Vietnam: Defunct northern village wraps itself in silk

Courtesy of Hanhsilk via Viet Nam News
A weaver makes tussore silk fabrics in the northern province of Thai Binh.

Born and raised in Hanoi, Luong Thanh Hanh, 34, started her career as an interior designer, but a love of nature-based traditional silk fabrics lured her into an adventure to revive an obscure and almost defunct silk village in the northern province of Thai Binh.

Hanh first visited the centuries-old tussore silk village of Nam Cao Commune on a trip to her husband’s coastal district of Tien Hai in late 2011 when most of the weavers had cast off their looms and hand-weaving craft had been fading away for decades.

Despite indifferent feedback from craftsmen in the village at first, for a whole year she insisted on the revival of the silk trade, eventually winning the villagers around.

“They suspected me! The silk village had been left vacant for decades, and some families had even destroyed their looms for firewood. My parents-in-law supported me by gathering veteran craftswomen and arranging silk weaving work for them again,” Hanh said.

“They agreed to try the basic processes of growing mulberry [the leaves that are used to feed silkworms], caring for the silkworms and cocoons, thread spinning and fabric weaving as they had experienced for years previously,” she said.

“The most skillful craftswomen were assigned to quality control. Silk makers used to work from the start to the end of the product, but it took time and labor. We devised a work division so that each family was in charge of a certain step in the production process, and helped check each other for the final product.”

Tussore silk, or coarse silk fabric, is made entirely by hand, so the best silk needs careful quality checking by every family.

The Nam Cao Tussore Co-operative was eventually established, using the modern Hanhsilk brand for promotions and marketing.

Entirely handmade

Nguyen Thi Mui, 65, a silk weaver, said making tussore needs patience and good feeling in the fingers.

“We collect the cocoons after 21 days of feeding the silkworms with mulberry leaves. The cocoons are then boiled for 15 minutes before steaming for six hours. The long heating makes the silk threads more durable,” Mui said.

“Workers then soak over-boiled cocoons in cold water to remove silk threads, and their skilled fingers are used to tune the thickness of silk threads.”

Mui, who is the third generation of a weaving family, says that each spinner can only obtain a very small amount of tussore thread, ranging from 70 to 100 grams each day.

Nguyen Van Tue, 68, Hanh’s father-in-law, supervises the quality control of every process at the commune.

He said the cooperative has expanded the mulberry area to 100 hectares, and set a target of producing at least 100,000 meters of tussore silk fabrics a year.

“We cannot speed up the process because thin silk is easily broken or tangled by careless fingers. Making tussore is a very slow, meticulous and patient process,” he said.

Le Thi Lieu, 53, who is in charge of spinning silk threads, says the trade would have soon been defunct if Hanh had not made the trade preservation plan.

She said the ancient craft is seen as a spiritual symbol of the rice farming village, that has been passed down through generations over the centuries.

“Silk is not only a life making craft, but an honor and a job loved by the village. Our product creates beautiful fashion for all, and we are proud of that,” Lieu says.

The artisan says the silk making even lures the oldest people in the village, with easy manual work, such as reeling silk threads, feeding silkworms or trimming silk.