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The Silk Factory in Guilin

I was able to visit a silk factory on a trip to Guilin, China where fine silk items were being made. When we arrived at the factory, we were first brought into an outer room or office where silk items were displayed for sale. A representative from the silk factory gave us a brief background of the factory and the process of silk making. We were then brought to a room where they displayed the different life-cycle stages of the silkworm preserved. Then we were lead to an old, somewhat crowded workshop were there were many old-fashioned hand looms.

We were informed that these handlooms were installed more than 100 years ago, as opposed to mechanical looms which more modern silk factories use these days. The people or employees at work on the looms were old, no one seemed to be below their 20s – the youngest employee I saw was probably in his late 30s. The old looms had shuttles which the employee would through back and fro through warp threads. You can really hear the shuttles thrown back and forth across the threads. They make a sort of sharp but at the same time shuffling noise. They weren’t noisy though, probably because the thread they used was very fine.

The hand looms were used for actually creating and designing the finished silk products. For instance, I saw workers weaving silk rugs where they would cut the excess thread off after each was tied by using a pair of scissors. Much of the work was done manually, or through old wooden looms and scissors. The factory did not make use of any new or modern equipment. Since the factory was old-fashioned, it was also rather not well-lit. Most of the equipment used was made out of wood, and it gave it a very authentic, historical feel to the whole place.

The workers themselves sat on wooden chairs or stools in front of their respective looms. It turned out there were three large workshops in the area, with about 6 to 10 hand looms per workshop. Most of the workers wore woven items themselves. Apart from the outer office, there was also a formal showroom where they displayed and sold the silk items. There were shirts, dresses, shawls, rugs, blankets, and even pouch bags and coin purses. Many of the items were affordable, but some, especially the rugs that were made for wall decorations or table runners, were extremely expensive.

The bed covers were beautiful, though, as well as the rugs. The showroom was clean and polished, but like the rest of the factory, it was made primarily of wood, with one glass counter top where they had an old cash registrar. I enjoyed the fact that the factory was over 100 years old because it was steeped with much history and culture. Even the workers themselves looked like they were taken out from the pages of a Chinese history book. Many of them wore loose pants and loose shirts with sleeves, and many wore slippers. Although old, the place was relatively clean, and people were always busy. The Process of Silk Making

Silk making starts from silk worms. Silk worms prefer certain trees where they build their cocoons, which is why there are farms in China which focus entirely on raising silk worms to that they can harvest the cocoons. The silk worm creates its cocoon out of a single silk thread that extends for an estimate of 3,600 feet (Annie Bees, 2001). These cocoons, once spun and hanging from trees, are then hand-picked and placed inside an oven where the heat kills the silk worm without damaging the silk inside the cocoon. Then the cocoons are soaked in water which allows the workers to locate the end of the silk thread.

This is necessary so that they can unravel the silk thread from the cocoon without tangling or breaking it. When the cocoons have been soaked, they are placed inside a water tray to prepare the thread for unraveling. One thread is usually too thin for use, so multiple threads must then be joined and unraveled to form a single thread. To do so, a worker must locate the ends of at least eight cocoons, and combines these onto a spinning machine. This machine automatically unravels the eight cocoons and simultaneously creates a single strand of silk from these eight separate silk threads (Annie Bees, 2001).

Once the silk have been unraveled from the cocoon, the latter, with the dead silk worm inside, will be left floating in the water tray or basin and thrown out. Silk threads may also be combined to form thicker strands and are usually dyed to create different colors (Annie Bees, 2001). History of Chinese Silk The Chinese kept the secret of silk to themselves for over two thousand years. According to Chinese legend, the Goddess of Silk, Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor who was said to have ruled China in about 3000 BC, was credited with the introduction of silk worm rearing and the invention of the loom.

Silk was exclusively reserved for the use of China’s rulers when it was first discovered. Only the emperor, his families, and high officials were permitted to make use of it. Over the years, silk began to be used for industrial purposes by the Chinese, and was worn by different classes and levels of society. It was used not only for clothing but for decoration as well. During the Han Dynasty, silk became an absolute value in itself rather than a mere industrial material. It was used to pay civil servants and was used as a reward to officials for outstanding services. However, the Chinese were not able to maintain a monopoly of the silk trade.

In 200 BC, sericulture reached Korean when Chinese immigrants started arriving there in large numbers. After AD 300, sericulture traveled westward and the cultivation of the silk worm was soon established in India. Japan began to produce silk as well during AD 300. The secret was out. China’s silk monopoly came to an end. The silk industry developed in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the UK during the late 1600s until the 1800s. The European sericulture declined however during the 19th century. China regrouped and re-captured its historic position as the world’s biggest producer and exporter of raw silk.

By 1985, 50% of the 56,000 tonnes of raw silk produced all over the world was produced in China. Thus, China was able to regain its dominance in the silk industry. Other key players today are Japan, India, Thailand, Korea, and Brazil (i-Candi Designs, 2003; Silkroad Foundation, 2000).


China 2001. Annie Bees Homepage. 2001. 20 Sept. 2006. http://www. anniebees. com/China/China_29. htm History of Silk. Silkroad Foundation. 2000. 20 Sept. 2006. http://www. silk-road. com/artl/silkhistory. shtml Silk – its manufacture and history. i-Candi Designs. 2003. 20 Sept. 2006.

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