ACONCERTO of squeaks and clacks drifts out from a house nestled by a countryside road in Takeo’s Cheu Teal Village. It’s the sound of many wooden looms and spinning machines set in motion by a group of ikat weaving artisans from the surrounding villages.
Traditionally, families in Takeo produced silk in their households and then sold it to buyers who came to the village. Now they work under a single roof for their American employer Push Pull, using the ancient craft to produce cotton handbags and accessories. Soon the brand will launch a range of designs by Cambodian artisans, who will use the traditional medium to weave contemporary patterns.
The story of the company’s founding has something of a fairytale-like turn for Kongkea Chhay, the company’s field manager. Two years ago, he was a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap. On one ride, he befriended Seattle native Daniel Flickinger. They kept in contact and a year later Daniel visited Kongkea’s birthplace in Takeo. Seeing first-hand the skill that goes into ikat weaving, and that every home in the village had at least one loom, prompted the American to invest in the craft. Now the company’s products (under the fashion label basik 855) are gracing boutique independent stores from California to New York.
“We’re trying to be at the intersection of fashion and craft,” says Leigh Morlock, the company’s creative director. “It’s the consumer who wants the new season bag as well as artisanal items.”
Push Pull make an effort to share the factory work equally among the families in the village, says Kongkea. “We can’t just take one family from this village to work for us. We want to be fair, and give a chance to the poorest and unemployed people first. Most of them are skilled, because the craft is passed from generation to generation.”
In the rented house that serves as a factory in Cheu Teal, work begins at 8am. A total of 46 artisans are set to work tying, drying and weaving cotton yarn into patterned fabrics. They work with a monkish dedication.
“Once the cotton is coloured and dried they put it on spindles. It’s one continuous string so they have to put it in order and tie it together so that they always know which one comes next. Otherwise the pattern will have a glitch,” explains Morlock.
“The people used to have problem with the silk market as it has low and high season, and the price of raw material went up,” recalls Konkgea, familiar with villagers’ struggle to make a livelihood. And even though many newcomers to the Push Pull centre need a while to get used to cotton, “people are waiting for a job like that,” he assures hoping in the future the company will grow to offer more positions to the locals.
His charismatic aunt Choeng Sro, an elderly woman who has spent 45 years at the loom, shares his excitement about this modern approach to ikat trade , but adds that the artisans “still have to work hard to earn a living.”
Spin and tie teams earn a minimum of $100 a month and the longer they work, the more promotions they get. Weavers are paid $5 per metre. Depending on productivity, they make between $120 and $275 a month. In addition to salary the company provides medical reimbursements.
For Lon Leap, who also used to work his loom at the family house, it is his first experience working in a team. “I’ve been working here as a weaver for two years now and I appreciate this job. In the future I’d like to move to a managerial position.” He dreams of being able to be the sole breadwinner in the family. “To make ends meet, my wife has to work, too.”
Bringing in Cambodian designers to formulate new patterns is something of a milestone for the young brand, Morlock says.
“We found [people] who were doing traditional silk but in new patterns – which is rare. We’ve commissioned them to design ikats.
“Now...they can come up with designs that they can create now and into the future.”