Raising silk worms or “sericulture” in Cambodia takes special knowledge and is predominately done by women. The knowledge of raising worms, and harvesting the silk thread, and processing the thread into correct quality yarn for weaving, has been passed down through generations. However, due to the neglect of mulberry plantations during nearly 30 years of war and political strife, Cambodia’s Golden Silk yarn production declined from around 150 tonne per year in the 1960’s to about 6 tonne per year today. Thus, not only is this special quality silk highly beautiful but also rare. All the silk textiles woven in Cambodia prior to the war were woven from Khmer Golden Silk. The silk is called “golden” because of its natural yellow colour as it is un-ravelled from the native Cambodian silk cocoon.
Today Cambodia only produces around 10% of the silk used in weaving throughout the country. The bulk of silk used today is imported from Vietnam and China. However, there are small communities beginning to resurrect the art of sericulture with the help of NGO’s and in time the amount of home grown silk should increase again over time.
THE MEANING OF COLOUR IN CAMBODIAN TEXTILES
According to traditional Cambodian customs, different patterns translate into a variety of meanings and purposes that might refer to rank in society, age, gender roles, or celebrations. Most of the motifs and designs used in today’s silk fabrics have seen little change over the centuries. Daily life is adorned with silk of assorted patterns, colours and functions. Colour has particular significance in silk fabrics for anything relating to the Royal family or special occasions. This ancient tradition of wearing a colour corresponding with the day of the week has been practiced for hundreds of years. The colours of the week are:
Monday - Dark yellow
Tuesday - Purple
Wednesday – Green
Thursday – Light green
Friday - Dark Blue
Saturday - Dark Red
Sunday – Red
Today Cambodian silk is still hand woven on home or community centre looms and there are currently no mechanical looms used to produce silk. The tradition of weaving like the art of sericulture has been handed down through generations from mother to daughter. However, weaving like many Khmer traditional crafts was greatly affected by decades of war within the country and today with the help of NGO and community projects the art of weaving is being revived across the country. Keep this in mind when bargaining for silk as a length of fabric may have taken the producer days or months to weave. Consider the amount of hours taken to make what you are buying when trying to get the best price.
The art of dyeing silk and cotton was a technique handed down through generations of producers and farmers and today is almost non-existent. The vibrant colours which you will see throughout the fabric markets across the country are mainly produced from chemical dyes. The use of the dyes is having an adverse impact on the environment in many rural areas and as such there is an increasing effort by NGO’s to reintroduce the art of natural dyes by educating producers in the use of native plants and trees.
The cotton "krama" is seen everywhere through Cambodia. Every Khmer has at least one Krama. It can be used both by men and women for multiple purposes, such as to cover their heads, to use as a towel, to wear around the hips or to carry things in. It has small lattice pattern and the most common colour combinations are red and white or blue and white, but there are also other combinations such as deep yellow and dark green with thin black stripes.
SARONGS & SAMPOTS
The silk sarong is a piece of silk in various patterns casually wrapped around the waist and worn at home. The "sampot" is the Khmer skirt worn by women for various occasions.
Hol is an ikat defined by its myriad of designs in a single piece of fabric. Since it is so intricate, weaving Hol is considered a difficult and time-consuming technique. Ikat, means “to bind”, and refers to the traditional silk patterns as well as the style of weaving used to create the patterns. The technique for ikat is known as resist dyeing in which the weaver tightly binds sections of thread before dyeing it. The sections that are most tightly bound resist the dye and thus, through repeated tying and dying, elaborate designs are created.
Phamuong is a solid colour piece of silk fabric most generally used to make skirts and is characterized by a subtle and contrasting shimmer usually on the hemline. It is often made into more than 30 colours. If a silk skirt is mixed with cotton, it is never called “Pa muong”, since it is not silk it is called “sung”.
“Pidan” is a type of hol but because its patterns depict stories of religious scenes and village life and are generally only used as wall hanging or holy coth. The word “pidan” literally means ceiling, and the cloth is usually hung behind or above a sacred image in a temple. The techniques of pidan weaving have become an extremely rare skill with only a handful of weavers still creating pidan’s throughout the country.