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Skillful animal husbandry and an exacting craft combine to create one of the country's oldest and most successful products

Even the blazing sun of Saigon can be endured when you're wearing silk. This thin, light material which "breathes" easily is perfect for tropical climates. Silk also has a long and colourful history in Vietnam.

For many centuries, China was the only country which knew the secret of producing silk. The famous Silk Road along which silk was exported all over the world was the road to prosperity for those involved in the trade. But the collapse of the Tang dynasty (618-907) coincided with development of sea transport. The Silk Road was used no more and the secrets of the silk-making process were revealed.

At about this time, the silk-producing craft was introduced to Vietnam by a woman named A La, or La Thi Nga, who has since become the tutelary genie of the well-known Van Phuc silk village. In the 11th century, during the Ly dynasty, Y Lan developed mulberry growing areas and set up weaving workshops in the capital. By the 13th century, mulberry trees were as responsible for Vietnam's green landscape as rice paddies.

Other heroes in the development of the craft were Phung Khac Khoan, from Bung village in Ha Tay province's Thach That district, who during the Le dynasty in the 17th century perfected the technique of weaving thin black silk for turbans, and Tran Quy from La Khe in Ha Tay, whose name became associated with brocade weaving in the 19th century.

It didn't take long for the quality of Vietnamese silk to be recognised. A westerner named Poivre said in 1749 that "compared to Chinese silk, the Vietnamese product, especially that from the central region, is of superior quality and fineness". Between 1909 and 1913, Vietnam exported 183.3 tons of silk annually. Among the 108 crafts then practised in the north of the country, the silk craft had more staff than any, employing 54,000 weavers.

Prior to 1954, there were at least 20 silk villages nation-wide, each specialising in one particular kind of silk cloth. Some of the more famous were the Ha Noi villages of Buoi, An Hoa, Nghia Do and Trich Sai with their satin (glossy black or flowered silk called linh); and the Ha Tay province villages of La Khe with its gauze silk or the, Dai Mo with its cap (thin gauze silk) and tussore, and Van Phuc with its brocade. Other villages also contributed much to the development of traditional weaving. One name which stands out is the Bao Loc area in the central province of Lam Dong, which produced silk thread reputed to be the best both at home and abroad.

However, many silk villages have since disappeared, with villages dedicated to mulberry growing now outnumbering those who practise the weaving craft. The best-known survivor is Van Phuc village, just twelve kilometres south-west of Ha Noi. Two-thirds of its residents are weavers, and it has nearly 1,000 looms in operations.

"The heritage of the traditional silk-weaving craft can still be found in the mastery of weaving techniques by Van Phuc craftsmen. They can weave silk cloth of the best quality in the world," contends Trinh Bach, an American of Vietnamese descent who embarked on a project to revive court dress in the mid-1990s.

With wooden tools, great care and manual skill, weavers can create more than twenty kinds of silk, classified by number, quality of thread, and types of patterns and weaves. "There are fifteen to seventeen types of patterns which fall into three categories: legendary animals, flowers or plants, and geometric designs. Each pattern takes me a fortnight to finish," says pattern designer, Nguyen Van Viet.

If weaving is done totally by hand, a craftsman can make half a metre a day. This low efficiency has to be balanced against the fact that hand-made silk is glossier than that made with electric looms which produce five metres daily. The productivity is doubled if the weft is rayon and the warp is silk. But according to craftsman Trieu Van Mao, "each rayon thread is tough but when woven together the cloth gradually becomes loose. Meanwhile, each silk thread is easily broken but when tightly interwoven is more durable than rayon cloth."

