In the heart of a small village in Kandal province, a traditional silk shawl known as “sbai” comes to life. Delicately embroidered by some 40 families, this vibrant fabric not only showcases the intricate beauty of Khmer ornamentation, adorning both local and foreign visitors to the world-famous Angkor Wat temple, but also stands as a cultural legacy.

The rich embroidery, deeply rooted in traditional arts, is a cherished craft passed down through generations in Sampan Leu, a small village in Sa’ang district’s Prek Ambel commune.

Today, a diverse group of villagers, spanning generations and genders, dedicates themselves to this intricate art form. Their creations not only reflect personal skills but also play a crucial role in preserving the essence of Cambodian culture.

Tuy Sochan, a 58-year-old resident, reminisces about the village’s past, where farming and vegetable cultivation were the primary occupations. Some villagers, including Sochan, inherited the tradition of embroidery from their ancestors.

Over time, these skills evolved, transforming into a source of additional income for the community. Each villager has embraced and refined their craft, fostering a continuous learning process that keeps the tradition alive and thriving.

“I’ve witnessed this embroidery tradition standing the test of time, rooted in the days of my ancestors, and it hasn’t lost its vibrancy. As I’ve grown older and can’t engage in physical labour like in my youth, I find solace in dedicating myself to the art of embroidery. It keeps me active and engaged. I manage to earn a monthly income ranging from $100 to $200, all the while crafting beautiful designs inspired by ancient ornamentation,” she shares.

Crafted patience

Sochan says her craft is a labour of love, demanding embroiderers to embody significant patience. It’s an art form that rewards dedication, not suited for those seeking shortcuts. And contrary to the misconception that it’s only for the elderly, individuals ranging from teenagers and those aged 60 or older actively engage in embroidery in her village. Even her 60-year-old husband has mastered this craft.

She explains that they utilise metal or wooden sticks, roughly the size of a child’s wrist, to stretch the fabric. The setup of the loom is customised to customers’ needs. Whether they desire a fabric size of 2m to 2.5m or 3m with a width of half a metre, the loom is adjusted accordingly, matching the length of the purchased fabric.

Positioned at half a metre from the ground, the loom offers ergonomic comfort, making sitting easy and reducing strain on the waist. This versatile loom can also be placed on a bed, requiring only a 20cm height from the bed surface.

“The artistic designs are diverse, and as an embroiderer, I don’t initiate them. The fabric comes with predefined patterns, and our role is to embroider along these existing traces. The particular design is dictated by the buyers; if they fancy a specific pattern, they customise it as per their preference and pass it to us for execution,” she explains.

Cultural heritage

Eng Heng, a 36-year-old entrepreneur, shares that his journey began as a garment factory worker. While working there, he encountered a showcase of fabric adorned with captivating embroidery, sparking his curiosity.

He decided to give it a try, experimenting alongside his factory duties.

As his embroidery venture gained acclaim and a burgeoning clientele, he took the leap in 2013, leaving his factory job to wholeheartedly pursue embroidery, a commitment he continues to uphold.

He mentions that he doesn’t operate from a fixed location. Instead, he takes fabric pieces to craft ornaments or patterns inspired by ancient temple walls. These designs are handed over to village embroiderers for implementation based on established patterns.

Once the embroidery concludes, he collects the pieces. The entire process, from embroidery to the final product, usually spans one to two months.

“The embroidered fabric pieces display a myriad of patterns and designs, with the aim of preserving our rich cultural heritage. These products are crafted with meticulous care by the Cambodian people, showcasing authentic Khmer patterns,” Heng says.

Heng mentions that his creations draw interest from buyers in Siem Reap, who frequently rent his items for visitors exploring Angkor Wat or incorporate them into wedding ceremonies, festivals and traditional performances.

His products are also sought after in Phnom Penh, especially by wedding beauticians. The prices vary from $130 to over $200 a piece.

Heng currently involves some 40 families in the production process, with sales reaching their peak in January and February, necessitating the collaboration of up to 100 families during these months.

Fabric maestro

Heng mentions his versatility in working with various fabrics; it’s not confined to silk. Once customers place orders, he can create embroidery on a range of textiles, as this craft easily adapts to different fabric.

For the fabrics sent to the village for embroidery, he pre-designs the patterns. Consequently, the embroiderers only need to follow these pre-drawn patterns during the embroidery process.

Pang Phanny, the chief of Prek Ambel commune, notes that in certain villages within the commune, embroidery dates back to ancient times. 

However, the techniques have evolved over the years, resulting in distinct differences from past practices. Regarding the Khmer style, as long as they adhere to historically accurate patterns, it’s commendable because he encourages people to preserve their cultural heritage.

“If the design doesn’t stay true to the traditional Khmer style, I won’t support it. The real reward comes when the effort is genuinely dedicated to preserving Cambodian culture,” he remarks.

He expresses joy in learning about local residents finding employment opportunities and earning a livelihood, contributing to the improved living standards of the community. 

Muong Sarim, director of the Kandal provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts, says that engaging in embroidery with traditional designs is a meaningful contribution to the preservation of Khmer culture. Simultaneously, the department actively supports many families involved in this endeavour, collecting valuable examples of the craft.

“I’m very aware of their work, and Heng’s products are highly sought after. Buyers eagerly await the opportunity to make purchases, and sometimes the supply struggles to meet the demand. I wholeheartedly support and encourage him to keep producing authentic traditional styles, ensuring they remain true to the richness of Khmer patterns,” she says.