September 10, 2012, Day 31 – Khiva, Uzbekistan

Today was a day off! Time to try to catch up on our blog, relax a little and take a walk around the inner city of Khiva. We were on a vacation after all.


Russ and I met up with our group for lunch inside the city. Walking to the restaurant we saw a bride and groom strolling through the city streets. Russ took some photos, we first asked for permission and the groom said yes. But the bride did not look at us. She was very demur in her beautiful white bride dress. (Later we found out why)!


After lunch Russ and I visited a Caravan Saray (one of many spellings). This Caravan Saray was huge! They had the typical area with rooms upstairs, stores downstairs along one side and stalls for camels on the other side but then you walked through into another huge courtyard with a large water feature in the middle.  There were two stories of additional beautiful rooms on the parameter of the walls, surrounding the courtyard. The size was very surprising to us because inside the city wall all that was noticed was the entrance door with no indication of how large the actual building was until you walked inside.


Walking down one of the alley ways that had original cobblestones from the 18th Century we noticed ruts made in the rocks from carriage or cart wheels probably pulled by horses or donkeys two to three hundred years ago!


Next we visited the actual Khiva Silk Carpet weaving shop that was started by a British man who lived there for 7 years. He wrote a book about his experience in Khiva, called Carpet Making in Khiva and Sarah McLeod was reading the book on her leg of the trip. She told me about the book and now here we were inside the shop he wrote about! The shop had a copy of the book here dedicated to them by the British author! Much of the information below I gleaned from this shop’s information. Of course we had to buy a carpet from this shop, we ordered a pattern from the door of a Madrasah inside the city walls and will use it for Russ’ office.


During the Soviet Occupation the art of silk carpet weaving had almost disappeared and this man helped to revive it again using the traditional patterns from Khiva. The patterns were copies of designs in the carved doors on the Mosques and Madrasahs in the city. We watched the weavers work for a while and noticed their tool looked a little different from previous weavers we had watched. On one end was a crochet hook to pull the silk through the weft and a knife below the hook to cut the silk. First the coloured silk was tied as a double knot (Turkic knot, a half knot was a Persian knot) following the pattern across the line. Then a neutral coloured thread was woven across the vertical line of the horizontal threads. A metal comb pushed all the threads together by banging it up and down until the threads were nice and tight. This knotting and weaving procedure was then repeated over and over.


Growing silk worms was called Seri culture and had been practiced for 4,500 years. Uzbekistan was the 3rd largest producer of silk in the world today, after China and India. A big surprise to me was that the worms were raised in people’s homes. The household received a batch of worms from the government, which they grew in their living room. Many times they would dedicate two rooms in their home to the silk worms each year because that was the only way they could control the temperature of the rooms and because the worms grew so fast they needed the additional space to house them. The worms had to be kept very warm and protected from predators. Also, keeping the worms inside a humid room kept the mulberry leaves, their food, from drying out. In the beginning the worms ate only freshly chopped mulberry leaves. As they grew bigger they ate the mulberry leaves straight off the cut branches of the trees. They grew from 2 mm up to 12 centimeters in length within their 5-week cycle. They became 10,000 times heavier during this time. After each skin molt the silk worm’s jaw became stronger and the sound of the worms munching was like children eating a bowl of rice crispies! They were eating machines and had to be fed 5 times per day. The villagers went all over Khorezm region looking for mulberry branches to cut down to bring back to their worms.


Finally, around 6 days after their last skin molt, the worms stopped eating and spent a week resting before they started to spin their cocoons. The silk farmers probably welcomed the rest from feeding and listening to the worms eat, which I imagined was enough to drive a sane person, mad. Never mind having to clean up all the molted skins, yuck!


But then I found out the villagers had no time to rest (of course not, these poor people worked very hard to survive). They had to go to the desert to collect desert bushes (looked like sage brush) because that was the ideal spinning sites for the worms. The branches were placed on top of trestle tables inside the worm rooms and the worms chose their spot on the bush to spin their cocoons. The cocoons were spun from the outside, in and they varied in size.  When they spun their cocoons their environment had to be colder. A colder environment produced a longer thinner cocoon whereas a warmer environment produced a shorter and fatter cocoon. Luckily, the shape did not affect the quality of the silk. A well-fed healthy worm could produce a silk thread that could be unraveled from the cocoon for 1 kilometer. The cocoon was one long silk thread wound around and around and held together by a glue substance that came from the worm’s mouth.


