Skillful animal husbandry and an exacting craft combine
to create one of the country's oldest and most successful
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
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
HAVE ALL THE WEAVERS GONE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
The Guide Magazine / August 2002 >
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.
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.
there's elasticity, the cloth is made from chemical
a piece of cloth. If the ash is loose and smells of
burnt hair or plant, it is genuine. Otherwise the
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.
soaked in warm water, the colour of good-quality material
does not run.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Guide Magazine / Aug. 2003)