After graduating from university and beginning her career as a civil servant at the the Ministry of Economy and Finance, Khieu Sina found time to establish a business that aligns with her true passion – quality hand-woven Khmer goods.
Her product line, known as Banteay Srei, is regarded as one of the most luxurious brand names in Cambodia on the market today.
Sina, 23, set up the Somros Tombanh online store, which focuses on selling luxury woven products. It aims to promote value-added Khmer hand-woven silk and help unlock new find markets, while providing employment opportunities for older weavers.
According to Sina, Takeo province’s Prey Kabbas district is famous for the quality of its weaving.
The resident of Ba Phnom district, Prey Veng province, said: “I went to Prey Kabbas district and the nearby villages in Takeo province, where I met with many of the weavers in their homes. After several discussions, I decided that they were producing the kind of beautiful things that I wanted to stock.”
She often posts images of her products to social media, and her gorgeous items have received a lot of attention from the public.
She said that many of her clients order custom designs, although she also stocks the creations that her weavers dream up on their own.
Her customer base ranges from beauty salons – who often buy her high-quality products for wedding parties – to members of the public as well as well known Cambodian VIPs.
“I think the reason so many customers order from me is because of my excellent online presence. I update my profile regularly with sharp images of my products,” she told The Post.
In addition her retail business, she also acts as a broker for many of her weavers, selling their wares to wholesalers.
Sina said her online marketing is currently geared towards local customers, but she wants to attract international clients.
“In the future, I plan to introduce hand-woven Khmer fabric abroad, almost as a form of economic diplomacy. Once the women of the world see its quality, I am sure it will become popular,” she added.
The finance ministry official said that in general, she trusts the weavers of Prey Kabbas district to create beautiful designs, although she liaises with between them and special clients who want custom made patterns.
In the past, such fine silk products were notoriously difficult to clean, as the dyes were easily washed out. This is no longer a problem, as the colouring process employs only the finest quality dyes.
She said that sales were slow initially, but she put this down to a lack of online reach.
“In the first month of starting my business, I sold around 50 sets of clothing a month, roughly half of the volume of trade we do now,” she added.
She asked for patience from her customers, saying that she was sometimes slow to respond during the week, because her work at the ministry kept her very busy. Generally, she has more time to attend to her business on the weekends.
Although her entry into the market stemmed from her love of Khmer silk weaving, she admitted that initially, she knew very little about the actual weaving process.
“I started to learn more when I began marketing them. Previously, I didn’t even understand what the difference between a four and twelve shaft weaving frame was!” she explained.
“Woven silk is traditionally more expensive that any material. In the past, if a woman wore a dress made from silk, it was a certainty that she was wealthy. Nowadays, there are many cheap imported silk products available,” she added.
She warned that many consumers were unaware of the difference between hand-made Cambodian products and the cheaper machine produced items from abroad.
At first glance, some people are taken in by the smooth uniform texture of machine made goods, but they lack the unique character of those which are hand-made in the traditional way, she said.
According to Sina, an imported skirt and blouse outfit may cost between $20 and $100, whereas hand-made items will start around $100 and range up to $300 for custom designs.
Due to this price gap, demand for traditional silks had decreased. As a result, many traditional weavers have stepped away from their looms and taken work in garment factories.
Prum Chanthou, 34, a third-generation weaver in Pei village, Tnaot commune, Bati district, near Prey Kabbas district, is a supplier to Sina’s Phnom Penh-based business.
The woman who has five siblings, all weavers, said if she works alone, it can take up to a month to complete each step of the process, i.e. weaving, dyeing, drying and so on. If she works with others to break the work into stages, they can complete one blouse – with matching skirt – in a week.
“In the future, there may be no one left to weave. The young go to school, and it is only the elderly who remain at home with the looms during the day. The work is difficult and we earn only 50,000 to 60,000 riel per month, so factory workers earn more,” she told The Post.
Chanthou said that the number of weavers living in her area was decreasing, largely due to the abundance of cheap imports.
She requested that government institutions help to promote domestic products by reducing imports from abroad.
Oum Saroeun, director of the Prey Kabbas district administration’s cultural office, agreed that market forces were responsible for the decline.
“The market price for hand-made goods is low, and this is why many people now work in garment factories. Nowadays, only the old people continue to weave. They stay home to look after their grandchildren and do some weaving,” he said.
He added that in the days when there were few factories in the district, there were about 5,000 looms in operation. Now, he estimated that fewer than 3,000 were in use.
He believed that Cambodian products were less attractive to consumers than cheaper mass-produced items.
“In the past, Thailand hired our very best weavers to train the people in their country. Now they have industrialised our designs and produce them on machinery,” he added.
Sina encouraged the Cambodian people to support the Kingdom’s hand-woven silk products, and the hard working weavers who are keeping the ancient tradition alive.
“Once customers understand that they are buying not just garments, but pieces which represent the cultural heritage of what it means to be Khmer, I believe they will be prepared to pay the prices we are asking,” she said.