The government gave the families their worms in May and the villagers looked after them until the end of June or July. Moths appeared around two weeks after a cocoon was made. The cocoons were taken to a silk making plant for processing before the moths appeared. The pupas inside the cocoons were killed using hot air or steam. Only 30% of the cocoons were allowed to hatch out to produce eggs for next year’s season. The timing of killing the pupas was very important because if the moths emerged that would ruin the cocoon. The cocoon would no longer be one long thread of silk but many short threads. Humans have pampered the silk moth for centuries and it has actually lost its ability to fly! The silk moth is 100% dependent on humans for its survival. See good parents must let their children fly on their own or we cripple them.


To unravel the cocoons they were placed in hot water to dissolve the glue, which held them together. Legend said that the Yellow Empress of China was sitting and enjoying a cup of tea under a Mulberry tree when a cocoon fell out of the tree and plopped into her cup of tea. As she attempted to fish it out of her tea it began to unravel and the secret of silk was discovered.


The unraveled silk fibers were hooked onto a spindle and while 8 to 10 cocoons popped up and down in the hot water they are spun together to make one thread. When dry the silk thread looks much like straw fibers and feels like horse tail hair because it is coated with serecin, a protein gum the worm secrets from its mouth. To degum the silk they burn the Kirkbughum fortyjoints (spelling?) plant found in the desert, which results in an alkaline ash called Ishkor. The Ishkor is mixed into the hot bath and the silk is dunked up and down to strip away the serecin. The silk is then put into a steaming hot cauldron with grated bazaar soap and washed. The degumming and washing of the silk makes it whiter, softer, shinier and silkier.


There was one more process for the silk threads before they could be died and that was mordanting. The word mordant comes from Latin and means, “to bite”. This process allows the dies to penetrate and fix onto the silk. The mineral salt alum was used as the mordant agent, by emerging the silk into a hot alum bath and leaving it overnight.


Next, the dyes were cooked up in different vats (large cauldrons) and heated to various temperatures (a closely guarded secret) depending on the colours desired. The skeins of silk were placed into the vats and massaged to ensure an even colouring of the dyes. They were then left to cool overnight.


A mustard colour was attained by mixing together onionskins, a vine and quince leaves; pomegranate skins achieved a rich gold colour; whereas, indigo was imported from India or Afghanistan and was much more expensive. To achieve a green colour the silk was first dyed yellow and then blue. To achieve a consistent green colour was the hardest to attain. Dried walnut husks turned silk brown and the madder root was used to achieve a red colour, etc. After dying and drying the silk it was washed one more time, hung up to dry, then beaten hard against the wall to soften the silk and remove any excess dandruff dye particles. The silk was now ready for weaving! No wonder silk products were so expensive this was labour intensive work.


Once the carpets were completed, the back of the carpet was scorched to remove any fluff that remained after the weaving. The finished carpet lacked shine and luster. It was washed with cream of tarter to bring out the sheen and then shampooed and conditioned! Excess water was removed using a wooden block moving in the direction of the pile.


As we drove along the streets in the rural areas we saw lots of mulberry trees used for the silk production in Uzbekistan. They were easy to spot, the trunk was huge, very thick and old looking but the branches were long and thin because the branches kept being cut off to feed the silk worms each year. The first cutting of the mulberry leaf was used for the silk worms and a second cutting was used to feed the cattle. Usually Mulberry trees grew into beautiful majestic old trees living for hundreds of years but these Mulberry trees were lucky to live for 70 years due to their aggressive pruning.


Later that evening back at our hotel we bumped into Yura, (we call him Yuri). He was leading another group through Uzbekistan.  Yura was the guide who actually planned our trip for this year and he was the reason we wanted to visit the “Stan” countries. It was a happy reunion. He explained that he would be with us later in our trip.


“istan” means “the area of” so Uzbekistan meant the area of Uzbeks. Much of Uzbekistan was desert. Driving through Uzbekistan we noticed lots of camels, goats, sheep and donkeys. And in some irrigated areas they also had cows and horses. In their summers the temperature got as high as 45 degrees Celsius and in the winter as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. Uzbekistan is basically flat with their tallest mountain being 30 meters high, which is about 300 feet.




One comment

  1. Okay, I give up. What did you find out later about the bride who would not look at you? You left it as a teaser in the second paragraph of this day’s entry. Just curious.

    Be well and be careful. Cheers, Gail

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