Putting the Silk in the Silk Road

Story by Kaylee Prince.

A trip along the Silk Road is not complete without a stop at a silk production factory. And although the mysterious fabric was first produced in China, I chose to stop at the Yodgorlik Silk Production factory in Marg’ilon. Marg’ilon, located in the Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan, on route from nearby Fergana City to the capital Tashkent.

First impressions are everything and on a Sunday morning I wasn’t expecting much. My car pulled into the drive and a local man with a huge smile was there to open up the gate and wave us in. “Salom, salom, welcome” greeted me as I climbed out of the car and stretched my legs. The guide for the day had graciously opened the centre on the weekend, along with two very enthusiastic, non-English speaking colleagues who would demonstrate and provide extra information for the barrage of questions about to be thrown their way.

Natural silk is produced from the cocoons of silk worms. The cocoons are harvested from mulberry trees with about 80% being taken and the remainder left to produce butterflies and hence the next seasons harvest. For those about to go purchase a mulberry tree in the hopes of breeding silk worms, I’d hold off; the process from cocoon to silk scarf is extraordinarily difficult, requiring much skill!

Once the cocoons are harvested they are boiled and the silk unraveled. This unfortunately kills the worm, but don’t worry they are not wasted – they are fed to the Chinese! Each cocoon can produce up to 3 kms of pure silk thread! Such cocoons were on show and the fine threads were visible and incredible to see.

Once the thread is collected and bundled it is taken into a room for application of design. The room was spacious with carpets lining the floor for the women to sit on while they work. Light streamed in the window as the enthusiastic guides demonstrated the painstaking painting effort.

Once large sections of the silk are ready to be dyed the areas to remain white are wrapped in scotch tape to protect the silk underneath and then the whole length is boiled in natural yellow dye. Once the colour has set, the freshly dyed sections are wrapped to preserve those areas to remain yellow (and white) and the silk is again boiled in the next colour – this time darker.

The Yodgorlik Silk Production factory is able to produce 30 different colours on the silk by replicating this process again and again. The natural dyes are made from things such as onion skins (dark yellow), indigo flowers (blue) and insects from cactus plants in Indonesia (red).

By now I was overwhelmed with the effort going in to such products and the complete ignorance I had held up until this point. In the next room, a woman demonstrated how to work the loom and weave the silk. After a myriad of questions the process was explained slowly and thoroughly, with the woman working at a tenth of her normal speed. As the binding thread shot backwards and forwards, I began to question the price of silk in all the stores I had ever seen – it all seemed so cheap now, knowing how much work went into each piece. These amazingly talented women were able to weave only 5m per day of 100% silk and that does not take into account the time for harvesting, unraveling, designing, wrapping, dying… the process is immense.

After watching the woman at work we were led – as expected – to the gift store. Here silk hung from the walls in metres and metres. Scarves, cushion covers, bed linen… it was all available and seemingly inexpensive now. I happily parted with my US dollars and took my bag of silk, amazed that something requiring such effort was so readily available.

Sitting in my room now I’m still impressed. The silk that gave this road its name and had dynasties and khanates trading for centuries now has the appropriate level of respect in my mind.

This article first appeared in the Australia Times Travel Magazine.

Fill in your details below or login