MERITORIOUS ARTISAN PHAN THI THUAN – WHO AROUSED AND RAISED THE LEVEL OF VIETNAMESE TRADITIONAL SILK WEAVING
When mentioning to traditional weaving of former Ha Tay Province (now Hanoi), we will be reminded about the traditional silk weaving village of Van Phuc (Ha Dong). However, not many people know about another traditional silk weaving village with hundreds of years of history that has been being preserved, maintained and developed so far. It is a traditional weaving village in Phung Xa Commune, My Duc District, Hanoi. At the end of 2022, on our visit to the traditional weaving village of Phung Xa Commune, My Duc District, Hanoi (about 40km from Hanoi center to the south). We met Ms. Phan Thi Thuan, a 70-year-old woman. She is small but agile, friendly and open. She has been attached to silkworms almost her life who bringing back the revival of the traditional craft village.
History of the traditional craft village
Ms. Phan Thi Thuan told us, according to the legend, the mulberry farming and raising silkworms originated from the Ly Dynasty (11th - 13th centuries). When a wife of a Ly King travelled to Phung Xa Village, she realized the land was a suitable land to grow mulberries and raise silkworms. She stayed to teach the local people. However, the person with great merit in teaching silk weaving to the villagers was the forefather Hoang Tien Gan. He was originally from a poor peasant family in the village, he realized that if only planted mulberries and raised silkworms, people's lives would still be difficult and hard, so silk weaving was nurtured in his mind. In 1928, he left the village to other provinces such as Bac Ninh, Ha Dong to study weaving. In 1929, he brought the weaving profession to his village. He organized groups of workers to work and transmit the profession at the same time. To commemorate his merit, the villagers honoured him as a village ancestor of silk weaving. He was worshipped in the temple and communal house. People celebrate the village ancestor's death anniversary on the second day of the third lunar month every year.
About Ms. Thuan, she was born in a family with a longstanding tradition of growing mulberries, raising silkworms, incubating silk, and weaving silk, so she has been given a lot of skills, experience, and enthusiasm during her career: She was soon aware of a hard work to raise silkworms. “I used to be with my father weaving silk and mother raising silkworms. During the cooperative period, my father was the first person who joined the textile factory. My aunt knew how to gather good craftsmen in the village to produce products to sell for the French”. When Ms. Thuan was 18 years old, she worked as a statistician for the Agricultural Cooperative in Phung Xa Commune, My Duc District. She realized that the traditional profession of growing mulberries, raising silkworms and weaving silk would be very suitable for people in the village. The people could take the initiative in in all stages of their work from growing mulberries, taking leaves to raise silkworms, incubating silk and weaving desired products. At the same time provide jobs and increase income for the local people.
Processes of making silk products
She said that, there are many steps to create a product. Selecting the material is the most important step of the process. The workers have to choose a suitable land to grow mulberries, take leaves to raise silkworms, and take care of silkworms to create beautiful silk threads. Traditional craft used to use manual tools, the spinning was pulled by hand, so it took a long time. Nowadays, silkworms, even the waste of silkworms, cocoons are put on the silk reel to pull. The tools are further improved by adding supporting machines (semi - industrial machines) to shorten the time and labor force which increase output but still basically keep the traditional features such as pedaling with feet, starting working with hands and feet: “The most important step is to pay attention to the silk threads material. They should be really good and beautiful. Then the workers operate the power - loom, which requires meticulous attention to each step. If you want to have a good product, the most important thing is still the raw material of silk, whether raw or fine, you have to pay attention to beautiful silk."
Meritorious Artisan Phan Thi Thuan is meticulous in each step
She said, “Our craft is self - produced, self - sale, step by step by ourselves. Farmers can grow mulberries in their fields to have leaves and raise silkworms. When silkworms germinate silk, the pupae would be given birth, which would be sold as food. We feel sustainable because the fee for any step could be used by its income.”
The yellow silk is the specific feature of Phung Xa Village: “I am very proud of traditional yellow silk’s preservation of Vietnam. White cocoons and white silk thread were first imported from other countries. The yellow cocoons contain more protein than white cocoons, therefore, it’s more comfortable to wear the yellow silk product. That makes it different from silk of other villages. We also decorate different motifs on our products that copied from an ancient ceramic pot. They are square and circle shapes that symbolize for the heaven and the earth". In particular, natural plants are used to create colors for products. “The colors are not chemicals but from different natural plants to make different colors”.
Silk blankets were made for both domestic and foreign markets
“Training" silkworms to become "weavers"
Ms. Phan Thi Thuan is a craftswoman who loves her job. She always concerns and thinks about finding new and creative ways for her traditional craft village “I think I should spread to as much as people about Phung Xa - a village of long history of growing mulberries and raising silkworms. It is different from other traditional craft villages. I must always be creative to think how to make products by the easiest way but still reach the best quality and most beautiful. If more people can do, the traditional craft village can be preserved and developed.”
