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Traditional Khmer dyeing seeps onto US runways

We use a traditional technique and modern designs, so it looks and feels like things you would already own

Almost two years after setting up shop in Cambodia, textile manufacturer Push Pull is making a name for itself internationally, with its colourful bags, scarves and cushions now trickling into homes and onto runways in the US.

The good vibes, including a well-received autumn show at the New York International Gift Fair, gave Push Pull the impetus to relocate from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh last month, and start shipping products to fashion boutiques and customers in the US through a new online store.

Leigh Morlock, Push Pull creative director and New Jersey native, said that growing awareness of the Push Pull brand back home means that the months of hard work setting up a weaving centre, training staff and perfecting the label’s designs are now paying off.

Morlock said the key appeal is the use of local ikat-dyed fabric in all of its products, and the marriage of style between Cambodian weaving techniques and western design aesthetics.

“I think that’s where a lot of handicraft organisations struggle – they’re selling to tourists, so there isn’t always a compulsion and need to vary the product or to change it,” she told 7Days. “My experience, coming from a handbag market in the States, is that every three to six months you have to offer a new product; whether that’s new patterns, new fabric or additional styles. We use a traditional technique and modern designs, so it looks and feels like things you would already own and have in your wardrobe, but has the added benefit of being hand-made and supporting artisans.”

Ikat involves tying plastic covers over segments of cotton and then dyeing it – repeating the process with different areas concealed until the fabric is fully patterned.

“The most closely related process that people know is tie-dye. Essentially you separate threads of cotton and bind them so they won’t take the colour of the dye. If a product has two colours it’s been tied and dyed twice; if it’s got four colours it’s been tied and dyed four times. Because everything is hand-woven, it takes at least six months to weave a season’s worth of fabric, so we need six months to weave the fabrics, then a month or two to get it sewn.”

The process is painstaking, with Push Pull’s team of 18 weavers each producing between 80 cm to one metre of fabric per day.

Before the finished roll of fabric is handed over to seamstresses in Phnom Penh, it’s already undergone more work than most high-end bags and clothes, said Morlock. But she added that the quality of the finished products means the exhaustive dyeing and weaving process is more than worth it.

Morlock said that Push Pull founder and Seattle businessman Dan Flickinger decided to start the label in Cambodia in December 2009, after developing a fascination with Khmer weaving techniques.

After working for fashion label Wanderlust, Morlock joined forces with Flickinger and spent six months drawing up business plans and establishing a weaving centre in Chheu Teol village, Takeo province.
Push Pull was then officially launched in April last year.

“Our products are based on patterns that have been passed down, and it’s based on the colours that have always been popular in Cambodia. We’re in Cambodia because ikat fabric is the centrepiece of what we do, so the textiles are here and the skills are here,” she said.

Morlock said Cambodian ikat weavers have has long enjoyed a reputation for their craftsmanship. For instance, when the King of Thailand visited the US in 1856 he brought President Franklin Pierce a gift of Cambodian ikat cloth.

While Push Pull products are sold in Cambodia through Wanderlust and the Amansara hotel in Siem Reap, and in limited quantities abroad, Morlock said the next step is exporting their upcoming February 2012 collection in commercial quantities, something the recent move to Phnom Penh is designed to facilitate.  

“We’ve really fine-tuned our production processes in the last year and a half, and now it’s the next phase of the business which is selling and distributing. But for us it’s about more than the financial bottom line – our goal is to invest in the community in which we work. The theme for February is nautical ikat, so it’s bright colours, its very celebratory and happy, and its taking classic spring patterns like polka dots and water hues and doing them in the ikat technique with nautical touches.”

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