beautiful silks.