The women workers of Vietnam’s silk farming industry

The women workers of Vietnam's silk farming industry
Photo Reports
View as Gallery

Making silk is an extremely elaborate process that combines human ingenuity with the magic of mother nature. Silkworms, which are actually the caterpillars of the Bombyx mori moth, were once widely bred in Europe, until their populations were decimated by disease in the 19th century. Sericulture is still practiced today in the village of Nam Ban, located in the mountainous Dalat region of central Vietnam. Every morning, about 20 women travel by foot or on two wheels from surrounding villages to work in this small factory that photographer Agathe Catel visited in 2020.

From cultivating the mulberry used to feed the silkworms, to unwinding the cocoons and weaving the threads, this painstaking work is mainly carried out by women. Their seasoned hands are skilled at finding the end of the filament on the cocoon. Working conditions at the spinning mill are difficult: the heat from the boiling water, the weight of the huge reels and the long hours make these women examples of courage.

Although Vietnam is one of the world’s top six silk producers and ranks third in Asia and sixth in the world in exports, it remains heavily dependent on China, the world’s leading producer, for imports. The national conference on the sustainable development of sericulture is held every year in Dalat.


Early in the morning in her courtyard, this worker harvests the last cocoons stored in a rack, which she will then have to take back to the factory. The cocoons are raised in these bamboo structures, often in the workers’ own homes, before being sorted and weighed. This is delicate work, as they must not be damaged.

Photo: Agathe Catel/Hans Lucas Studio

Making silk fabrics is an extremely precise and elaborate process. The silkworms are first reared for a month and fed on mulberry leaves. Within a few weeks, the larvae multiply their weight by ten thousand. Once it has reached its maximum size, the silkworm weaves a cocoon to transform itself into a chrysalis and then into a moth. The cocoons, however, will be harvested eight to ten days after their formation.


The silkworm is in fact a caterpillar, the larva of the Bombyx mori moth. Originally from China, Bombyx mori have been domesticated and selected for thousands of years.

Photo: Agathe Catel/Hans Lucas Studio

The cocoons are formed by a single silk filament secreted by the caterpillar’s glands and woven over two days. The filament is between 800 and 1,500 metres long. Raising silkworms requires specific and delicate knowledge along with ideal climatic conditions, which the Vietnamese province of Lam Dong provides. Silk has been considered a luxury good since ancient times, though it is now more affordable. Sericulture is an ancient and prestigious profession but it entails difficult working conditions.


The cocoons are immersed in boiling water for five minutes, which softens the sericin that envelops the silk filaments and allows them to be unwound. The larvae are then collected to be fried and eaten.

Photo: Agathe Catel/Hans Lucas Studio

The women who work in the spinning mills endure many arduous conditions, particularly due to the heat generated by the reeling machines. They don’t wear gloves and their hands spend long hours in the hot water. Wearing a mask in front of the machines is, however, mandatory. Some workers may develop health problems due to exposure to chemicals and the uncomfortable postures they assume while working with the machines.


Workers hang boiled cocoons on winding reels. Four to ten filaments are wound onto a reel and fuse together as they cool. The threads are then wound onto spools before being mounted on the loom. They are then arranged in parallel so the weaving can begin.

Photo: Agathe Catel/Hans Lucas Studio

The workers also have to wash the cocoons in basins on the floor in a squatting position. While their wages are above the country’s minimum wage and the World Bank’s international poverty line, they have to work long hours to support their families, often under strict hierarchies headed by men.


Horizontal and vertical threads are interwoven to create silk. Asian countries produce about 90 per cent of the world’s silk, which is increasingly competing with synthetic fibres.

Photo: Agathe Catel/Hans Lucas Studio

Vietnam has experienced considerable economic growth in recent years under the so-called ‘market socialism’ model. Over the last ten years, household spending has quadrupled and per capita wealth has tripled. The current legal working week is 48 hours. Working days may not exceed eight hours per day and overtime may not exceed four hours per day.


Silk is a fine fabric, prized for its shine. In Vietnam, it is worn at every occasion. The entire production chain including the weaving of clothing is carried out on site in traditional silk mills.

Photo: Agathe Catel/Hans Lucas Studio

Unfortunately, women are often forced to delegate the care of their children in order to pursue a career that offers them little chance of advancing. Moreover, their salaries are still much lower than those of men.


This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson