'Worms that changed the world'. A good deal of silk is manufactured in Khiva. The whole oasis is planted with white mulberry trees and in every house we found two or three rooms full of the busy little spinners feeding off the leaves ... The whole work of spinning, dyeing and weaving is often done in one family by one or two persons ... Going along one or two streets in Khiva you will find the walls covered in yarn silk, hung out by the dyers to dry, and if you do not look sharp, you will find your clothes bespattered with red and purple, from the dripping masses over your head.
-J.A. MacGahan, Campaigning on the Oxus, and the Fall of Khiva, 1874
Once more, skeins of silk dripping rainbow colours hung on racks or were flung against the madrassah wall, where they would catch and stick until fished down with a pole by one of the dyers. We had reintroduced the art of natural dyeing - once the preserve of Bukharan Jews - and felt proud of our first efforts. Not all the traditional cottage industries had disap-peared during the Soviet era. The art of sericulture - the raising of silkworms - had been left largely intact and was more prolific than ever. Each spring, entire villages gathered around the mulberry trees that lined every roadside, hacking down branches of fresh leaves to feed to their worms. Not all mulberry trees had edible leaves. Some were allowed to develop sticky white fruit, collected in large sheets positioned under each tree. My favourite mulberries were the dark shor toot, or sour mulberries. Sold in the bazaar by the cupful and swimming in their own juices, they were deliciously tart. Their juice stained badly, and later we experimented with it as a dye. It produced a beautiful, vivid purple that quickly faded in sunlight to a drab grey. Mulberry trees used for feeding silkworms were easily distinguishable by their shape - a thick, sturdy trunk which grew to chest height before fanning out into smaller, spindly branches that were cut back each year. Driving past them in winter they looked like rows of severed hands, fingers splayed. Tropical countries like India could grow worms all the year round, but in Uzbekistan they were reared only in spring, feeding on fresh new mulberry leaves. I wanted to produce an album of pictures documenting sericulture in Khorezm, hoping it might inspire tourists and other potential carpet clients to buy one of our rugs."
Christopher Aslan Alexander "A Carpet Ride to Khiva" 2010
Uzbek silk production accounts for less than 5 percent of the world total, and is dwarfed by China’s. But proportionately it’s the world’s highest - almost a kilogram (two pounds) per head of a population of 29 million.
The Uzbek silk business dates back centuries to the Silk Road that ran through this Central Asian country. Kokand was the destination of the first westbound Chinese caravan carrying silk in 121 B.C. that started the fabled trade route.
The secret to uzbek silk cultivaion is to have both silkworms and mulberry trees, preferably the white mulberry, which is the only food the silkworms, or more accurately, caterpillars, will eat. They are essentially mulberry leaf eating machines. When the caterpillars are fully grown they produce a cocoon by extruding silk from their bodies.
The most popular method of Uzbek silk weaving is ikat or ikkat. Ikat is a Malay-Indonesian term for cloth which patterned by dyeing the threads before it has been woven. In Uzbek the term is used as abrband, literally “to tie a cloud”. Fabric made by such way using silk for warp and cotton threads for weft is called adras. Adras was forgotten during the Soviet time of Uzbek history. However, thanks to Rasuljon’s father Turghunbay Mirzaahmedov’s effort to revive this type of fabric in 1990s.
Silk production in Margilan
This small town, a 1 hr. drive from Kokand, is the center of Uzbekistan's silk producing industry. To watch the art of spinning and winding and dyeing and weaving silk by hand is a fascinating, unique experience. Over one thousand years of silk producing history have shaped the "ikat" style Margilan is renowned for. From traditional bright colors to color combinations of the latest fashion, you will find something to suit every taste.
Visit one of the private homes and small enterprises such as "Yodgorlik", where you are ushered from workshop to workshop to view firsthand the entire process, from the unraveling of the pure white silk thread off the cocoons to the abr, and the tying and dying to the final weaving into amazingly and miraculously patterned fabrics such as those to the right.
The looms of today do not differ much from the ones on display at the Andijan museum. Weavers smile, inviting you to watch their methodical work on a guided tour, with interpretation in English or Russian.
The cross-threads are woven in with gusto, the weavers snapping the loom into action with their right hands, so that the workshop is filled with the clapping sounds of art in motion.
The process of obtaining silk
For twenty eight days the silkworm feeds upon the choice leaf of the mulberry tree, and since the appetite is enormous it never once stops eating during that period. At the end of these twenty eight days the worm takes four more days to spin a silk house or cocoon about itself. If left alone the silkworm will shorthly thereafter break through the cocoon and emerge a butterfly. But that is not allowed to take place. As soon as cocoons are spun they are gathered up, brought and placed in the ovens under a slow heat that destroys the worms inside without harming their soft silky fibres. The thousands of cocoons are then sorted. Damaged or otherwise imperfect ones are thrown out and the rest are placed in hot water for softening. That way it becomes easier to find the end of the very fine silk thread.
There are about 1,000 meters of thread in a little cocoon, but the thread is so fine and thin that it will take seven thickness of it to make the average silk thread that is spooled. Heavier threads require more cocoons.
We watched as spools of thread, and further along the line, sleek, broad, widths of exquisite white silk fabric emerged from the thousands of cocoons fed into the machines. Color where desired, would be added later. I ran my fingers over a huge roll of the finished silk and its texture was a joy to touch. Here indeed was the legendary silk of Central Asia at its very best.
(Elton C. Fax).