"The magic of silk" Fergana Travelogue by TheWanderingCamel

Fergana Travel Guide: 32 reviews and 117 photos

First things first

You see them growing everywhere but the driest of deserts. Mulberry trees - they line the country roads, canals and fields, grow in orchards and groves of all shapes and sizes, shade city courtyards and village houses - if there is a "national tree" of Uzbekistan, it is the mulberry. And it plays a vital role in the production of the country's greatest treasure - silk - the most luxurious of fabrics - shimmering, lustrous, exquisite - its value so great great the trade route that brought it from its home in the east to the courts and palaces of the west was named for it - the Silk Road.

Science and modern technology have produced a multitude of artificial silks in the last hundred years, but none of them truly replaces the real thing, and to produce the real thing you need mulberry trees because the creature that produces the magic filament has a voracious appetite and it only eats one thing - mulberry leaves.

From egg to cocoon is six short weeks but in that time the silkworms will have munched their way through just about each and every mulberry leaf in the land. All over the country the trees will have been cut back to the trunk as the branches are taken to feed the fattening worms. What starts as a box, no bigger than a matchbox, of eggs taken in by a farming family hatches into tiny worms that, even then, eat about 3kilos of leaves a day. As they grow their appetite grows and by the end of May it takes 300kg (no, that's not a typo) every day to kept them satisfied.

You can imagine the sighs of relief all round when they begin to spin their cocoons. For that month the worms have not only subsumed all other activity, they've taken over the house, forcing the people who are their slaves to move out into the courtyard. The cocoons are sold to an agent who sells most of them on to the government - usually about 80-100kilos of cocoons have been produced and for this the farmers are paid the princely sum of $2-3 a kilo. Some are set aside, allowed to complete their life cycle and provide the next year's eggs. The rest are destined for the factories and the next stage in the production of silk.

And the stripped mulberry trees? With a few weeks they're shooting again and by the end of summer a fine crop of branches is in full leaf. They'll lose those leaves over winter so the silkworms only have to dine on fresh Spring growth.

Some 30,000 tons of cocoons are produced in this way each year, just as they have been since the 4th century.

Most of the cocoons are destined for state-run factories but, since independence in 1992, small independent workshops have been able to resume working in the traditional way and, in Margilan, there is the only "factory" producing hand-woven silks in all Central Asia. Whilst much of the production is now somewhat more mechanised, the tour through the old workshops gives you an excellent overview of all stages of production from the arrival of the cocoons to the finished products as it was done for centuries.

Glamorous as the finished product is, the early stages of production once was anything but and for the people assigned to demostrate the old techniques it's still pretty grim! The workroom where the filament is cleaned and wound off the cocoon is a steamy, very smelly place. Be prepared to hold your nose and spare a thought for the women who work in this environment.

Steaming to kill the pupa has to be done as soon as possible after the cocoons are collected but then it might be months before the filament is unwound so the first job in the spinning room is to sort the cocoons and clean them up ready for that process to begin. A boring job, but by no means the worst here -

This one is!

The cocoons with their dead worm still inside need to be well-wetted in hot water to loosen the filament enough to begin the process of winding off. What a awful job this is - sitting over a bowl of steaming water full of simmering cocoons - it stinks, and why wouldn't it? All those dead worms make a pretty disgusting broth. It's this woman's job to scoop away the scum that rises and at the same time pick up the ends of the filament as they loosen until she has a clutch of cocoons in her hand suspended by the finest of threads. This is when you start to realise how strong the filament is as it supports the weight of the wet cocoon.

The single filaments are wound off onto spools

It takes anything up to 35 filaments spun together to create a thread suitable for weaving on a loom. That's what this woman is doing.

This is pure or reeled silk - fibre made only from unbroken filaments that are simply twisted together. This makes the smoothest, strongest and most expensive silk. Spun silk is made up from broken filaments, damaged cocoons and waste that cannot simply be reeled off the cocoon but must go through several different processes before a thread smooth enough for weaving is produced.

Before the spun thread can be used for ikat, it needs to be wound around a 2 metre long frame. Once the entire length that is to be dyed has been wound off in this way, it is ready for to be tied.

The frame is laid horizontallyand the pattern marked out with a stick dipped in a paste made from ash and water. Sections of the pattern are bound very tightly with string (these days plastic adds an extra dye-proofing layer). Each colour in the pattern requires a seperate dip in the dye bath, so every bit of the pattern that is not to be the colour of the seperate dyeings must be wrapped.

The dyeing is done in a logical sequence of light to dark, with more colours being created by the layering of pigments - yellow, blue and red dyeing will add forest green and deep burgundy to the final pattern - something the master designer will take into account as he plans his tieing patterns.

  • Page Updated May 9, 2016
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