Cheap imports are transforming silk weaving in Herat
While some weavers say that the industry is still vibrant, and that they are receiving orders from foreigners and Afghans alike, others complain that the lack of support for silkworm farmers means they can no longer afford to work with natural fibers.
The craft is usually passed down from father to son with some people spending their entire life as silk weavers. The major products of Herat silk weaving industries include shawls, scarves, turbans and other silken fabrics.
Najibullah, 53, a weaver who has spent 35 years working with silk, said Herat products are unique and that those made of synthetic silk may be cheaper, but the quality is not as good.
Nowadays a pure silk scarf which is 90cm long and 70cm wide costs 400 afghanis ($9), if it is made of synthetic silk, it costs 150 afghanis.
Ghulam Sakhi, 75, learned the trade from his father when he was 10. He has been weaving ever since and only with natural fibres. He said Herat silk had its golden day in the 1970s before the Soviet invasion and ongoing wars.
“Thirty years ago there were 1,000 silk weaving looms in Herat city, all of which were using pure silk, but now most of the weavers use synthetic silk,” he said.
"I learned weaving from my father when I was 10 and for the past 65 years I have never used synthetic silk," he said.
But the number of customers wanting pure silk products has fallen as the price of natural threads has shot up. Last year, Sakhi bought one kilogram of pure silk for 1,500 afghanis, now the price is double.
Abas Azami, head of silkworm producers and silk weavers, said there were now only 300 silk weaving looms in Herat city, of which only 12 used pure silk.
"Unfortunately, silk weavers are facing a lot of difficulties. Pure silk is rare and expensive," Azami said.
Nowadays one kilogram of pure silk costs more than 3,000 afghanis while synthetic Pakistani silk can be bought for 420 afghanis per kilogram in the market, he said.
He says that local silk is rarely used because the Pakistan imports are so much cheaper.
However, he said that weavers did not want to use synthetic silk and if the government supported the silkworm farmers, the situation could change.
"Silk weaving is a halal craft and it reveals the native art of Herat province. The government should not let this art vanish," Azami said.
Silkworm farmers have also asked the government for support.
Saeed Ahmad, 50, a silkworm farmer from Zindajan district, said the craft of silk production was no longer stable due to the lack of government support and falling demand.
If the government wants to keep the craft of silk weaving alive, it must set up a silkworm nurturing centre for the craftsmen as well as assist them technically, he said.
He has been farming silk worms for 20 years and collecting their cocoons. For every kilogram of silk he processes, he receives 5 afghanis. He can process one-and-a-half kilograms a day.
"I process the silk from the cocoons which I collect during the spring and summer season, with help from my family, in order to make it ready for use," he said.
Silk is a shiny, hard and tense thread which is produced by silkworms.
According to history, the first silk products were made in China, but now the craft has stretched across the world.
Silkworms normally hatch during the spring and their natural food is the leaf of the mulberry tree. During the growth stage– about 50 days – the caterpillar should be kept in a clean environment and at a temperature of about 25 ºC.
The caterpillar gradually loses its appetite and becomes yellowish-white in colour, which shows that it is ready to spin itself into a cocoon.
The cocoon takes about three days to make and is actually the secretion of the silkworm. After about three weeks inside in turns into a pupa and then into a moth and tries to emerge, destroying its cocoon as it leaves. The cocoons are then dried and processed in to silk threads.
The government plays the role of provider, coordinator and counselor, but does not interfere in production and marketing, Fakhurddin Nasrat, an officer in the department of agriculture, irrigation and livestock in Heart, said.
Silk production has fallen over the past 30 years due to the lack of a market, he said.
Before the Soviet coup in April 1978, the government would send 17,000 boxes of silkworm eggs annually to Herat, whereas now they it only sends about 2,000 boxes, Nasrat said.
Now days, most silkworms are imported from China because domestic production is not enough, he added.
If the government initiates a long-term supportive programme, the art of silkworm farming could be revived, Nasrat said.
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