C AMBODIA'S silk industry has been in a downslide for years, due to changing styles
of dress, the country's devastation and competition from other countries.
Years ago, in the 1940s, silk weaving provided a living for villagers in most of
Cambodia's provinces. The quality of the silk was high, the natural dyes didn't run
in the wash and the cloth lasted for a hundred years or more. Regional patterns gave
Cambodia's silk a sense of origin and tradition.
Today, silk continues to play an important role in Cambodia's traditions such as
weddings, heirlooms and historical recordings. But modern weavings lack context.
The silk patterns no longer carry a reputation and the quality is low, said Liv Sa
Em, 61, who has been a silk weaver for nearly 50 years.
Sa Em said silk weaving once supported his entire family, both his ancestors and
his children. "Now we can't
depend on this business because there is no profit," said Sa Em, who is now
a weaver and teacher with a UNESCO training program.
He said Cambodian silk began to slip in the 1950s as Chinese dealers lowered the
price they would pay to the weavers to compete in the market with foreign silk. That
discouraged people from learning the craft. You could earn more selling cakes in
two days than you could earn weaving for five months, he said.
Several local and international NGOs ( Khemara, Unesco, Undp/Carere) have been working
to revive Cambodian silk weaving and a new industry is emerging in several areas,
including Kompong Spur, Phnom Penh, Battambang, Sisophon, Siem Reap and Takeo.
Weaving is expected to take on a bigger role in society over the next several years
with the creation of a committee coordinated by Princess Marie Ranariddh.
As part of that effort, a three-day Khmer crafts and silk fair will open Nov 5 on
the grounds of the theater south of the Hotel Cambodiana. Queen Norodom Monineath
will preside over the opening.
Silk products at the fair will include vests, scarfs, purses, book covers and a variety
of decorations made by women and disabled people in Battambang, Kompong Spur, Kompong
Cham, Pursat, Kandal, Takeo and Khemara and Fine Arts Association.
Revamping the marketing of Cambodian silk, as well as other Cambodian crafts, is
one of the goals of a five-year plan called 'Revitalization of Cambodia. Part of
the plan is to make the silk fair an annual event.
"The program will help women get out of poverty and eliminate exploitation",
said Sochua Mu Leiper, advisor on women's affairs to First Prime Minister Norodom
It will take $500,000 to implement the five-year plan, said Sochua. She said so far
UNDP/CARERE pledged $17,000 for the first six months and additional funding will
be sought from Sweden or Japan.
The organizers expect to hire foreign trainers from countries such as Thailand, Lao,
Vietnam and Japan to train Khmer women in elaborate silk weaving decoration. They
want to publish a book about the value of silk and conduct research into improving
the quality of Khmer silk by raising silk worms and mulberry trees, which provide
the leaves that silk worms eat.
The NGOS have already started some research aimed at looking for superior worm species
and a farm to grow mulberry trees. Silkworms require a lot of attention. They must
be fed by the same person three times a day and be protected from mosquitos by netting
as well as from odors and bright colors. If conditions are right, it takes 45 days
for the worm to spin its silk cocoon
Some of the experts involved say the future for Cambodia's silk looks promising.
Khemara has found markets for Cambodian silk in America, Hong Kong, Africa and France,
and expects to have silk products ready for export to those countries in six months,
said Hang Puthea, president of the Fine Arts Association.
"We are trying to encourage villagers to pick up this career and if they agree,
the earnings from silk will help settle their living", said Tann Channy, Khemara's
program officer for rural development.
So far they've had some success. Srey Mom, 19, said she was never particularly interested
in becoming a weaver, but took a job with Khemara when she was invited to join a
training course. "I thought I couldn't learn how to weave because it was very
complicated job. Before I wasn't interested in the job, but when I learned how to
do it, I liked it", she said.
Mom said she believes that weaving is important to Khmer traditions, but also can
play an important role in the lives of rural women if they can weave to supplement
Sa Em, the UNESCO trainer, is keeping the traditions alive by continuing to produce
only high quality silk. He said he uses only rare threads that he buys from villagers
in small amounts, and he orders special bark and natural dyes from the jungle. His
his customers are members of the Cambodian nobility, including the Royal dynasty,
and well-heeled foreigners.
He said he has been recreating some 100 year old patterns for his customers. Each
order takes three to five months to fill, depending on the complexity of the decoration.
He said prices range from $220 to up to $800 for a hool - depending upon the difficulty
of the pattern. An everyday hool in the market might cost $15 to $70.