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

Traditional Textiles in Cambodia

1. Introduction

This report is the outcome of the research commissioned by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization(UNESCO). In this research, I visited more than 36 villages in 8 provinces between January and March 1995. Because of long war disturbance since 1970, few information relevant to textiles remained. Even maps, which are indispensable for field survey, was not available at first time. My research, therefore, was started from asking following question to shop keepers at the markets in Phnom Penh; "Where this fabric comes from?". Then, I arrived at remote villages, where I heard weaving activities still remains, by boat, motorcycle, or other local transportation measures. When I finished interview at such a village, I always asked the interviewees whether I could reach other weaving villages if I proceed to the road furthermore. I headed to other villages if they gave me direction. As silk-worm raising or the use of natural dyes are concerned, normally, answers by villagers to my questions would be "I stopped 25 years ago...". It might be fair to say that there has been interruption, about one generation long, in the evolution of culture in Cambodia. It cannot help being thought how seriously people's traditional lifestyle and culture have been suffered by the civil war. However, Cambodia finally entered a new phase of peace and stability in its history. As people's living standard is being upgraded especially in Phnom Penh and its outskirts, domestic demand for silk fabrics, supported by Cambodian women who have started to wear the traditional national costume again, are growing. This is a following wind for villagers who are keen to produce traditional hand weaving.

2. History and Geography

It can be traced back to 7 century that first kingdom was founded by Khmer, great ancestor of Cambodian known as the ethnic group that built Angkor Wat. Angkor Empire flourished at its peak in 12 century between the era of King Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII. The Empire encompassed a large part of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, and developed as the center for trading through ocean whose route was connected by the "ocean silk road" from South India to China. As a result, its culture was highly influenced by Hinduism as the vestige of Angkor Wat shows. However, the Angkor Empire have declined because of frequent attacks by Siamese who established the Kingdom at Ayutthaya in Thailand. Then, the Empire, which built great architecture and arts, fell down finally in 15 century. Since that time, Cambodia have been always annoyed by political and military intervention of its powerful neighbors; Thailand and Vietnam. Besides, in modern era, French imperialism and then the power game between the Eastern Bloc. and the Western Bloc. have been shaking the stability and independence of the country.

The present Kingdom of Cambodia covers a land area of 181,035 sq. km. Except for mountain chains in the southwest, its topography is almost flat. Lake Tonle Sap is centered in the country while the Mekong River flows through the eastern part of the country. The Mekong runs from the northern Lao border via Phnom Penh, down to the southeast, and then reaches the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Before 1970, when the country was involved into the war, these natural blessings; fertile land and abundant water resource, had brought prosperous rice production to the country. Lifestyle in villages has based on self-sufficient agriculture which has depended on monsoon climate bringing rainy season and dry season in a year. In such self-sufficient lifestyle and agriculture, consequently, sericulture and weaving activity have survived as a part of rural people's life.

3. Types of Traditional Silk Fabrics in Cambodia

The vestiges of the Angkor Empire at Angkor Wat or Bayon offers clues to trace the origin of Cambodian silk fabrics. On the bas-reliefs depicting the daily life of the people during that time or Apsaras(celestial maidens) with mysterious smiles, I have noticed that there are costumes with floral motifs or geometrical border patterns that very much resemble the Indian Ikat called Patola(Double Ikat) of the same period. According to the book "The Customs of Cambodia" written by one Chinese, Chou Ta-Kuan who visited Angkor Empire in 13 century and described its people's life in his book, textiles with spaced floral design have been imported from India and dealt with as the very finest cloths. Moreover, Angkor people have begun raising silkworms and weaving.

