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Walking To the Last Silk-Making Town in Uzbekistan

A long time ago—the story goes—the Chinese Princess Lei Zu, age 14, was sipping tea in her royal garden when a cocoon dropped from a tree into her teacup. Annoyed, she fished it out. But the hot tea had begun to unravel a fiber from the cocoon. Lei Zu peered at the loose filament. She...

“It is a job of patience,” says Inoyatkhan Okhunova, a traditional silk maker in Margilan, Uzbekistan. (Photograph by Paul Salopek)

A long time ago—the story goes—the Chinese Princess Lei Zu, age 14, was sipping tea in her royal garden when a cocoon dropped from a tree into her teacup. Annoyed, she fished it out. But the hot tea had begun to unravel a fiber from the cocoon. Lei Zu peered at the loose filament. She pinched between her damp fingers a thread that would change the world: silk.

“We must find the loose ends and unravel them,” says Inoyatkhan Okhunova, a silk maker who has worked for more than 30 years at the Yodgorlik silk mill, in Margilan, Uzbekistan. “It is best not to break them. This takes practice.”

To do this, Okhunova boils the cocoons in large, dented tin basins of soapy water. The individual silk fibers shine in the steamy workshop light like spider webbing. A colleague spins them—in braids of five, seven, ten—onto a bobbin. This is the primordial thread.

This is just the beginning.

Read the full story, or explore more content from the Out of Eden Walk at outofedenwalk.org.

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Meet the Author

Paul Salopek
Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s 21,000-mile Out of Eden Walk is a multiyear experiment in slow journalism. Moving at the beat of his footsteps, Salopek is walking the pathways of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age and made the Earth ours. Along the way he is covering the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival—by giving voice to the people who inhabit them every day. His words, as well as his photographs, video, and audio, are creating a global record of human life at the start of a new millennium as told by villagers, nomads, traders, farmers, soldiers, and artists who rarely make the news. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @OutofEdenWalk.