Forest village spells hope for Cambodia's lost silk culture

Posted: 23 March 2012

Author: John Rowley

Seventeen years after Kikuo Morimoto set out to rescue Cambodia’s traditional silk industry from the ravages of war, by building a new community of skilled weavers in a forest village, with all the supporting natural resources for silk production and dying, his dream is turning into reality. John Rowley reports from Siem Reap.  

Kikuo Morimoto
Kikuo Morimoto.

When Cambodia finally emerged from decades of conflict and the murderous madness of the Khmer Rouge, followed by civil war, there was little left of the country’s once flourishing village-based silk industry. And with peace came a free-for-all of destructive logging which added to the deforestation already caused to one of south-east Asia’s richest tropical habitats.

Dyeing silk cloth
Dyeing silk at the IKTT forest village, Cambodia. To dye a rich colour, the thread must be immersed in the dye bath 3 or more times, each time the thread must be drained of water before being immersed in the dye bath again.

To find out if anything survived of a Khmer culture that had involved a complete self-sustaining system for textile production, including the production of cotton and silk, UNESCO turned to Kikuo Morimoto. A skilled Japanese craftsman and a passionate expert in traditional Japanese silks, he had come to the Thai-Cambodian border areas in the 1980s as a volunteer in the weaving schools set up in the refugee camps there.

So it was that in 1994 he began exploring the Cambodian villages where silk of a remarkable quality had been produced for many centuries, possibly with direct links to the Great Khmer civilization that produced the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. (Indeed, Morimoto says, there is evidence that mulberry trees and silkworms have thrived in the region for 5,000 years). “But 30 years of war ended old traditions, including the widespread production of silk from silkworms. In 1994 a third of the country was still fighting so there were many areas, called the pink (or danger) zone that we should not enter, but it was in one of the villages there that I found three grandmothers who possessed magnificent skills.”

Skilled fingers

Morimoto showed them examples of old pieces of silk fabric and was able to persuade them to produce something similar for many times the money they were receiving from middlemen for less skilled work. “I was able to supply them with silkworm eggs, and later with cocoons, and I shall never forget their faces when I delivered the eggs. They drew the thread so efficiently – their fingers still knew exactly what to do.”

Ikat silk design
Mother ties Ikat designs with her newborn child behind her. Everyday she works with her own mother to refine her craft.

Two years later Morimoto founded the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), now based in the booming tourist city of Siem Reap, where the products of traditional crafts, including beautiful silks, are displayed and sold to people from across the world hoping to own some of South East Asia’s most quality silk. The forest village, where Morimoto spends most of his time, is reached down a bumpy road some 30 km away.

It is here that the elderly grandmothers trained the young weavers and where the silks and other handicrafts are produced. It has attracted some 250 young workers, many of them from women and girls from surrounding villages. They live, close to nature, in simple wooden houses made by the men of the village who also make the traditional spinning and weaving equipment.

There is a school for the older children and while the mothers are working they are allowed to bring their young children to work. Morimoto believes this is important for the quality of the fabric - if the mothers are happy the fabric will be better. As one young visiting observer, Antonia Beard, who has spent weeks at the settlement as a student, put it: “the forest is more than just a place of work it is a place where working towards reviving lost traditions has meant the bringing together of a strong and caring community.”

Cambodian silk produced by IKTT
Cambodian silk produced by IKTT. All colours are from the natural resources of the forest including the red color from the 'lac' insect.

The third generation of artisans is now training at the village, with the elderly women who initially started at IKTT giving way to their sons and daughters. One expert weaver is the daughter one of the original five women who joined Morimoto from the beginning. It takes ten years for a young trainee to become fully proficient in the production of high quality silks. The skills are passed down through the generations and every design is memorised by hand. “Each fabric is unique and bears with it the heart of the weaver” says Antonia.

“The main task of IKTT” says Morimoto “is to produce our own textiles based on traditional themes of trees and temples, using traditional homemade raw silk coloured only with natural dyes. In addition the Institute has revived the production of genuine cotton clothes spun by hand for the first time in 30 years.

“In the production of high quality silk it is essential that we work in partnership with nature. Everything has to be available within the village, from raw material for yarns, to natural dyes such as indigo or ‘lac’ insects for creating the rich red dyes. It is also essential to have the right wood for making the tools and machines.”

To meet these needs 10,000 mulberry trees have been planted over an area of three hectares – many of them donated and planted by visitors to the project, who also have an opportunity to learn the art of natural dyeing and can stay overnight in the forest. It takes ten years for a young mulberry sapling to start producing fruit, but the leaves on which the silkworms will feed and lay their eggs can be harvested much sooner. Paper can also been made from mulberry wood pulp.

The lac insects are very significant says Morimoto. “Their nests have been used for dyeing the red colour, distinctive to Cambodian ikat, and the process has been part of the traditional wisdom of the Cambodian villagers that has come down from their ancestry in the Angkor period, going back a thousand years. Lacs were traded from the forest in the old days and were exported to France in the colonial period. In the middle of the war lacs became extinct in Cambodia.”

The insects, it seems, need just the right temperature, shielded from direct sunlight by the larger trees, many of them cut down during and after the years of turmoil and civil war. Now the Institute is regenerating and bringing back the mixed forest – which has meant the ‘lac’ has finally returned to Cambodia. It is also planting indigo trees, which require especially rich soil to thrive, to produce the indigo paste for the dyeing process.

Yellow silk

From the beginning Morimoto has sought to use the traditional Cambodian silk for its superior strength and lustre, cultivating the worms with much care and a concern for quality over quantity. “The yellow Cambodian cocoon produces a wonderful colour silk, but is smaller with a shorter thread, so has largely been superseded” Morimoto says.

Dyeing silk
Dyeing the yellow colour from the bark of the Prohut tree. She stirs the dye bath regularly so that all the thread is dyed evenly.

How far this particular project can recreate a widespread silk culture and industry with its roots in nature and village life must remain open to question but there is no doubting Kikuo Morimoto’s achievement in bringing ancient beauty and skills back to life, while working to regenerate the forest on which it depends and the productive lives of the people involved. There is already evidence that his ideas have spread, along with training elsewhere in the traditional methods of silk production. It is, it seems an object lesson in the value of tradition as the world moves into a sustainable future.

The financial viability claimed by IKTT is another measure of its success. It has been achieved by taking into account of both the social and environmental aspects of sustainability to create a balanced system. But for Morimoto, one senses, it is his love of beauty that is uppermost. He was recently overwhelmed by a book about third century Egyptian textiles: "The book reminded me of my dream at the forest village and my desire to produce beautiful Kasumi textiles which can be admired 2000 years from now. My job now is to check and correct any unsatisfactory products at our Siem Reap shop. As I do so I know I am still a long way off fully realising my dream."

For more information and photos, visit the IKTT website. To view a slideshow of Morimoto's work at IKTT, go here.