Visiting the Margilon silk factory was something we had both been looking forward to after reading about it on the web – the last remaining factory on the silk route that still used traditional methods to make fabric.
The historic town of Kokand in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan was our base for this expedition, and after the hotel we stayed in confessed a complete lack of knowledge of the factory, as did the driver they subsequently arranged for us, we arrived in Margilon wondering if we were on a wild goose chase! More taxi shenanigans followed as we tried to locate the factory, but we did find it (literally around the corner from the main square – and easy to spot once we saw a tourist coach parked there – a group of French tourists were just finishing up) and were met at the gate by a young man who welcomed us and immediately ushered us in for a free tour.
The factory consists of a series of buildings with grounds planted with persimmon trees and flowering plants – after the dusty, hot and noisy streets outside and difficult journey it seemed like a real oasis. The persimmon trees shade all the walkways and when we visited in autumn were heavy with fruit, which the employees can pick as they like. We got to sample them too – but more on that later!
We began in a warm wooden building, where two older women sat crosslegged over steaming vats of boiling water. One was stirring the contents with a wooden stick which she would occasionally lift out.
Next to them were shallow baskets containing silk worm cocoons (already dead, our guide informed us – I didn’t ask how this was achieved – and in fact I believe this is a somewhat contentious issue that makes some people avoid silk altogether), and these were added into the water periodically.
The woman was not stirring, our guide told us –she was doing the incredibly skilled task of loosening the individual silk fibres of the cocoons, ready for spinning. The second woman in the room spun the fibres using a traditional spinning wheel.
At this stage, the silk was still raw and in hanks – we handled it and it was surprisingly rough and fibrous.
More vats on the other side of the room process the silk to soften it and prepare it for weaving.
Silk worms are farmed on the mulberry trees that grow right through the Fergana Valley, but their cocoons are only produced once a year. The factory makes a yearly order of cocoons, which are stored in a large warehouse building and used until the following year when another batch becomes available. Precise ordering is a must. The factory also uses cotton and wool to make cloth, though silk is their main focus.
Our next stop was the weaving preparation room where the patterns are developed, marked out in black below – another highly skilled job.
If colour is required, the silk (and other fibres such as cotton and wool) are dyed. The factory used some natural dyes, such as indigo, onion skins, and saffron, as well as commercial dyes.
Our guide however told us that it is harder to sell the softer, duller natural dyes pictured above – I loved the warm, natural colours though.
Then it was on to the first of two weaving rooms – by hand. In this room, about twenty women worked on benches (some sitting crosslegged all day) with carpets and shawls hanging in front of them, and they weave or knot them, following complicated charts. The carpet below uses all natural dyes, showing the soft, harmonius colours these produce.
The work is skilled, detailed and slow – we stopped in front of one intricate brilliantly coloured silk Persian-style carpet (below) which had taken a year so far and would be at least two more –all the work of one weaver. It was being made to order. This silk had been dyed with commercial (artificial) dyes, hence the brilliance of colour.
Uzbek pop music played in this quiet room, the guide telling us it helped the women with the detailed but repetitive work, and also provided rhythm.
After that we visited the machine looms where wooden looms are worked with foot pedals and metal ones fully mechanised – from the Soviet Union circa 1950s. These can make wider cloth than the older style wooden looms. A young woman kindly came off her lunch break to demonstrate her work on a wooden loom (she looks very young in this picture, but was in her 20s!)
Both of these machine looms made the pashmina type scarves and shawls which can be plain, simply or intricately patterned, or long bolts of cloth, and the work goes much faster here, although it is much noisier. Below is an example of the mechanised looms and the fabric they produce:
About 50 local people, men and women, are employed by the factory which is owned by a local family. They are keen to preserve the traditional skills required to make cloth and carpets this way, and have a market for the work. I really hope they are able to keep going.
Our tour ended with tea, persimmons, and fresh “non” bread at the factory shop.
And after that we spent some time buying silk, cloth and scarves for very reasonable prices (below), as our guide excused himself to go to Friday prayers. Although the tour was free, there was an expectation that we tip the guide – this seemed reasonable as he had spent over an hour with us, and spoke good English.
A really highly recommended visit, and a great moment on our silk route journey – and after the hassle getting out to Margilon from Kokand by private car, we caught a maschrutka (shared minibus) back from the central square for no hassle (other than the usual wait for it to fill up – not too long as school was just getting out for the day) and a fraction of the cost!