The Story of Lao Silk

December 19, 2013

Did you know that 10kg of silkworm cocoons are required to produce just one kilo of silk fibre? Or that just 200gms can be reeled in a single day? One kilo of raw Lao silk costs on average 180,000 LAK (about US$23), but apart from its monetary value, silk and the worms that produce it have special cultural and spiritual significance here in Laos.

The contemporary silk industry isn’t without its challenges: keeping production stable in the face of environmental changes has made news lately, with reports from India citing that state-of-the-art weather predicting technologies might be the key to helping silk producers prevent losses when temperatures fluctuate. Other recent developments include feeding larvae a ‘dyed’ diet, effectively colouring the silk before it is produced and negating the need for water-intensive dyeing processes later.

Despite the challenges and changes facing silk producers, the basics of cultivation have remained the same for thousands of years. Read on for more information about traditional silk in Laos, a fundamental material here at Ock Pop Tok and one our artisan’s simply couldn’t weave without!

Boiling silk worms OPT

In Laos there are two types of silkworm used to produce silk: Bombyx mori and Philosymia riccini. Bombyx mori (‘silkworm of the mulberry tree’) can be found throughout India, China, Japan, Korea and as far north as Russia. It’s also the species of silkworm we breed and use at the Living Crafts Centre. Both white and yellow Bombyx mori cocoons are found in northern Laos, while only yellow cocoons are found in the south.

Hatching from very small white eggs, over 28 days young silkworms eat enough to grow 10,000 times bigger. Once they start moving their heads, the worms are ready to pupate and start spinning their cocoons. One cocoon contains around 300 meters of silk filament.

Philosymia riccini (or the Eri silkworm) originates in India and can eat a variety of plants such as castor leaves, cassava leaves, and papaya leaves, but not mulberry. Larger than the Bombyx mori worm, Eri worms produce larger cocoons and thus yield more silk. The unique thing about Eri worms is that silk yarn can be spun from cocoons even after the adult moth has emerged. In other words, the Eri moth can complete its lifecycle and emerge from the cocoon and does not need to be killed to extract silk fibres. It’s for this reason that Eri silk is sometimes nicknamed ‘vegan silk’ – no creatures were harmed in the making of this textile!

The silk that the Eri silkworm makes is not one continuous filament. It’s not easy to reel like Bombyx mori silk, and is naturally much coarser and inconsistent – some people even say it more closely resembles cotton. The soft Eri fibres twist together when spun to form a strong yarn that is thicker than Bombyx mori silk – perfect for weaving scarves. At Ock Pop Tok our weavers use both kinds of silk, sometimes combining the two yarns in one piece.

You can read more about the silk we use at Ock Pop Tok on the Fibre2Fabric site.