Photo by: Héctor Bermejo
When it comes to definitive weaving, a lot depends on the footwork, as Tea Sor demonstrates.
Since I have worked here I have saved some money and have built a house ... life is better
SOMETIMES the secret to success is simplicity itself. “Clean Western toilets,” says Budd Gibbons.
Together with his wife Nevin, Vietnam War veteran Gibbons established Santuk Silk Farm 18 kilometres from Kampong Thom in 2005. Back then they employed just five people ... now they have 21 staff members.
The location, a few hundred metres away from the turn-off to Phnom Santuk on Highway 6, was chosen for one reason alone. It is a convenient stopping-off point for tourists travelling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap or vice versa. That’s where the toilets come in.
“Women love it,” Gibbons says. “We put fresh flowers here every day and clean towels. They actually come out and say ‘thank you’.”
The other important ingredient in the centre’s success is offering tourists lunch, which Gibbons introduced two-and-a-half years ago. Since then business has grown by about 20 to 25 percent each year.
The centre is one of the few places in Cambodia where you can see silk making from egg to krama. One of the first things that Gibbons did was to plant some mulberry trees, not to manufacture silk which he buys in Phnom Penh, but to enable tourists to see how silk is made. A small cage has a tray of worms munching away on mulberry leaves next to a moth weaving its cocoon.
“I wanted the tourists to see the whole process,” says Gibbons. “It’s most interesting for them.”
Greeting visitors as they clamber off their buses Gibbons takes them on a tour of the centre that concludes with a lunch taken next to a display of silk kramas, and that all-important comfort break.
Gibbons asks those who have bought kramas to show their purchases to the weavers before they leave.
“Now I have got some competition going among them and I think it is working quite well,” he says. “Now these people have pride in what they are doing. They’re not just sitting here till 5 o’clock and trying to get away with as little as possible to get the money.”
This is part of Gibbons’ philosophy of getting the weavers to take responsibility for what they are making.
As we visit the workshop, one woman is setting up her loom for her next scarf.
“We used to do that for them because it was faster,” says Gibbons. “But then I realised I was not helping them, because unless they can do this they are not weavers. So now they each do their own set up. They are thinking how to do things better and more efficiently.”
All the weavers start on the shop floor spinning silk, before they graduate to weaving. Those who make the grade receive between US$3.50 and $4.50 for each krama they complete, the rate depending on its complexity. Most of the weavers we talk to seem to make about 20 kramas per month.
Hung Sreng, 52, has worked at the centre since 2008. Initially she took home $1 per day, now she can make more than $100 each month. “At first this work is very difficult,” she says. “But when you understand, it is easy.”
Hung Sreng is in charge of a small team of spinners who are preparing silk for the weavers. She is spinning coarse silk which the weavers will combine with fine silk in order to give the finished krama some texture.
Like most of the other women she lives nearby, in her case only 100 metres away. One of the women actually lives on the site.
Hung Sreng does not want to talk about her past, saying that it would make her cry just to think of how hard her life used to be. Working as a casual labourer on a farm, she used to earn $2 for each day she worked, but when there was no work she didn’t earn a riel.
“Since I have worked here I have saved some money and have built a house,” Hung Sreng says. “Life is really better too ... much better.”