IKTT (Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles), from SiemReap Cambodia
IKTT (Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles), from SiemReap Cambodia

In a Cambodian Village

Traces of the war in textiles

The traditional Khmer lifestyle and culture in Cambodia was disrupted for a quarter of a century during the reign of Commander-in-Chief Lon Nol ( 1970-1975), the Khmer Rouge(1975-1979), and Vietnamese intervention in 1979 until the foundation of the transitional government in 1993. Among those traditions affected, the old Cambodian art of woven cloth was one of them.
"A quarter of a century" corresponds to "one of generation ". The Cambodian demography as of three years ago shows that more than half of the population was under 15 years old , the proportion of people in their 50s and 60s was about the same , but the population in their 30s and 40s is extremely small. This highly unbalanced demography is a direct result of the history of armed conflicts in Cambodia since 1970, which also left its mark on Cambodian traditional textile tradition: there are some people older than 60 who knew the skills of tradition weaving , but there are hardly any people younger than 50 who have mastered it. I am now engaged in finding older weavers to convey their skills the younger generation in Cambodia.
From January through May 1995 I conducted research on the status quo of the traditional Khmer silk weaving at the request of UNESCO. The research was not an easy task as hardly any related information existed due to the 25- year absence of the craft . Where in the country and on what scale is silk woven? If not anymore, then until when was it woven? Is natural dying still conducted? What about silk worm raising? The information from the last survey by French specialists is almost 30 years old , and one-third of the country is still too dangerous to enter. My survey still continuing slowly and only where and when the situation allows.
Among the few facts identified in the 1995 survey, one finding was that traditional hand-woven textile have been gradually received since 1990. However, almost the silk used is exported from Vietnam. The traditional high quality Cambodian cloth used to be woven using silk reeled in Cambodia when sericulture was a big industry in the country. Most farmers stopped silk worm raising around 1970, and now there are hardly any farmers engaged in sericulture. More than 95% of weavers use imported silk, but its price is unstable: during the period of 1993 to 1995 the price went up by 20 % every year. In 1996 it became relatively stable, but the price is still volatile on the whole.
Now a number of young weavers are being born into the art and the traditional textile culture is being received in Takeo, 50 kilometers south of Phnom Penh; and in Kompong Cham, north of the capital along the Mekong River. However, the industry is controlled by greedy merchants: the distribution is totally in the hands of middlemen, who supply weavers with raw silk( people in village normally have no capital to start up the business ), and pay them for the labor. The weavers' pay is low, so they try to produce as many cloths as possible to make the most possible money. As a result the quality of the products deteriorates.
On my visit to Cambodian villages the strongest impression was the visible influence of modernization after World War 2. Traditional Cambodian textile fabrics carry geometrical patterns or natural motifs such as flowers , which itself is an accomplished and unique form of Asian art. However, compared to traditional fine work the patterns became bigger and bigger after the war, and the works produced now carry patterns several times bigger than previously. This means less attention is paid to the present production process. Old weavers in their 70s and 80s told me the changes they made in the production process in their early days: how they made patterns bigger, what modern tools they introduced, why they replaced natural dyestuffs with chemical ones and Cambodian silk with imported one. While listening to their stories, the modern history of Cambodian textiles gradually took shape in my mind. Stimulated by this, I decided to help the village weavers establish an environment which allows them to produce high- quality products as quickly as possible.

Raising silkworms best suited to the environment

High standard sericulture is vital for fine weaving. However, my research found out that traditional silkworm raising had almost died out in Cambodia apart from a few villages in Kampot. I, together with people from the villages, set forth on a mission to revive traditional sericulture. The foundation for a revival was there: mulberry trees, old tools and the older generation. Most mulberry trees had been cut down during the civil war, but there were some although unattended and in a wild state, left in the village. Some old tools had been preserved , and most importantly , some elderly people who remembered the techniques still there. We made other tools by ourselves, such as bamboo baskets , following traditional methods. In the process we also rediscovered small but interesting, old crafts such as evil- repellent leaves and disinfectant herb.
Procurement of the most important material, silkworms, was my responsibility. I obtained some silkworms egg of the yellow ,tropical species from Thai of Khmer origin who lived near the Cambodian border. Silkworms live for about 45 days. Japanese or Chinese silkworm hibernate and hatch either in spring or summer. However, the yellow, tropical variety from Thailand hatch at different times throughout the year, so silk can be produced about 7 times a year.
However, the yellow variety can produce only less than one gram ( about 300 meters) of raw silk from one cocoon , while the white variety from Japan and China can produce two gram (1400 meters ). Therefore, the former seems to be extremely inefficient to the eyes of modern sericulturist , and there is a tendency to try to raise bigger silkworms. For example, during the 60's and 70's Thai sericulturist tried to improve imported Japanese silkworms to suit their climate, but the attempt ended in failure after 10 years . It was an unrealistic goal to bring a temperature species to the tropical monsoon climate, and problems were encountered : cocoons were prone to diseases due to the change in temperature, flies and other natural enemies. The village was forced to purchased a large refrigerator to protect the silkworm eggs. Even so, the mainstream opinion among Thai sericultural specialists, and some Cambodians, is that white cocoons are better due to their productivity.
Still I believe the yellow, tropical species is much more suited to the Cambodian climate and tradition. It is possible to raise the tropical variety under natural conditions and the morality rate of silkworms is very low. In addition, the raw silk reeled off from the traditional variety is much more soft and pliable than from the white species.

Tradition enhanced by natural environment

Cambodian woven material is dyed using five basic colors: yellow, red, green, blue and black , ,and the country has long produced natural dyes for those colors. The most basic red dye is made from the nest of an insect called "lac". The nests are collected after lacs have moved from one tree branch to another during the breeding season in December. Thailand is now the main country for lac breeding, but in the wild lacs also inhabit the region stretching from Assam in India and the Himalayas to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Yunnan in China. There is a record of lacs being once traded as an important mountain delicacy in this region.
As well as being a natural red dye, lacs are also known as "natural plastic". They have been used as a material for SP record disks and insulators. Because they have the property of being resistant to acid and soluble to alkali, lacs were once used as a material for medical capsules. Lac is one of the ten major export produces of Thailand. Cambodia used to export lacs until the 1970's. An old map of Indo-China published in France reveals the main producing areas in Cambodia for silk, cotton and lacs. However, there are now hardly any places left that produce lacs in Cambodia.
Why did so many lacs die in Cambodia? An old village man, who used to raise lacs in his younger days, gave me one explanation: there used to be many forbidances for lac raisers, such as "he must not touch a dead body", "he must not eat hot steamed rice", or "he must not kill the snake" . However, one day this lac raiser helped with his grandmother's funeral where he accidentally touched her body, and he believes this is the reason why his insects subsequently died.
Of course his account is based on superstition. My research revealed that the death of his lacs was caused by human conduct: there used to be a small forest with many tall trees( which were more than 100 years old ) in front of this ex-lac raiser's house, where lacs lived. During the chaos of the civil war most of these trees were chopped down for use as a building material or to sell. The trees in the lacs lived were left, but due to a change in temperature caused by the exposure to the direct sun they all died: lacs have a low degree of heat tolerance and 35 degree centigrade is the maximum temperature they can survive.
Human being destroyed the lacs'natural environment. Is it not time that we tried to regenerate nature's original state?-I asked myself this question as a result of my effort to rejuvenate the Cambodian textiles tradition, as a restored natural environment is vital for the survival of traditional culture. Traditional exists together with nature, a relationship which will never change.

Morimoto Kikuo
Institute For Khmer Traditional Textiles

update : April 26, 2004 9:03 AM

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