Apart from being smooth, cool, thin and light, the artistic features of silk have generated a separate art genre - silk painting. Like lacquer ware, silk painting is a true reflection of the spirit of Viet culture. It is well suited to the stillness and tranquillity of much of the subject matter of Vietnamese painting. Art critic Hoang Cong Luan wrote: "The backgrounds of silk-painting are often not fully covered. Even when they are, their expressiveness is revealed by the fineness and glossiness of the silk. Silk fibres are nearly intact as if each one has been tinctured to be woven into a picture. The silk itself constitutes a source of inspiration for the artist, and is never simply a background for the picture." Pictorial silk works from former times are very rare, apart from portraits of Nguyen Trai, a cultural celebrity of the 15th century, and some other heroes. Not until the third decade of the 20th century did Vietnamese silk painting reach its

heyday. Painters like To Ngoc Van, Tran Van Can, Tran Binh Loc, Luong Xuan Nhi, Nguyen Tuong Lan, Nguyen Tien Chung and Le Van De, have each in their own manner contributed to the richness of Vietnam silk pictorial art.

The most famous name, however, is Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892 - 1984) whose talent was first recognized by Victor Tardieu, headmaster of the Indochinese Fine Arts College. Chanh started silk painting when he was a student there between 1928 and 1930. His works immediately achieved great success at an exhibition in Paris in 1931. Paintings like The Meal, Dishwashing Girl, Street Singers, Sewing Girl, Playing the Game of o an quan, Feeding Bird, and Washing Vegetables by the Pond clearly express his mild and gentle temperament, bound up with familiar images from the countryside.

The layout, colouring and style of these works is traditionally oriental, but they also employ western construction. They created a special place for Chanh in Vietnam's artistic pantheon. Of his 140 completed paintings and 300 sketches, 35 are displayed in the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. Others have found a home in four private French collections. Phan Chanh is still recognized as the best and most successful silk painting artist. A modern successor to him has yet to appear. Few artists have this patience, stillness of heart, great thoroughness, and slow and peaceful manner.
< The Guide Magazine / August 2002 >

Each silk shop provides items of different quality to suit various classes of customers. So in order to find something that fits your taste and pocket, here are some tips to distinguish between fine and fake silk.

  • Pull the cloth. If the threads stay tight, it is authentic silk. If not, the loosely woven cloth indicates that the proportion of warps to wefts is not in balance, that there's a reduction in the number of threads, or that the dyeing is overdone.
  • If there's elasticity, the cloth is made from chemical threads.
  • Burn a piece of cloth. If the ash is loose and smells of burnt hair or plant, it is genuine. Otherwise the ash lumps.
  • When the material is either too easy or too hard to crumple (no springout), it is of polyester. The right one crumples just a little bit.
  • When soaked in warm water, the colour of good-quality material does not run.
  • Make your hand cold (e.g. by putting it in the freezer), then put it on the cloth. The quicker your hand gets warm, the better the quality of the cloth.

Rice cultivating and mulberry growing (incorporating silkworm breeding) are the twin sisters of Vietnamese farming. The country's hot climate is very suitable to raising silkworms. But the process involves such hard labour and is such a strict one that a minor mistake may spoil an entire litter. The life circle of this tropical worm is not long, taking just 30 days for it to grow from a very tiny black creature into a butterfly. Its first three-to-five days are spent sleeping and it becomes white. Then it is fed its first thinly-sliced mulberry leaves. The process of eating for some days followed by a day of sleep is repeated until the animal reaches its an roi (devouring) stage when it is mature. From that point on feeding is carried out throughout the day without a break.

When the silkworm reaches its full size it carries a full stomach of silk inside its now red body. It then lies in a straw nest for two days to make its cocoon. When the last silk thread is twined around the exhausted body of the creature, the cocoon looks like an egg. Three days later, it becomes a chrysalis. The cocoon is then boiled and the silk thread can start to be unwound. It takes 20 kilograms of cocoon to produce one kilogram of raw silk. When the unwinding is finished, the silkworm will either become nutritious food or a butterfly.

The silkworm breeders of the northern provinces of Vinh Phu, Thai Binh, Bac Ninh and Ha Tay, and the southern province of Bao Loc - Lam Dong, work all year round.

(The Guide Magazine / Aug. 2003)


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