Have you ever struggled with a task for so long that the struggle just became a part of the process? I’ve been there too. But let me tell you friend, it doesn’t always have to be such a struggle! You’ve heard of the saying “work smarter, not harder,” right? Well, sometimes all it takes to get out of the work-hard spiral is an outsider’s perspective and collaborative effort.
These two magic ingredients ended up being the secret sauce for Vietnam’s silk industry, which is now making a serious comeback after struggling for many decades.
So, how does a dying trade glow up to be sustainable both culturally and financially? Read on to find out.
Vietnam used to be a leader of silk production. What happened?
Besides China and India, Vietnam is one of the largest silk producers in the world. They have been raising silkworms and weaving silk for over 4,000 years 1. It’s a very labor-intensive process which begins with farming the mulberry leaves that the worms eat. (Each worm eats 50,000 times its body weight every single day!) Then comes raising and caring for the pupae and protecting their cocoons in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. And lastly, threading the fibers by hand and spinning them into fabric.
In addition to silk’s beautiful, luxurious feel and breathable qualities, the labor-intensive production process has kept silk in demand since the BC days. It was favored by royalty, and to this day remains a popular choice for apparel and interior designers.
Due to silk’s popularity, during the 19th century many silk-producing countries began to create false silk made of synthetic fibers. These faux fibers were pretty convincing, and as people began to favor the fake silk for its lower price point, the real silk industry began to feel the pressure. Authentic silk was now worth much less on the market, and families who had been producing silk for generations could no longer make a living working their trade and started looking toward other types of work.
What to do when you’re hanging on by a thread
There are, however, some folks in the silk industry who are clinging onto tradition in hopes that they can pass their culture on to the younger generations.
Silkworms are delicate creatures to raise and harvest, so having generational knowledge to back you up is truly priceless. Being able to pull the threads off of their cocoons very gently, monitoring their growing environment, and ensuring that the worms are fed every 2-4 hours…these are tasks that require a lot of practice and pride!
But how do you find the balance between honoring your heritage, your passion, and the demands of modern trade? This is where modern techniques came to inform ancient practices in a way that changed everything for the better.
Sometimes you’re simply too close to the project to see how it could be improved.
Interior designer Hanh visited Nam Cao, Vietnam in 2010, where she quickly saw how families who had been producing silk for decades were struggling to make a living—even though the silks they were producing were some of the finest she had ever seen.
She visited several families and discovered that temperature control was one of the largest obstacles threatening the silk worms. Silkworms are healthiest in a space that is 78-88 degrees Fahrenheit, and climate change has been heating up their habitat. Hanh suggested that the silkworm farmers install air conditioning units to control the temperature and humidity in their grow space. This simple switch alone instantly got rid of one of their biggest plights.
The other change Hanh insisted upon is that the silk farmers work together. She formed a cooperative called Hanhsilk; a self-contained handmade silk manufacturer where everyone pools their harvests and talents into one beneficial pot. She also implemented new policies—like taking holidays—that help stabilize the price of silk and improve the quality of lives of the people making it.
Watch this video by Business Insider to see it for yourself! It’s remarkable to watch the silk process from start to finish, and all the people in between who make it. You’ll definitely walk away with a greater appreciation for the people, worms, and finished product.
The best of both worlds.
The story of Vietnam silk farmers is the perfect example of the wonderful things that can occur when we combine what we know and love from the past with new ideas.
Before the co-op was formed, the area’s silk producers were generating about 440 pounds of silk each year. Hahnsilk comprises 200 families, and now they are able to produce 220 pounds of silk per month, that’s over 2,200 pounds of silk every year! AND they get holidays off! That’s a big ol’ win-win if you ask me.
Working together is often the best answer to any problem.
The next time you are feeling stuck or uninspired, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for fresh ideas. When we work together, we can accomplish anything.
So remember folks, there are always new and old things to learn from. And also…don’t put silk in the clothes dryer!
Keep dreaming, and notice the beauty around you,
P.S. Here is one of my favorite articles on how working together can change the world! Enjoy.
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- Wee, R. Y. (2016, July 12). World Leaders In Silk Production. WorldAtlas; WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/world-leaders-in-silk-production.html ↩
- Business Insider. (2022). How Mountains Of Worm Cocoons Are Turned Into Expensive Silk In Vietnam | Big Business [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBz40ZxKJBs ↩