It has been found in the research that Cambodian silk fabrics can divided into three main groups according to purpose of usage as well as dyeing and weaving techniques. The first group comes under the Ikat technique, which is called Chong Kiet in the local Khmer language, involves the tying of partial sections of the weft yarn with fiber for resist dyeing that creates patterns on the yarn before weaving. Within this category are various fabrics such as the Pedan, and Samphot Hol(hip wrapper). The Pedan is normally used as a wall ornament for religious ceremonies. There are many kinds of motifs such as temples, Buddha with monks, Apsaras, elephants, lion and nagas. These motifs all have Buddhist connotations. Among old works, there is the Pedan which has no repetition of same pattern. Since its features are quite distinguished from Ikat works in other countries, it can be said that Pedan outstandingly represents Cambodian Ikat fabrics. The Samphot Hol, on the other hand, is used as a skirt. Sampot means wrapping skirt while Hol means Ikat. Both the Samphot Hol and Pedan demand special and sophisticated Ikat techniques in order to achieve the refined texture which represents the finest of Cambodian textile arts.

The Samphot Hol can divided into four sub-groups in accordance with the color and design. The first one is traditional Samphot Hol which consists of five basic color; yellow, red, black, green and blue. These colors were obtained basically from natural dye stuffs. The second is Samphot Hol Por which has a brighter tone and more number of color from chemical dye stuffs than the traditional five-color one. It is currently more popular at markets in Phnom Penh. The third, Samphot Hol Kaban, is exclusively worn by men while Samphot Hols are normally for women. The end piece of Samphot Hol Kaban is much larger than normal Samphot Hol and has gorgeous patterns as well as on the main part. Kaban means two pieces of Samphot(3.5 m). Sometimes it is worn like trousers and its method of wearing is called as Chong Kaban. Last group is Samphot Hol Ktong comprised of stripes and small motifs of weft Ikat in between. Traditionally, it has been said that these Sampot Hols has had more than 200 motifs, all of which have never traced on paper but embedded in the memory of weavers. The number of skillful weavers, however, has decreased drastically because of the long war and a few survivors are now getting older and older without succeeding their excellent skills to younger generation.

Samphot Pamuong is the second main group. It is woven by weft-faced twill texture like the Hol, but is using different color yarn for the warp and weft. It results in a distinct luster like a gold beetle. The Chorabap, used for wedding and other special ceremonies, is the most luxurious one not only among Samphot Pamuongs but also among existing Cambodian fabrics at present. Its supplementary weft patterns are woven with gold or silver thread and scattered all over throughout the twill base. The Chorabap uses 3 paralleled string heddles for the twill base and 19 extra heddles lying between the reed and foundation heddles for supplementary weft patterns. Rabak is woven by the same method of patterning as Chorabap, but it uses not metallic yarns but colored silk yarn. Supplementary pattern only on bottom border of fabric does use Chorcung. Anlounh can be distinguished by the differently colored wrap stripes. Kaneiv applies the Ikat technique, but instead of forming motifs, it randomly leaves colors along the length of the yarn. Different colored yarns will then be twisted together into one thread to be used as the weft. Bantok uses the supplementary weft technique. Its motifs are very small(about one centimeter) and repeatedly woven across the fabric. Recently markets in Phnom Penh sell fabrics with small motifs using Ikat techniques, called a new design, Bantok.

The ground texture of all these fabrics in the first and second groups are silk, and twill weave with three string heddles. The third group of Cambodian fabrics, on the other hand, uses cotton, silk, or mixture of cotton and silk. These, that is, Sarong and Kroma, are every-day fabrics for farmers and ordinary people. Sarong is most commonly worn as a Sampot(wrapped skirt) in Cambodia. Basically, all the Sarong have a lattice pattern like the madras-check, though, it can be further divided into three types according to its pattern of color. The first type is called Sarong Sor(Sor means white), which has distinctive white lines. The pattern of the second group is a Tartan-check. Krola Phnom Srok falls into this group. Krola means pattern in Khmer language. The third one is a Sarong for Muslims. It is mostly woven by the Cham people in Kampong Cham province or in Cham villages of other provinces. This Muslim's Sarong is mixed weave of both silk and cotton yarn. Normally, Sarong is plain woven, but there are "White" twill woven fabrics made of undyed yarn. Description of this "White" fabrics can be found in the book "The Customs of Cambodia", too. These white fabrics is used for a various purposes such as for monks' robes, for villagers' formal dress, to wrap a coffin, and to dye in black with Mak Klua(ebony fruit) for farmers' daily wear.

