For more than a millennium, perhaps even two, the inhabitants of the Red River Delta north of Việt Nam have made cloth and fashioned garments from it. They have managed to weave the fibres of many plants that grow in these latitudes, such as cotton, hemp, bamboo and even the banana tree, and Hà Tây Province, long famous for its textile tradition, maintains this activity in a certain number of villages. However, once the secret of making it was discovered around the 7th or 8th century, it is silk that became the most famous cloth from this part of the country. The fertile soil of areas in the Delta outside the dyke, consisting of constantly renewed Red River alluvia, just happens to be the habitat favoured by mulberry trees. Silkworms, tireless little spinners of silk yarn, love to eat the leaves of these shrubs, to the exclusion of any other sustenance. Naturally enough, producers of silkworms (sericulturists) and weavers specialised in this cloth go hand in (silken) glove together.
The founders of the silk craft in the region were women. Such an initiative was rare, or even without precedent at a time when Confucian and Buddhist ideologies dominated Vietnamese society. Two famous craftswomen, natives of the province, were the two Trưng sisters (Hai Bà Trưng), Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, warriors and martyrs hanging tough against the Chinese invaders in the 1st century, today worshipped by town planners up and down the country. During the long periods of Chinese domination, the invaders did not fail to notice local prowess and silk was a logical choice when this colonial power demanded tributes.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the feudal Đại Việt regime took hold in the north of Việt Nam; the country experienced a degree of economic development and reconstruction after 1,000 years of Chinese domination. Under the Lý Dynasty, the traditional craft was “restored.”
The former province of Hà Đông, later Hà Tây (recently integrated into Hà Nội), is a traditional centre of sericulture and silk weaving, may up of seven villages, all of them once – but only one of them today – specialised in silk weaving.
The necessary conditions for raising silkworms are as follows: Lots and lots (and lots) of mulberry trees (these worms couldn’t care less about a balanced diet, but they do eat like horses.). An optimal temperature: not less than 25 – 28°C. A good stock of antibiotics: these worms get sick easily, like all youngsters that stay cooped up at home all day. About 10 days after the female moth lays 300 to 700 eggs, the clutch of little greedy-guts will hatch. Having consumed their shells, the worms must eat mulberry leaves every four or five hours, night and day, and this for about 35 days. Thus swollen to 10,000 times their weight at birth, the gluttons then spend two or three days weaving their silk cocoons, each secreting one continuous thread up to 1.5 kilometres long, and begin to turn into a chrysalis inside.
This is the moment to intervene before it is too late: if you wait until metamorphosis, the new moth pierces a hole in this protective silk shell with a chemical weapon, cutting the beautiful thread up into lots of little weakened bits. The usual method is to scald them in boiling water to kill the larva. The cocoons are constantly stirred to soak them inside the water to a considerable extent. To this, a spoonful of soda is added to soften the hard cocoons and at the same time separate the thread from the cocoon. This soda softens the natural gum, sericin, which holds the filaments together. Once the cocoons are soft and supple, they are taken out, mashed and spread out to derive the fibres by hand or with a machine (a reel) while the cocoon is still hot. The workers who perform this task were traditionally always at risk of scalding their fingers or of cumulative damage from constantly overheating their fingers.
Once the yellow and white fibres are spun onto wooden reels, workers hand them in the sun to dry. Production from the silkworm cocoons depends on 90 per cent on the weather. Because the products will be ruined if it’s not dried properly under the sun.
The moth of which the silkworm is the caterpillar is called the Bombyx mori, or silkmoth. It is perhaps the most highly domesticated animal on the planet: none of the variants of this productive species exists in the wild, it is a pure product of selective breeding (genetic manipulation, in short) by silkworms (beginning with the Chinese and going back as far as 5,000 years, according to some sources). Due to thousands of years of selective breeding, the silkworms we know today are no longer suited to survive in the wild. Of course, there are still moths in the wild that are distant cousins, which produce silk cocoons, but nothing like these yarn factories on legs: the Bombyx cannot fly, the female cannot even walk any more, her abdomen is so voluminous, and the silk moth eats no food during its short adult life. There are modern cocoons that are so thick and tough that the silk moths that made them would remain prisoners inside without help to escape: this moth is maybe the battery chicken of the insect world.
