Successfully restoring traditional and premium silk fabrics in Van Phuc Village, Nguyen Thi Tam, 60, a craftswoman, was honored as one of 10 of Ha Noi's excellent citizens this year. In 2010, her silk was used to restore 18 imperial Hue court dresses, which helped preserve and promote the country's cultural values. Do Thuy talks with Tam about her silk restoration techniques and her passion for the trade.
Inner Sanctum: When did you start your career as a silk artisan?
Situated on the bank of the Nhue River, about 10 kilometres southwest of Ha Noi's Old Quarter, Van Phuc silk village has been renowned for its traditional weaving and premium silk fabrics for more than 1,100 years. In 866, Cao Bien, a Chinese Tang Dynasty official, took La Thi Nga, his wife, to the village for sightseeing. She loved the beautiful scenery and people's friendliness there and decided to settle and teach silk weaving to the villagers. I was, luckily, born there. The sound of working looms has been familiar to me since I was young. My mother was also a silk weaver, and she taught me the techniques. However, at that time I only thought that I learnt those techniques to help my mother to earn some extra money, not to follow this as a career. My passion for silk began when I got married. My husband's family has a nearly hundred-year-old tradition of making silk, passed down from my husband's grandparents to his father, Trieu Van Mao, who died five years ago and was a famous, skillful craftsman in the village. He indulged in silk and always wanted to develop various types of silk. It was him who inspired me to follow the family's career. The more I approached silk, the more I loved it.
Inner Sanctum: Van Phuc Village is famous for its silk, especially Van silk. Could you tell us what makes it so outstanding, compared to others?
It would be a mistake to mention Van Phuc silk but not Van (Cloud) silk, which is a precious type of silk fabric and just produced at this village. The silk has its own typical characteristics which are formed from cultural quintessence collected by artisans. Van means cloud in ancient Vietnamese language. The silk is so thin, soft, smooth and unwrinkled. It is made with both relief and sunk patterns. The relief designs are visibly shiny, but sunk ones can only be seen when light is flashed onto the silk. The colours of the silk change as it moves. The person who wears clothes made of it looks aristocratic. That's why in the past it was used to make dresses for kings, royal members and nobles in the Nguyen Dynasty. This can only be made by talented silk weavers because it contains sophisticated and unique weaving techniques. On a metre of silk, there are thousands of exquisite small spots that create different backgrounds for the silk. However, perhaps because of the fussiness and difficulties in weaving, it disappeared from the market in the 1930s during economic depression time.
Inner Sanctum: This silk is thought to have disappeared. How did you approach it and why did you decide to restore it?
My husband's father was the one who had the idea of bringing the silk back. He had a big love for silk. He always found and collected antique patterned silk samples with the expectation of preserving them for next generations. Despite being the daughter-in-law, I was trusted and my father-in-law taught me to weave the silk. He and I searched around and learned more about the silk by asking the elderly in the village. We also had to travel around the country to find clothes made from the silk. Besides, the unique and strange patterns of this silk made me decide to restore it.
Inner Sanctum: What were the main success and challenges in the restoration process?
To reinstate this type of silk fabric, I have to thank the elderly in the village and my father-in-law, who always inspired and encouraged me. Knowing that my family was recreating the precious silk, the old people in the village were really happy. They came to my house to give me some pieces of old clothes made of this silk. They said that these clothes were their parents' or grandparents' wedding dresses, which were very important and meaningful to them, but they wanted this silk to reappear in the market so they gave them to us. They also helped me figure out the correct techniques for weaving the silk. Every afternoon, they gathered at my house discussing it excitingly, which are unforgettable memories to me and have helped me a lot.
However, I also faced a few difficulties. This silk fabric had not been weaved since the 1930s. During the time, the clothes were lost or damaged, so when we decided to restore it in the 1990s, it was difficult for us to find pieces of the silk in good enough quality to explore the weaving techniques. Also, making a piece of this silk requires a lot of time and effort. All the pieces were made by hand, and only talented silk weavers who were careful and patient could do it. Additionally, making garments out of the silk was difficult; selling it was more difficult because its price was higher that other silk fabrics. At that time, most Vietnamese were very poor. They needed to earn their daily bread, so a few could afford it.
Inner Sanctum: How did you overcome those difficulties?
Honestly, I used to want to stop weaving this silk. However, my father-in-law said: "This silk is very precious. If you give up, the next generations won't be able to restore it. It will disappear forever." Moreover, I could not make the elderly in the village disappointed, because they put all their hopes on me. I tried my best to introduce my product to the market. I brought it to clothing shops around the city and asked them to sell it. I also took it to fairs in the northern provinces of Nam Dinh, Dien Bien and Ha Nam or Can Tho and HCM City in the south. More and more people have started to learn about the unique silk. Also, I made garments from other silks that were easier to sell so I could fund my business.
Inner Sanctum: Trieu Van Mao Silk Shop and Van silk have become prestigious brand names in the market. Could you share with us your feelings and plans to develop Van silk and your family's silk in the future?
When the first piece of silk was restored, my family and the elderly in the village were very happy, because it is not just about the preservation and development of a precious silk fabric, but about traditional values. Today, I feel happy and proud that my family is the only one in the village to be able to weave this type of silk, which is appreciated by consumers and the authorities. Many customers from far away, even from foreign countries, come to my house and show their satisfaction with our products. This is an invaluable present to me. It motivates me to continue improving my silk fabric and other products.
My family now distributes silk to shops in Ha Noi and HCM City, and some customers in France and Japan. With 15 looms, my family has a stable income of VND4 to 8 million (about US$178-355) per month each to 20 weavers.
Although the weaving has been mechanised for higher productivity, my family keeps simple manual looms around, which help tourists learn about the traditional Vietnamese way of making silk fabrics.
We have restored some old patterns for Van silk. However, to satisfy various demands for silk fabrics in the market, I continue to find more beautiful patterns and mix traditional with modern designs. We also develop embroidered silk, wrinkled silk, double layers and more colours for silk products. The most important thing is teaching the weaving techniques to the young weavers so they can continue to exist. Right now, my only daughter and her husband are helping me with the family business. I hope that she can follow my career and develop our business in the future. — VNS