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

Abstract Part 2: Textiles in the Angkor Period Session 4

Abstract Part 2: Textiles in the Angkor Period

Session 4

“Evolution of Angkorian Statue Motives and Costumes”

Mr. Khun Samen and Mr. Hab Touch

Director and Deputy Director of National Museum of Cambodia

Textiles in the Collection of the National Museum of Cambodia

The National Museum of Cambodia houses one of the world's greatest collections
of Khmer cultural material including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic objects
from the prehistoric, pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods. While
the sculpture collection is known worldwide, very few people are aware that
the museum also has a small textile collection, or that this collection was
once quite large and impressive.

Building for the National Museum of Cambodia began in 1917 but even before
its inauguration in 1920 the museum’s first director George Groslier, who also
designed the museum building, had started collecting textiles for the institution.
Most of these textiles were contemporary at the time of collection but there
were also a number of ceremonial brocades from the Royal Palace of the former
capital of Oudong and numerous pieces of dance costumes, some of which were
already quite old.

The museum’s archive includes detailed catalogue records for 399 Cambodian
textiles and elements of costume collected between 1918 and 1951. Unfortunately
only a very small selection of these items seem to have been photographed. Textile
collecting took place under three directors, George Groslier, Pierre Dupont
and Jean Boisselier, with the vast majority of textile objects acquired in the
1920s. Acquisition of these materials does not appear to have continued beyond
the beginning of the 1950s.

In addition to the catalogues, records also exist of the display locations
within the museum of many of the textiles at different times and of all loans.
In 1963, for instance, a group of 21 textiles as well as some costume, masks
and headdresses traveled to Japan as part of a large exhibition of Khmer art
shown in Toyko, Nagoya and Osaka.

The cloths that went to Japan were illustrated in the exhibition catalogue
and appeared in its checklist so we know exactly what was shown there. Among
the pieces exhibited were splendid ikat pidans featuring elephant motifs, ikat
ship cloths and some beautiful sampot hol as well as supplementary weft hipwrappers,
furnishing cloths and a pair of wedding trousers. Sadly, however, only a very
small number of these textiles are still in the museum’s collection.

The objects lent to Japan were all returned safely to Cambodia and appear to
have been secure in the museum until after the end of the Khmer Rouge period.
From 1975 until early 1979 the museum, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was
abandoned. Although the museum suffered from neglect during those years, the
evacuation of Phnom Penh meant the museum’s collection was relatively safe.

After the liberation of Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979, the museum was quickly
tidied up and it reopened to the public on 13 April 1979, 59 years after opening
its doors for the first time. Sadly at some later point many objects, particularly
those that were small and valuable, were stolen from the museum. It is suspected
that more than two thirds of the museum’s costume and textile collection has
disappeared or was stolen.

From a group of at least 399 objects, the museum now only holds 72 flat textiles
and a costume collection of between 30 and 40 pieces. Environmental and other
factors may account for some of the loss, but it is unlikely to have affected
so many objects. In addition to its remaining costume and textile collection,
the museum still has a good collection of textile technology including a loom
and weaving accessories.

As with all other missing objects, the museum is very keen to have as many
as possible of the textiles that were in its collection located and eventually
returned. To that end, I would like to describe the museum’s old textile numbering
system so that textiles belonging to the National Museum of Cambodia found in
other collections can be identified as such. Although no longer accepted practice,
accession numbers were written directly onto the textiles in ink which makes
them easy to recognize. The accession code used at the time the textiles were
collected begins with a capital letter ‘N’ followed by a 1, 2 or 3 digit number,
for example N.678.

We have only recently begun our research into the museum’s textile collection
which today contains only two sampot hol cloths and no known examples of pidan.
It is however, very strong in resist dyed cloths or ‘kiet’, particularly head
cloths made by Cambodia’s Cham Muslim people. These richly colored pieces are
spectacular works of art and are some of the only textiles of their kind in
Southeast Asia to feature figurative designs. While most of these resist dyed
pieces are in quite good condition, many of the other textiles in the collection
are very fragile and in need of conservation.

The display and storage of what remains of the textile collection are areas
of great concern to the museum as we want to avoid any further losses or environmental
damage. At present, very little of the collection is on display and some of
what is on view has been out for many years, since before the civil war, and
is very fragile and damaged as a result. However, at the moment we do not have
appropriate storage for the costume and textile collection and are reluctant
to move these delicate items until there is somewhere safe to store them. The
museum is currently looking for financial support to improve the storage of
the collection as well as the manner in which objects are displayed and for
conservation work to be undertaken. We would welcome any assistance towards
achieving these aims.

The National Museum’s collection of textiles is currently stored folded up
without padding or tissue paper between the layers. They are kept in plastic
bags stacked on top of one another in a secure cupboard. The plastic bags have
holes cut out of them to allow airflow and are stapled shut. The current system
of textile storage is unsuitable and damaging to the cloths for a number of

Folding without tissue paper or other archival material to support the folds
and go between the layers puts pressure on the textiles. A number of textiles
in our collection, for instance, have already split along the fold lines;

Stacking the cloths on top of each other also puts potentially damaging pressure
on the textiles;

Storing textiles in plastic bags is not ideal because of the chemicals that
the plastic can give off. The holes cut out of the bags avoid condensation but
allow dust to come in contact with the fibers and dust can be abrasive and further
damage the textiles;

Staples are not suitable for sealing the bags as metal can rust and corrode
and cause damage to textiles that cannot be repaired.