Villages that spin silk off cocoons buy them from the producer of raw silk (sericulturists) and resell the half-finished product to spinning villages, who in turn pass this on to a fourth group, the weavers. An important detail should be mentioned here: since the beginning of the 20th century, each weaving village has begun to specialise in one or two kinds of silk (and there are lots of them). Yet another example therefore of a very fragmented activity with a high level of specialisation and interdependence of villages in this cluster of silk-producing communities.
There are very few artisans who make cloth from 100% silk in Vạn Phúc: only one or two. Vạn Phúc is now specialised in vân and the. No more gấm: the market for high-grade silk has almost disappeared in Việt Nam and the market for pure silk is very small.
Synthetic silks have been around for more than a century: the first was successfully developed before 1890, made with plant fibres (cellulose) and known as viscose, art silk (artificial silk) or, from the 1920s, rayon.
In the 1990s, Việt Nam, at last, emerged from a succession of wars and a period of commercial ostracism. With China opening up considerably to the Vietnamese, trade became much easier. Artisans from Vạn Phúc and other weaving villages began to buy and use synthetic yarn, especially viscose, in large quantities. Nearly all the silk made in Hà Tây craft villages today is a mixture of natural and synthetic silk.
The problem is that since making pure silk is not profitable and that there is no institution capable of controlling quality, many artisans (including the ones in Vạn Phúc) produce mixed silk, claiming that it is 100% pure silk.
So here are three simple tips to help you check whether a piece of material that someone wants you to buy is genuine or not:
1) Rub it! If you rub real silk vigorously, you should feel some heat generated: synthetic silk will remain cool to the touch. Ideally, always wear (or better still, ask a companion to wear) 100% silk underwear, to have a point of comparison close to hand.
2) Burn it! Cut off a small piece from the dress (if you are forcibly prevented from doing this, then they were scared of what the test results would show…) or ask for a sample of the same cloth (compare them closely). When you set light to it, be careful not to smell the smoke from the match. Real silk burns rapidly, make tiny globules, smells like scorched hair (it’s a similar protein) and leaves black, gritty ashes; if it’s rayon or a similar substance, it will smell like burnt paper (most papers – and all matches – are made of cellulose) and the ashes will be powdery and chalky.
3) Dissolve it! This test requires a modicum of preparation, organisation and scientific rigour, but you can handle it. Prepare a solution of 16g of copper sulphate (CuSO4 ) in 150cc of water. Add 10g of glycerine, then caustic soda (NaOH) until the solution clarifies. This mixture will dissolve a small sample of pure silk. If it happens to be mostly mercerised cotton, rayon or nylon, the sample will sit sullenly at the bottom of this cocktail, in silent – but eloquent – reproach to the silken-tongued trader who would pass it off as something else.
It is easy to visit Vạn Phúc from Hà Nội. Don’t miss the chance to browse through the craft textile products in the village’s numerous retail boutiques. You can find fine silks in plain colours, or with patterns such as butterflies, phoenixes, cranes, roses, daisies, peach blossom, etc. On backgrounds such as banana-green, red with a yellow sheen, mauve or bronze. There are also a limited number of master craftsmen, who continue to make high-quality silks, and whom it is possible to visit. Naturally, you can also buy their wares.
Sautéed pupae of silkworms (chrysalises) with kaffir lime leaves were widely consumed in Việt Nam, are sold at Vietnamese markets (ask for nhộng). Silkworm pupae are silkworm in the preparation phase, turning into butterflies to lay eggs. The country’s nutrition experts say that the dish, rich in protein and minerals, is good for children as it can prevent malnutrition and is important for the development of the body. It is also good for those who suffer from kidney disease or arthritis. From the market, pupae are washed, dried, and then mixed with salt. The silkworm pupae will be fried with oil and fish sauce. Lime leaves were cut into tiny strips and sliced chilli mixed into fried pupae to add more taste to the dish. There are environmentally-conscious motivations for eating pupae of the silkworm. If they weren’t eaten, they would become a waste product. Furthermore, the insect doesn’t have a large carbon footprint of cows, pigs, and chickens. An environmentally friendly delicacy, if you will. They’ve even been eyed as an option for a protein-rich space food for astronauts.