Gillian Green visited Cambodia (after studying as a beginner weaver at the Guild in the 80s) and fell in love with the country and its weaving tradition. Apart from the textiles themselves, she collected the components of antique looms which are highly decorated with animal motifs and are nowadays very sought after as collectibles.
Women are the traditional weavers of Cambodia. A lot of them live on farms. Weaving is typically the way they earn enough money to educate their children (in a country which still has a high proportion of widows.) These days more men are learning to weave because of the income potential it represents. A large proportion of foreign aid to Cambodia is directed towards supporting the hand-weaving industry. Gillian visited a national silk centre in northern Cambodia which covers the whole gamut of silk production, from growing the worms to weaving the finished product.
Weft Ikat predominates in Cambodia, with 2/1 twill being the norm. This results in one side of the fabric being darker than the other as they tend to use black, prewound warps. Sometimes a border of supplementary weave is added. Most of the warp threads are purchased from places like China. It typically takes 3 months to create a 3m length of silk from cocoon to fabric with the weaving being the shortest part.
The silk cocoons are spun in nest-like structures made of sticks. Worms are very temperamental and die easily. Japanese mulberry leaves are one of the preferred foods. The cocoons need to be whole without the hole left by the moth chewing its way out so that they can be “unwound” – each cocoon is made of one continuous thread. To circumvent the Buddhist ethic of not killing any living thing, the cocoons are left out in the hot sun, where the moths die by themselves.
Dyeing the threads for Ikat is very laborious and involves wrapping groups of threads in plastic tape to protect them from the dye, then unwrapping and re-wrapping for each subsequent colour. Most of the dye materials are grown locally and include:
- Jackfruit (produces a yellow)
- Morning Glory (pale blue)
- Lac – insect secretions (red)
- Banana leaf
Most of the cloth woven is for clothes, which are rectangles (usually about 90-100cm wide and 2m long) sewn into a tube and worn wrapped, sarong-style, around the body. Men wear checked plain weaves. Older women often wear a type of trousers which are made by knotting the short end around the waist and passing the free end through the legs – these are considered more modest than the wrap-around skirts.
Cloth for celebrations, Pidan usually bears Buddhist motifs of heaven, auspicious animals like white elephants and traditional dancers. Most weaving has traditional patterns but some outlets are encouraging more modern designs for western tastes.
Gillian has written a beautiful book Traditional Textiles of Cambodia: Cultural Threads and Material Heritage