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Tapestries of History

Tucked away on a dirt lane in Phnom Penh, in a traditional teak house filled with beautiful antiques, is the studio and training school of master silk weaver Liv Sa Em. His art is Kha Bang Neang Sok Kra Ob-difficult to pronounce but wonderful to behold, it is a traditional style of dyed and woven silk in jewel-like patterns and colors.

Marvelously intricate patterns are created by tying, dying and then weaving the silk, in a manner similar to Indonesian ikat.

Nearing 60 years of age, Sa Em has been weaving silk since he was a boy. He comes from Prey Kabas district in Takeo, known for this special style of dying and weaving. He learned the technique and many of his basic designs from his mother, also a master weaver. "She is a great designer-I am certainly not equal to her in skill," he said modestly.

Sa Em finds inspiration for his designs in ancient motifs, from the glorious ancient days of Angkor. "Everything-the designs, the technique, is from the old region, before the war. Everything is from Angkor, from ancient times," he said. In addition to adopting the motifs of great temples like Angkor Wat, he learned from his mother to look for design patterns in other places. His house is filled with beautiful carved antiques, which he buys to study the designs and incorporate them in his weavings.

Sa Em brought out several bags of dyed jewel-like silk strands to demonstrate the steps in Sok Kra Ob. He first wraps strands of raw silk on a frame, and ties the strands into patterns with banana leaf threads. The silk is removed, dyed and remounted on the frame to be re-tied for the next color in the pattern, and again removed and re-dyed

These steps are repeated up to five times, depending on the number of colors in the design. The loom is then strung with the warp, or lengthwise threads, in a base color silk. The dyed threads are the weft, the cross-wise threads, woven into the pattern originally created by the tie-dying process.

The final result is stunning. The dyes, which create rich glowing hues of blues, greens, violets, reds, ochres, are all natural, usually made from plants. "They are hard to find, these dyes, because they come from the mountain areas," Sa Em said. When looking at a three-meter piece of intricately woven silk, covered with flowers, animals and other motifs, it is hard to imagine how one organizes strands of tied threads to become such a complicated, beautiful tapestry. And that is where the artistry lies.

Sa Em proudly displayed a large silk with several different designs incorporated into it-rows of peacocks along the borders, multi-colored diamonds, tiara shapes. "These come from a woman's crown, from centuries ago, before Angkor, the very early history of Cambodia," Sa Em explained. When asked the price of this particular fine piece, he just laughed.

"Someone ordered it specially as a gift for Sihanouk. It took three or four months to create," he said. Hun Sen made a gift of his silk to the Prince when he returned to Cambodia in 1991, and Sa Em proudly displayed photos of Sihanouk's wife wearing his silks as well.

His traditional art almost wiped out during the Khmer Rouge period, Sa Em is one of a few remaining master weavers. To foster the resurgence of this art UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization, supports a training studio for traditional silk weaving, where Sa Em is currently training ten young women in weaving.

Busy at several looms in a building adjacent to his house, their hands move rhythmically over the colored threads. "If they have talent, or they are truly interested in this art, then they can learn very quickly," Sa Em explained. "If they are neither talented nor interested, then it is much more difficult-they can learn but much more slowly.

"It takes a week just to string the warp threads onto the loom. Then an accomplished weaver can finish one sarong length of woven silk in roughly 10 to 14 days. The price for such a piece is not cheap--U.S. $120 for a single sarong length, $240 for a double length. But the skill and artistry involved in the creation is not to be found elsewhere.

"These are not patterns you would find in the market," Sa Em said. "If you wear one of my krama in the market, they will know where it came from."

As master artisan, Sa Em's talents and beautiful creations are well known to Khmers-and increasingly to foreigners as well. His silks are not sold at any market; to buy one it is necessary to visit him personally. His studio is located down a rough dirt road to the northwest of the Russian market.

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