In 2010, she found a new way for the Vietnamese silk industry. She used the silkworms as weavers. She placed silkworms close together on a flat surface, the silks of the silkworms entwined together, knitting into a flat and smooth cotton carpet. They naturally attached together that could not be done by any weaving technique of the craftsman. It saved expenditure by reducing many complicated steps such as pulling cocoons, germinating silk, or raking cotton. It took one year with eight times of trial silkworms, then the first self-woven fabrics and blankets were also completed. She put them into cooking pots, cotton of the blankets bursted and smooth shining that became incredibly warm. The set of silk scarves made from waste cocoons won the Gold Cup on the occassion of the 1000th anniversary of Thang Long-Hanoi (in 2010). In 2012, her self-woven silk cotton blankets by silkworms were introduced to the market and got the patent. Using silkworms as weavers instead of industrial machines is the significance of Phung Xa Weaving Village, that could not be seen in anywhere even domestic or overseas.
Silkworms are placed close to each other on a flat surface, silk entwined together, knitting into a smooth and flat cotton carpet
From 1980 to 1990, Vietnam Government had the policy of changing plants, animals. Mulberries were all cut down to replace by other plants. In order to preserve the traditional craft, the villagers had to go and look for the mulberries. They planted mulberry trees by the fence, and looked for the places where mulberry trees were grown to take their leaves to feed silkworms. Ms. Phan Thi Thuan herself once rode a bicycle 22km to Thanh Ha Farm (Hoa Binh Province) to take mulberry leaves for silkworms. She gathered her villagers from seven families to ride bicycles to Thanh Ha farm to pick mulberry leaves every day. Overcoming difficulties in rainy and stormy days, with a passion for traditional craft, they finally could rent the land of the Cooperative to grow mulberries. However, it was difficult to sell products that require a license. At that time, the farmers did not know what a business license was. Products were not allowed to sell, Ms.Thuan worked hard to find output for their products. She brought products to other places to introduce and look for the market.
The chance to make lotus silk
The artisan Phan Thi Thuan keeps thinking about creativity during her career. She is self-responsibility to preserve and develop the traditional craft. After years of research, she found a new way for silk weaving. In 2017, she researched, and then successful in lotus silk, which is popular to many people. “I see there are sunken fields in the village. It is not effective to grow rice, so the villagers grow lotus. After harvesting, the lotus stalks are discarded. After being asked about making lotus silk by National Assembly member, Ms. Tran Thi Quoc Khanh, I thought this is a direction from the Government for me to create and develop the traditional craft. I participated in the project "Researching and testing of producing thread from stalks of lotus leaves" with the cooperation of Myanmar". The project was assigned to the Institute of Eco-Economics by the Ministry of Science and Technology which was implemented in Ha Village, Phung Xa Commune, My Duc District, Hanoi.
To create strong, tough but still soft and shiny lotus silk threads that requires the meticulousness and feats in each step. Taking silk is one of the difficult steps, because the silk thread is very thin and easy to be broken. The workers must be very careful. It takes 4,800 lotus stalks and more than a month to complete a lotus silk scarf with the length of 1.7m and the width of 0.25m. Ms. Thuan is successful with lotus silk scarves woven. Flowers were drawn on lotus silk scarves before embroidering. Lotus silk threads are dyed to get ready for weaving. Nowadays, many lotus silk weavers have been trained by her. With her creativities, Ms. Phan Thi Thuan has raised the weaving profession of Phung Xa Commune to a new level. It is well-known by its unique and significance.
Scarves made from lotus silk threads
Artisan Phan Thi Thuan opens vocational training courses every year to impart career to younger generations, especially, school students. She thought, they are the future of the traditional craft village. Only the next generations can preserve and develop the fading craft. She not only taught them the steps to weave silk, but also inspired them with motivation and enthusiasm for the weaving profession. “I have to think about training and imparting career to the next generations. Every year, during summer vacation, hundreds of students come to my house to learn. Whenever they finish the training course, they are hired by me. I was taught by my parents, and I have been acquired and more creative. I hope the next generations will be better than our generation to be able to preserve and develop the traditional craft."
Currently, there are about 50 workers of different ages who work for the weaving workshop of artisan Phan Thi Thuan, however, mainly young people. Each person is in charge of a step. She supervises and instructs them carefully. New learners will be helped by her until they are proficient.
With her creativities and efforts, she was awarded as an Excellent Artisan by the Government in 2016; and "Excellent Capital Citizen" by Hanoi City in 2021.
Mr. Dang Minh Ve - Deputy Director of the Hanoi Museum awarding certificate of object donation to Meritorious Artisan Phan Thi Thuan
Finishing the talk show, she donated more than 40 objects to the Hanoi Museum. Those are materials and products woven from silk and lotus silk made by herself. She wishes visitors to the Hanoi Museum would know about Phung Xa Commune, My Duc District, Hanoi where the traditional silk weaving with a long history still to be preserved and developed so far.
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