Ma Chau silk craft, mulberry farming and silkworm breeding have roots some five centuries ago in Duy Xuyen District in the central province of Quang Nam. The silk trade was among central Vietnam’s most prosperous industries in the 15th century, as it was among commodities exchanged with merchant European at the busy Hoi An Port. But the trade faded by the late 1990s. Recently, however, the last local silk makers have revived the traditional craft while introducing modern techniques and marketing methods. Bui Hoai Nam reports.
Breezy: Ma Chau silk is dried and softened before being sent to fashion designers. — Photo courtesy of Ma Chau Silk
Tran Huu Phuong, 48 and his daughter, Tran Thi Yen, 25, and five craftswomen in Nam Phuoc Town are on a mission to revive the Ma Chau silk brand. Starting with little more than a lingering hope in 2010, they have restarted hand-made silk production and begun marketing their products internationally.
The Ma Chau silk co-operative, which emerged in 1978 not long after the country’s reunification, once boasted more than 300 members working day and night for domestic sale and for export.
As market reforms were introduced through the 1990s, the trade could not compete against cheap machine-made textiles and garments. Raw Ma Chau silk fell into bankruptcy. Most craftsmen left the trade to seek better jobs.
“Our trade was on the edge of death. Silk fabric, which was used as material for fashion, was seen as not suitable for modern fashions among the young generation. Workers then left the co-operative. Only five middle-aged craftswomen still remained in the trade, earning their living from odd pennies,” Phuong recalled.
“I was at cross-roads. I had a long talk one night with my daughter about the idea of reviving the trade,” he said.
The father and daughter then designed marketable samples for finished products rather than selling raw silk to other craft villages nationwide or to traders.
“It was really a risky decision. We and the five craftswomen shared funds to set up a joint-stock company to replace the old co-operative,” he said.
Phuong’s daughter, Tran Thi Yen, said she shared her father’s worries in restarting the old trade from deadlock.
“I joined the risky adventure with my father when I left a job at a bank to follow the craft from the beginning,” Yen said.
“Poor marketing and diversity of silk products available at the market as well as a lack of trade promotion had kept our business down. I boosted online marketing and advertising to attract customers. More products and new designs came out with the changes of technology from manual looms into more productive machines,” she recalled.
Simple: 100 per cent silk with natural dyes on display at Ma Chau silk company in Duy Xuyen District of Quang Nam Province. — VNS Photo Cong Thanh
Yen said samples of ties, scarves, long dresses and hand bags were designed and mass produced from 100 per cent silk. Natural dyes, diversified pattern designs and a range of sizes were added.
She said in the debut of new designs of Ma Chau silk in Hoi An, a metre of pure silk with natural dyes was sold at VND480,000 (US$21), while a mixture of silk and cotton cloth was priced at VND115,000 ($5).
Yen said the price was double that of synthetic industrial-made silk categories.
Natural dyes, with recipes passed down from the older generations, used extracts of green coconut shell, fermented almond leaves, green tea bud, melaleuca wood, purple cabbage, styphnolobium japonicum (yellow colour), material of medicinal herbs and different roots, barks and fruits available locally.
Phuong said he collected 20 colours from natural dyes from 15 families to create unique colours for Ma Chau silk among dozens of traditional silk villages in Vietnam.
He said that in previous centuries, each family involved in Ma Chau silk production was in charge of their own colour creation. However, the old recipe of natural dye had been disappearing with the decline of the old trade.
Revival: A craftswoman works on a silk yarn spinning machine at Ma Chau silk company. — VNS Photo Cong Thanh
The owner of the Ma Chau silk company said the unique colours and persistent hand-made silk fabric were the product’s most precious asset, adding that stylish consumers can recognise the difference between natural hand-made silk and synthetic silk.
He said hand-made silk production costs, including labour, silk yarn and mulberry farming, account for 50 per cent of the total cost.
The workshop with five workers-cum-shareholders in Duy Xuyen could produce 1,500m of silk each month with an annual revenue of VND20 billion ($884,000).
