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Mulberries, silk weaving supports communities and traditions in Laos

Mulberries is a silk weaving organisation that offers a source of sustainable livelihood for people in Laos, as well as preserving the value of traditional lifestyles.

Mulberries is a socially and environmentally responsible silk weaving company established in 1993 by Kommaly Chanthavong. Its products are certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation, given its mission to provide sustainable job opportunities for Lao people by employing them in the whole range of processes involved in silk weaving: from growing mulberry plants and raising silkworms to producing silk threads, dyes and weaved goods. “There is at least one person involved for every one of the 17 steps required in producing our silk scarf,” Mulberries representative Boby Vosinthavong explains. Employing 3,000 farmers and artisans from over 200 families across rural Laos, the list of jobs goes beyond those strictly related to weaving, including the production of items such as mulberry tea, juice, soap and perfume.

Kommaly Chanthavong Nobel peace prize nominee founder mulberries laos
Kommaly Chanthavong, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and founder of Mulberries © Paul Wager

Kommaly Chanthavong, founder of Mulberries

The founding figure of this organisation, Kommaly Chanthavong, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work in support of women’s right to a stable and dignified source of income. Born in 1950, she learned weaving from her mother at the age of six. When she was 11 years old, she fled her village after it was destroyed by a US bomber during the Laotian Civil War, in which Vietnam and the USA were involved in a conflict known as the “Secret War” between 1954-1973. Chanthavong walked across her country for over a month, finally reaching safety in its capital Vientiane.

Having witnessed first-hand the devastation brought by conflict, she set out to help displaced women and their families by teaching them how to weave silk. She eventually founded a silk weaving cooperative with ten members, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative, which has now grown to employ over 450 people across 35 villages, and later founded Mulberries.

Mulberry leaves on the plant
Mulberry trees are the backbone of the silk weaving company Mulberries © Mulberries

A circular process

One of the founding missions of Mulberries is to bring environmental sustainability to the lives of rural Laotian people. To achieve this, The Lao Sericulture Company uses a cyclical process of silk production that supports village life. “The quantity we produce each month depends on the complexity of the weaving patterns,” Vosinthavong explains. At any given time, Mulberries raises between 600,000 and 900,000 baby silkworms in its farm in Xieng Khouang province, in north-eastern Laos. “Our raising season starts from April to November,” Vosinthavong says. “We raise approximately five to six times per year. We distribute the majority of these baby worms to our producers (in a radius of approximately 60 to 200 kilometres). For villages that are over 250 kilometres away, we generally send them the silk eggs for them to raise directly”.

The key to this operation are the mulberry trees themselves: their leaves are used as organic fertiliser and food for silkworms, their bark is employed to make tea and the fruits are used to create dyes and as food. In addition, when grown correctly, these plants can help prevent soil erosion and rejuvenate the earth. The cycle doesn’t end here, as nearly everything is used and recycled. The silkworms that produce silky cocoons also generate nutrient rich waste. On top of this, the pupae (the insects in their metamorphosis stage) are enjoyed as a food source high in protein.

Moving along the process, we come to the transformation of the cocoon into silk threads and here too, waste is minimised. The unusable exterior parts of the cocoon are reinvented as stuffing for blankets and pillows. The silk water used to soften and clean the silk threads then becomes a prized skin moisturiser.

To ensure an environmentally sustainable product, all natural components are grown organically. This includes the production of natural dyes made from locally grown plants such as indigo, tamarind and coffee beans, to name a few.

Read more: Teixchel, indigenous women in Guatemala weave to fight exclusion

Thousands of silkworms are fed
Workers feed fresh mulberry leaves to trays of silkworms © Mulberries

The importance of Mulberries’ work

Mulberries doesn’t only help local people access a sustainable source of livelihood, it also promotes traditional arts. Both silk weaving and natural dyeing are age-old traditions passed on through generations of Laotian women. “For more complex patterns one piece can require up to two or four months,” says Vosinthavong. Its products, therefore, represent more than just clothing and an occupation, they’re an art form connected to a traditional way of living. With modernity, such forms are becoming increasingly rare and must be protected, and Mulberries represents a great example of how a company can do so whilst promoting social and environmental sustainability.

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