A collection of authentic reproductions of vintage Khmer silk products is to go on permanent display from February 15 at the MGC Asian Traditional Textiles Museum in Siem Reap.
The eleven pieces include four silk towels, five sampots (long, traditional skirts) – woven in the traditional Cambodian ikat pattern – and two large pidans, decorative panels used to decorate the pagoda or the home for special ceremonies. The pieces were painstakingly crafted using only traditional designs and equipment, including traditional Khmer looms.
“Currently, a team of specialists are putting the finishing touches on each of these products. They are perfect replicas of the beautiful weaving that our ancestors enjoyed hundreds of years ago,” said Sen Kimsun, acting deputy director of the museum.
The collection has been created to preserve the unique art of Khmer weaving, which is in decline. Pidans in particular have become exceedingly rare, in part because of the widespread availability of cheaper printed items that are easier to produce, and partially because of the wealth of cultural knowledge that was lost during the terrible years of the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime.
Through the reproductions, the museum is proud to share the cultural heritage of the Khmer people with all of its visitors, whether foreign or domestic.
Although the precise origin of these styles of weaving is unknown, they were widely used during the 13th and 14th centuries, according to Kimsun.
In addition to clothing and towels for general use, pidans were crafted for religious purposes. Once suspended in frames, they were prominently displayed in temples and the homes of the wealthy.
“Pidans are related to the story of the Buddha, and were a form of worship. Some of the panels featured images of the Buddha and were used in various religious rituals. Today, the panels that are most commonly used are printed,” Kimsun told The Post.
“Unfortunately, the high cost of the hand-woven panels saw them largely replaced by printed items, which are both cheaper and faster to produce,” he said.
The team who created the reproductions faced many challenges while trying to rediscover the distinctive styles and techniques employed in the past.
“One of the biggest challenges was creating the traditional dyes. There were no chemicals available to the ancient Khmer, so they had to create all-natural dyes that would hold their colour. Unfortunately, due to deforestation, some of the raw materials they needed were very difficult to locate,” added Kimsun.
Yan Maryna, president of the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), which took charge of producing the replicas, acknowledged the difficulties of utilising only authentic, historically accurate, time consuming techniques.
“It took almost two years to produce the 11 pieces in the collection. The seven to eight metre pidans alone took more than a year to complete,” she said.
“If we had racks and looms that were already set up to produce the pieces, it would have been faster of course, but we were starting from scratch,” she told The Post.
She explained that the designs on all eleven pieces were traditional Khmer patterns, and were taken from documented vintage items.
“One of the two pidans that will go on display features a repeated pattern of pairs of peacocks, which represent happiness. The other displays a large, open-clawed dragon,” she said.
IKTT was founded in Phnom Penh by Japanese man Kikuo Morimoto in 1996. It aimed to explore traditional Khmer weaving. In 2000, the organisation moved to Siem Reap.
After Morimoto passed away in 2017, Maryna became IKTT president.
She vowed to continue his work and keep the traditional art of Khmer weaving alive, and this led to the institute’s collaboration with the textiles museum.
Six regional countries collaborated to establish the museum. Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam all shared the intention to preserve the traditions of textile production, as well as show the centuries-old trade in culture between their civilizations.
“It is dedicated to the history of joint trade between the countries along the Mekong and Ganges rivers, where India traded textiles to Indochina,” said Kimsun.
“In 2013, the museum accepted 768 pieces from the six partner nations, and we officially opened in 2014. At present, the museum is focused on displaying its Cambodian collection,” he added.