Sunday, September 16, 2007

The revival of silk-weaving in Siem Reap

Skilful revival - by The Star (Malaysia)

Rows of Apsara dancers (celestial nymphs) springing across a swathe of scarlet silk gradually unfold under the weavers’ skillful hands. The dancers’ intricate headpiece and jewellery can be discerned, so fine is the weaving. This design is inspired by the bas-reliefs at the temples of Angkor Wat which offer vital clues to the origins and beauty of Cambodian silk, says silk expert Kikuo Morimoto. “The bas-reliefs depicting the people’s daily life, or Apsara dancers show their clothing bearing floral motifs and geometrical border patterns are glorious!” exults the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) director. On my visit to the IKTT, dozens of women from teenagers to 70-year-olds are busily creating Cambodia’s fabled textiles once again. The IKTT is located in a modest wooden house along a dusty road leading to the Tonle Sap Lake on Siem Reap’s southwest route. The air is heavily scented with flowers, roots and bark boiling in huge cauldrons to extract their natural dye. Looms are set on woven mats beneath the stilted house. With hair wrapped in the traditional Khmer kroma – red and white checked scarves – the women work in silent concentration spinning the silken threads onto old-fashioned iron spools set on the floor. Others are methodically transforming these threads into magnificent textiles with a steady rhythm of clicks and clacks from the looms. What catches my eye are the many babies and children accompanying their mothers. Slung in hammocks or doodling with charcoal on scrap paper, they are the reason so many women are here.

“Over 1,000 names are on our waiting list, many are mothers,” explains Morimoto. “I encourage mothers to bring their children with them, as it’s a way of passing on the art to the young.” He already employs many pairs of mothers and daughters fresh out of school with no employment or education waiting for them. The trainees receive wages of US$35 to US$150 (RM125 to RM540); the highest of US$180 (RM650) is paid to one worker who worked with IKTT for 10 years. The trainees learn the entire process of creating textiles, from the initial process of producing silk fibres and dyeing, to weaving, including plain, striped and ikat weaving, wooden and bamboo works, needlework and painting. Sokhun, a fresh-faced 17-year-old orphan, is busily spinning thread onto spools, an early stage of her training. “This is tedious work but I yearn to create my own textiles to sell,” she says. “At my age, I have much to learn. This trade will enable me to make a living.” Another weaver, Phalla, 35, has been with IKTT for four years. Her policeman husband draws a salary of US$30 (RM110). It was difficult to feed their four children, aged 10, eight, five and nine months. “I’m happy. We can dream of sending our children to school and maybe even college,” she says. “The future is brighter for them if they have some education.” Another mother, Pov, 47, says her husband, a soldier, struggles to feed the family. “I like working here because I can bring my baby Mony with me,” she says. “I earn US$45 (RM160). My children can now stay on in school. They wanted to work in hotels and restaurants but I want them to finish their schooling and not be uneducated like me.” The wizened hands of Seneg, 70, slowly spin thread onto spools; at her age and speed, this is the only position for her. Seneg has been with the IKTT for four years after she lost her job cleaning guesthouses in Phnom Penh. Her husband is also employed here to strip the bundles of sharp palm leaves to be woven into packaging.

The IKTT relies entirely on sales of its textiles to keep afloat. There were times in the past when sales were down and salaries were delayed. Morimoto is hopeful that the increase of tourist arrivals to Siem Reap, 1.3 million last year; will help sales. He refuses to sell the textiles through middlemen, preferring to sell directly to consumers. Hence, the brand is not as well known as Artisans d’Angkor, a French-originated organisation reviving traditional arts like sculpture, carving and silk-production, which generated US$6mil (RM21.6mil) in sales last year. In comparison, IKTT earns some US$20,000 (RM76,000) a month. “It is important for the Cambodia people to produce textiles from the heart rather than purely for commercial purposes as in Thailand,” he explains. “Traditional Khmer textiles were nearly extinct during war. It is not just a business, but also a way of living for the people. Hastening the process will create as much damage to the craft as war did.” While the IKTT has none of Artisans d’Angkor’s marketing finesse or refined retail concept, it is disarmingly genuine in its own rustic way. Its operations remain in that wooden hut and the shop upstairs has nothing fancy about it.Children handwrite brochures with little illustrations. Each piece of textile bears a tag with the names of the primary weaver and the plants the colours are derived from. Morimoto believes that gives the people pride. It is a simple reminder that behind every piece of fabric is a human being weaving a future. The products are sold only at the IKTT in Siem Reap and at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington D.C. in the United States. For information, click here.


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