Craftswoman Tran Thi Moi, 60, said she had earned a living from the silk trade for 40 years, and she did not want to change the job.
“The Ma Chau silk trade is seen as a family treasure. We began our lives with it from the time we were young to overcome the most difficult time. The trade still earns quite a good income for us,” Moi said.
“We need a stable market for silk to continue the craft as well as the pride of our ancestors over the past five centuries.”
Precious creature: Life cycle of silkworm. — Photo courtesy of Ma Chau Silk
The silk trade also creates good income for those who grow mulberry trees (whose leaves are used as feed for silk worms).
Hoang Thi Phuong Lien, owner of LiA fashion brand, said she had used Ma Chau silk for her fashion collections since 2016.
“We have used 10,000 metres of middle-grade Ma Chau silk—satin and silk with a simple pattern—from Phuong’s workshop,” Lien said.
“By using Ma Chau silk, our fashion brand has helped Phuong and his daughter realize their dream of a breakthrough to the fashion industry and getting the silk trade closer to consumers,” she said.
Lien said she hoped Ma Chau silk would be more widely developed in the near future as lovers of Vietnamese culture embrace the unique traditional silk trade.
Ho Viet Ly, director of the HCM City-based Toan Thinh Silk Company, said he was well aware of the beauty of the Quang Nam-based silk.
“Ma Chau silk in Quang Nam has been renowned for centuries. The yellow cocoon is a feature that makes silk from Quang Nam stand out from Van Phuc Village in Hanoi and Bao Loc in Lam Dong,” Ly said.
“However, Quang Nam-made silk needs a special design that promotes the image of Hoi An ancient town – the heart of Quang Nam Province and the UNESCO-recognised world heritage site.”
Fashionable: A long dress made with Ma Chau silk. — Photo courtesy of LiA fashion
In fashion: Tran Thi Yen introduces Ma Chau silk products in Hoi An City. — Photo courtesy of Ma Chau Silk
In season: Farmers harvest mulberry leaves for silkworm breeding. — Photo courtesy of Ma Chau Silk
Quang Nam had over 2,000ha of land under mulberry dedicated to silkworm breeding and silk cloth production at the industry’s peak in the 1960s. Now, silk producers make use of just 11ha concentrated in Duy Xuyen, where only 30 households work on the trade.
Unstable production and price concerns deter people from expanding their mulberry farms for silkworm breeding.
Le Muon, vice director of Quang Nam Provincial Agriculture and Rural Development, said farmers prefer breeding silkworms for food rather than cocoons and yarn production.
He said a kilo of cocoon, using 3kg silkworm, was sold at VND110,000 ($4.8), while 3kg of raw silkworm is sold at VND160,000 ($7).
Muon said the unstable silk market and limited production also blocks farmers from expanding their mulberry fields. A master plan for international-brand silk development has not been mapped out, so the future is uncertain.
Nguyen Phuoc, an owner of a silk company in Lam Dong, said “Vietnam is yet to show the world how special its silk is and how skilled its craftspeople are”.
“The domestic silk industry has failed to come up with new designs and products to meet the needs of a globalised world. Poor marketing, weak brand promotion and designs are major obstacles preventing the expansion of Vietnamese silk in world markets,” Phuoc said.
Phuoc suggested that Ma Chau silk and Quang Nam authorities should build a modern silk trade emphasizing their unique value, while fashion designs made with silk fabric can be used daily by consumers.
He warned that poor quality silk production in pursuit of quick profit would lead to serious damage of the traditional trade, and Ma Chau silk must persuade picky customers to pay more for traditional silk.
Phuong and his daughter have opened a showroom in Hoi An, offering tourists a chance to learn about hand-made silk.
Yen said she also launched the Ma Chau Facebook page to promote the trade worldwide.
Phuong said she had called investors in hand-made silk production to build up silk value chains to create more profit for traders, farmers and workers, which would help revive the 500-year-old silk brand.