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   Cambodian Silks

Cambodian Silks
The Color of the Land

Dark yellow silk for Monday. Tuesday is purple. Red for Sunday. Master weaver Prang son fondly points out the traditional colors and patterns. Here is the lovely charabap with its gold and silver embroidered strands, the analouh, with its bold vertical stripes, and the hol, skirts and wall hangings in ancient patterns of India, rows of elephants, eyes of fish, jasmine flowers in natural silk browns, maroons and deep greens.

Prang Son has been weaving silk since she was a small girl in Takeo, the province south of Phnom Penh that is renowned for silk weaving. She can produce all these patterns and more, and today is participating in a revival of old traditions of silk weaving by teaching these skills to a new generation of weavers at the University of Fine Arts located just behind the Royal Palace.

Like most weavers, she learned the craft from her mother, who was one of Takeo’s leading weavers in the 1950s, a master in a home industry


Prang Son, Cambodian Silks seller

that often employs whole families who gather around the silk loom under the stilted house, each person with an assigned duty.

Prang Son started with the easiest tasks, such as preparing the silk threads for dying, and weaving simple sampots in the loom. "I was seven or eight. I was always very interested and I’d weave at lunchtime when my mother was preparing lunch," says Prang Son. To become a master silk weaver, she later attended the Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh, where experts taught students how to mix natural dyes from leaves, bark and stone to create complex color patterns in the thread. She learned how to weave the silk for wedding dresses with silver and gold thread, and mastered the art of weaving the silks for classical dance costumes and learned silk embroidery. In those days fine silk threads originated in Cambodia. It was easy to identify a silk weaving village by the mulberry bushes ringing the village where the finicky silk worms fed. But in recent years weavers had to do with silk thread imported from Vietnam and China and chemical dyes have replaced the rich natural dyes that never ran. Today efforts are underway to revive the traditional process, which reaped a fine-textured rich-hued fabric. In Siem Reap, a French group is working to resurrect the entire traditional process from the raising of mulberry trees through the dying and weaving phases. The silk found in the many markets of Phnom Penh comes from all over the country but Takeo and Kompong Cham are the leading silk weaving provinces. Each province is known for its particular designs, colors and techniques.

Silk has always played a major cultural role in elite Cambodia society, in classical dance, weddings and traditional ceremonies. In older times, the bride would weave silk for her groom, and would change her silk outfits many times during the wedding ceremony. But the glittering "charabap" - which looks like embroidery, but is actually a tapestry woven with silver and gold thread- was reserved for the high ceremony. When attending ceremonies at the Royal Palace, government officials follow the old tradition of wearing a color corresponding with the day of the week –a tradition still commonly practiced at the Royal Palace. Wednesday is a blend of green and copper. Thursday is light green. Friday is dark blue and Saturday is dark violet. Younger women wear the bright purples, yellows and greens and the older women wear the darker colors.

Daily life is adorned with silk of assorted patterns, colors and functions. The "krama" is perhaps most evident, commonly used as scarves and headwear. The silk sarong is a piece of silk in various patterns casually wrapped around the waist and worn at home. The "sampot" is the Khmer skirt worn by women for various occasions.

The most common style, the pamung, is solid colored, sometimes decorated with a pattern at the hemline. The anlounh has vertical stripes and is often worn to wedding parties or other celebrations. Kaniev -a shimmery silk made by intertwining two colors, such as blue and green, and twisting the threads so the pattern appears as a wave- is often worn to ceremonies by older women.

Silk sawing process


Some silks you won’t find anywhere in market. Sa Em, now close to 60, has been weaving since he was a boy, and his beautiful creations are well known to Khmers. He weaves silks for the Royal family. A specially ordered large silk with several different designs incorporated in it tows of peacocks along the borders, multicolored diamonds -took three or four months to create. It was ordered as a gift for King Sihanouk. Another of Sa Em’s creations was given by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen as a gift to First Prime Minister, H.R.H Norodom Ranariddh, when he returned to Cambodia in 1991.


Sa Em, whose particular art is known as Kha Bang Neang Sok Kra Ob, says he finds inspiration for his designs in the ancient motifs of Angkor. He still uses the natural dyes, and the finest thread. Sa Em is also teaching young weavers the craft through a UNESCO training Program. "If they have talent or they are truly interested in this art, then they can learn very quickly. If they are neither talented nor interested, then it is much more difficult –they can learn, but much more slowly." For his pieces it can take a week just to string the warp threads onto the loom. An accomplished weaver can finish one sarong length of woven silk in roughly 10 to 14 days. The price for such a piece is US$120.

Silk weaving is still widespread in Cambodia’s villages, where weaving can bring in extra income for the household. Weavers don’t earn much -a typical hol, 3.3 meters long, sells for a modest price in the market.

Although funding for teaching the art of silk weaving is scarce, several foreign organizations are helping out to ensure that traditional Cambodia silk weaving will resume its place in the economy. One training group, organized by a Khmer group called Khemara, is in Mittapheap Village just north of Phnom Penh.


Sa Em is sawing traditional Cambodian silks


Women come from the provinces to be trained for a year, living in the village while they learn to weave and dye the silk into many patterns and sizes, established in 1992, the village takes about ten women, aged 15 to 40, who receive a small salary in addition to a food and housing allowance.
After the training period they can join the "women in business" group, producing silk to sell in handicraft shops, or receive a credit allowance to buy a loom and other equipment to go into business for themselves.

Silk weaving is an integral part of Cambodia’s cultural heritage, uniting traditional dress and ceremonies with an entrepreneurial spirit to produce pride, identity -and dazzling patterns and colors, A silk fair that will become an annual event was held during the Water Festival holiday in November.

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