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Silk: A Wearer’s Guide

December 24, 2007

A scruffy boy, I kept them in a box, and learned to watch
how they fattened on beds of green mulberry
and spun themselves to a timetable.
Now I’d wear silk in war and watch bullets bounce off my chest.
Or, as head of state at an APEC conference,
line up for a photo-shoot in garish pyjamas.
I’d burn silk to alleviate a bleeding nose.
or, constipated, eat it and add syrup.
I imagine my mother married
in a discarded D-Day parachute, though the truth is
three months pregnant she wore raw Chanel silk.
Nothing could be cooler in May.
If anything, silkworms made China.
No silk, no Madame Butterfly or boudoirs of ivory, peach and pink,
no po-co allegory, no going-away gift of ties.
Pol Pot had looms burnt, the weavers thrown to dogs,
demoted to spinning crappy peasant cotton.
Because Gandhi (the people’s choice?) chose muslin.
I too would have perished, like all worms,
had I spoken this secret lingo of weavers.
Two threads of fibroin or brins glued together in sericin
make a bave. Unable or unwilling to confess
a plain English equivalent, did they deserve execution
in black Dacron pyjamas?
Four hundred metre lengths of spun figure-of-eights,
and no worm can turn. Boiled in grege, raw or reeled,
the thicker thread for weft, the finer thread for warp.
The unspooling well-wrought worm makes a tasty deep fried snack;
the deformed make chicken feed.
Children crave a dish of wok-fried worms.
Who wants to be an ugly moth, now that you know
how silkworms die, their lives recycling
for profit and a beauty nature never intended?
I too was a weaver addicted to that code,
reincarnated, endlessly returning to that guild,
then rehabilitated, as the Maoists used to say.
Prior to the dyeing process, if the ashes of a kapok tree
can’t be found, soap will bleach the skeins.
For dyes the best are barks, roots,
rhizome, seeds and leaves of an old Khmer forest
de-mined to a 99 percent ISO rating.
Tinctorial plants shimmer in the eye.
Nature’s madder red refracts blue, then green
(as if spot-lit in a TV studio or circus) then yellow.
The dealers know what yields indigo, what
doubles as a pesticide, disinfects a cut
or stuns a fish more cheaply than grenades.
From indigo leaf derives indican, hence conversion by alkaloid
to indoxyl. Alum and green vitriol are mordants;
with green sappan wood the mix turns red and purple.
The cow hoof tree I’ve never seen, while iron,
especially military ordnance (like a tank rusting in a mangrove)
is abundant as rain.
Jackfruit, domestic and wild
gives saffron; for a deeper brown, add
ebony berries or turmeric; cassia gives you beige.
For red, the excreta of the sap sucking lac bug
never fails, and our old distinction Science and Art
breaks down, fermenting in a vat of silk.
Natural green now rare makes way
for what’s in vogue today; an overdye of mango bark yellow
spliced with indigo, which is fugitive, as they say in the trade:
Wednesday’s colour will become with time and washing
the colour of another day, Monday.
This has consequences:
the confused mnemonics of school children,
the disconnect of colours with calendars;
the rhyme I used to chant, fading in an empty room of worms.

by Adam Aitken

Author’s note: Info from Gillian Green, Traditional Textiles of Cambodia: Cultural Threads and Material Heritage (River Books, 2003).

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