Ideally the textiles should be stored in a climate controlled environment but
as this is not possible at present it is important to measure and keep an eye
on the temperature, relative humidity and dustiness of the area in which they
are stored.

With adequate monetary support the museum will be able to purchase suitable
archival materials such as tissue paper, acid-free paper and card and cotton
tape, construct racks for holding rolled textiles and boxes for fragile and
costume pieces and ensure the collection remains in a stable collection. In
time we also hope to be able to have the pieces requiring treatment professionally

I also hope that in the future the National Museum of Cambodia will be able
to afford to again collect textiles. While the Institute for Khmer Traditional
Textiles in Siem Reap has put together an extraordinary collection and does
wonderful work, it is a shame that there is no strong publicly-owned collection
of Cambodian textiles in this country. There is still a rich and active tradition
of textile production in Cambodia and it is essential that this be supported
and recorded as an important part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

Hab Touch

Deputy Director

National Museum of Cambodia

Session 4

“Textile Decor at Angkor”

Ms. Gill Green

Author and independent scholar, Australia

Textiles as Décor at Angkor

These presentation surveys textiles used for purposes other than costume in
the Angkorian period. So far no actual textiles, fragments or threads dating
to this period or earlier have been excavated in Cambodia. Neither have other
indicators such as impressions on clay, or pseudomorphs (chemical impressions
of silk wrappers on bronze artifacts) as have been found on objects excavated
from ancient Chinese tombs. So what we have to go on are detailed representations
of textiles carved in bas relief most clearly in evidence on gallery walls at
Angkor Wat and the Bayon.

Reliefs show that patterned cloth was used to make blinds for windows and screens,
curtains, litters, parasols, kittisols, fans and upholstery fabric all essential
indicators of social status in the lives of the elite. The most common pattern
appearing on these fabrics is that of four-petalled flowers. Interestingly similarly
patterned fabric is used to construct hipwrappers depicted on figures of both
elite and deities. In contrast while other patterns - ‘solar discs’, spots and
weft brocade stripes – are depicted on latter-period hipwrappers, these patterns
do not appear on décor items.

Roundels are the basic motif element of another group of intriguing patterns
carved on window and door sills and depicted on panels clearly representing
blinds covering balustered windows seen at these same sites. One pattern composition
is composed of geometrically-arranged intersecting roundels with flower infills
and the other of roundels containing either two confronted, swirling phoenixes
or two parrots. These forms seem restricted to use as decorative interior design
fabrics and are not in evidence on Khmer costume of the time.

These empirical observations focused on patterned cloth, though at first glance
seemingly simplistic, do raise a number of fundamental questions. Who wove cloth
like this with its quite specific specifications not only wide enough in the
weft to reach seamlessly from waist to ankle but also patterned by relatively
complex techniques? Indigenous Khmer weavers are known to have woven cotton
on backstrap looms at that time. But narrow strips of cloth, the product of
simple, foot-braced backstrap looms, are quite inadequate to fashion textiles
associated with elite custom described above. Further, what is the significance
of the use of carved roundel patterns appearing only on blinds, walls, window
and door sills?

Answers are sought by examining patterns on extant contemporaneous textiles
sourced far beyond the Khmer domain of the time. Fine cotton textile fragments
with printed patterns including intersecting roundels just like these were excavated
in the 1930s in Fostat (old Cairo). These have been identified as Indian export
cloths suggesting that cloth imported from India may have found its way to the
Khmer court. While cloth with this pattern does not appear on Khmer costume
fabrics, interestingly this pattern does appear on the hipwrappers of many sculpted
images of Javanese deities of this period. Whatever maybe the reason this pattern
appeals to Khmer taste only as a furnishing fabric, it did clearly did suit
costume use in the Javanese tradition. Their source may well also have been
India or the cloth may have been the product Java’s own active textile economy
of the time.

The other roundel-patterned cloths seen on walls at the Bayon feature paired
birds, either parrots or phoenixes. Examples of textiles with almost identical
patterns, again contemporaneous with the late Angkor period, but sourced in
China are relatively well-known in collections. Woven in silk, their motifs
are created in the groundweave either by the complex drawloom technique or are
embroidered onto the woven cloth.

Angkorian palaces are known to have been structures constructed with wooden
frames and walls made with forest materials. Clay or straw sufficed as roofing
material. Only temples were constructed of permanent materials such as brick
or stone. It seems that kings may well have gained supplies of cloth with roundel
patterns from both India and China with which to embellish their relatively
plain structures. When it came to replicating the use and location of these
cloths in stone temples, the palaces of the gods, their more durable carved
depictions, would be eminently appropriate.

So it seems that the Khmer court during the Angkor period may well have been
involved in a flourishing textile import trade with both India and China, this
trade catering to a desire and a need for ‘designer labels’ appropriate to their

update : September 13, 2004 1:23 PM

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