Every Khmer has Kroma at least one. 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, and to wrap things. It has small lattice pattern. The most common color 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. The Pha Khaaw Maa woven by the Lao and Khmer people living in north-east Thailand is very similar to Kroma in Khmer. It is used for the same purposes, but only by men. Its pattern is slightly different in that the lattice patterns are bigger.

Except for Sarong and Kroma, villagers used to weave blankets and mosquito nets in the past. However, this tradition seems to have disappeared with the change in their lifestyle. The villagers surveyed in this study have all stopped the production two to three years ago.

4. Main Producing Areas of Silk Textiles

Takeo province is traditionally one of the most famous weaving area. Precisely speaking, weaving villages are located only in Bati, Samrong, and Prey Kabas district. These villages are scattered around Saiwa market in Prey Kabas district which is the center of weaving and silk trading. The area lies on the way from Phnom Penh to Takeo town along Route No. 2. It is about 50 km south of Phnom Penh. In this area, some houses have more than one loom. Looms are placed on the ground beneath the stilted house. The loom is traditionally made of a frame 3-4 meters long and 1.3 meters wide with wrap beam attached at the rear. Among Cambodian people, the most famous place for weaving is Prek Changkran village, Sithor Kandal district, Prey Vieng province. The village is situated along one tributary of the Mekong that flows downwards from Kampong Cham town. At this village, some households specialize in the tie-knot dyeing process while others only weave. This kind of division of labor has not been found in other weaving villages. In addition, Muslim Cham villages in Kampong Cham province are well-known for Samphot Hol production.

With regard to supplementary woven textiles, most of the weaving villages are concentrated in Kandal province. Especially, Tavon village, that lies on the right-side of the Mekong river, 15 km upstream from Phnom Penh, is considered as the center among these villages.

Besides the areas mentioned above, Sarong and Kroma are woven in Kampot, Kampong Speu, Siem Reap, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Kampong Chhnang province. However, its production is very small scale and mainly for household use.

5. Silk Yarn and Natural Dye

At present, nearly 100 percent of silk yarn used for textile production is imported from Vietnam. Although indigenous yellow silk cocoons still existed and villagers used to raise them and produce yellow silk yarn from them twenty-five years ago, its custom is now on the verge of dying out. It is very sorrowful to think of the fact that old Cambodian silk fabrics had traditionally been woven out of locally produced yellow silk yarn which had beautiful luster.

Traditional Cambodian silk was dyed with natural dye stuffs. As seen in traditional Samphot Hol, there are three basic colors: yellow, red and black, and two additional colors: blue and green. To dye the yellow color, the bark of Bror Hoot or Gamboge(Gareinia hanburyi Hook.f.) is still used in some villages. The lac stick is used to dye the red color. The lac stick is actually the nest of the lac insect(Laccifer lacca Kerr). The word Leak Khmer originally means the lac. Villagers in Takeo province have used the Cam Poo fruit(anatto/Bixa orellane Linn) to obtain the color red. In order to obtain black color from natural dyes, there is two ways. The first method, is to dye the yarn three times, once in yellow, the second time in red, and the third time in blue. Another method is to use Mak Klua or the ebony fruit(Diospyros vera A. Chev.). To get the green color, yarn is dyed twice, once in yellow and the second time in blue. Cleih is the Khmer word for indigo dyeing which is to obtain the color blue. There are many kinds of indigo actually. According to the villagers, the indigo that they used to grow is the Indigo tree(Indigofera tinctoria Linn), that is called Trom in Khmer. The Trom is fermented and becomes a blue muddy paste, which is called a Mor. The whole process from Trom to Mor is called the Cleih. However, the custom of natural dye have now vanished. Almost all the villagers are using chemical dyes.

Nowadays, some of the finest Cambodian silk fabrics using excellent Ikat techniques are found in famous museums around the world or private collection. Lastly, I conclude this report with hoping that traditional textiles would be revitalized in their motherland Cambodia and become cultural pride of Cambodian people.

February 1996

Acting Director
Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles(IKTT)

update : 2004年04月22日 17:34

| In a Cambodian Village >>
Related articles