Exploring Cambodia's textiles and craft -A CTR textile study tour
Updated: Apr 26
Day 1, January 19 2023
Marie Louise Nosch
Launching the #CTRinCambodia study tour 2023
19 January was the first day in Cambodia of our textile study trip. After a long flight from cold and grey Scandinavia, we landed in sunny and colourful Phnom Penh.
Our local guide Channak waited for us at the airport with our minibus .
The first visit was an absolute highlight: the National Museum of Cambodia (Khmer: សារមន្ទីរជាតិ). Set in a 100 years old building in a lush garden the red monumental museum houses the national archaeological an historical treasures, mainly atone and bronze sculpture. Artefact are from the prehistoric times, pre-Angkor period, the Angkor period and the early modern.
We had an arranged meeting with the department of textile conservation and head curator Mrs Kong Kuntheary. She welcomed us warmly and had prepared textiles for us to see. The collection used to contain 450 pieces, but after the devastating damages of the red Khmers, only about 70 are preserved today. Most of them were silk weavings, plant dyed, and with either woven patterns or tie-dyed woven techniques.
Mrs Kong Kuntheary showed un a relevant UNESCO publication abut Cambodian tradition for pant dyes and the local dye plants. Mrs Kong Kuntheary told us about her training as archaeologist and how she changed orientation to become a textile conservator.
In the National Museum we also met Mr Moeung Seyha who is the research assistant of Dr Magali-An Berthon and collaborated with her on her Marie Sklodowska-Curie project.
Visit to the Royal Palace of Cambodia
The Royal Palace premises also contain interesting textile features. The interiors are made with furnishing silk and gold textiles of the 1860. The fabrics, furnishings, cushions, curtains etc are woven with patterns that marry Cambodian national symbols and a style that reminds of 2eme Empire/Napoleon II style in Europe. In a museum display were costumes of the king.
In one of the royal palace buildings was a weaver who was weaving on a traditional loom, perhaps a reminder that local textile production was traditionally a part of palace activities.
Day 2, January 20 2023
Royal University of the Fine Arts and Tuol Sleng Genecide Museum
This morning we went to the Royal University of the Fine Arts. We were met by Soun Sopheaktra (family name, first name, Khmer style), an archaeologist who showed us round. We also met the Dean, Mrs Young Rattana, and other faculty members. Eva gave a talk to students about CTR, and about methods of archeological textile research, with guest appearances from Marie Louise, Suzanne and Laura. And bravely translated by Sopheaktra as it went along. Several students showed great interest in attending the 2023 Summer School.
In the afternoon we visited the notorious Tuol Sleng Genecide Museum, known as S21. This is disturbing in itself, a mundane school building turned into a place of torture, killing around 20,000 people in 3 years. The photos of the prisoners are seen throughout the building, very moving but ultimately saddening effect in witnessing such inhumanity. Enhanced for us by meeting the conservator,
Mrs Kho Chenda, who had a project to record all the many pieces of clothing found when the prison was finally abandoned in the face of the liberating Vietnamese army in 1979. She and her team have been working to record and preserve the remaining textile which tell heart rending stories in themselves: patched and repatched, children’s clothing with names embroidered on, they are moving textile remembrances. Currently there is a small exhibition demonstrating the project. There was much sharing of information and suggestions about textile conservation, a conversation that I think will go on. We would thank all our hosts today for their time and attention.
Day 3 January 21 2023
Visit to Silk Island
The CTR group went to Koh Dach Island AKA Silk Island. The Island is situated on the Mekong River and is c. 3km wide and 5 km long.
We were met by an elderly gentleman who kindly showed us around the silk weaving workshop.
We were shown a number of plates with bombyx mori larvae in different sizes from eggs to small larvae and to large larvae almost ready to make their cocoons. We also saw bundles of twigs with plenty of cocoons attached to them. These cocoons are allowed to develop into silk moths and breed. 80 % of the cocoons, however, are placed in the sunlight in order to kill the larvae by the heat before they develop into moths. The silk cocoons on the island are golden and the silk has a natural golden/yellow colour. The larvae are fed with mulberry leaves which are grown on the outskirts of the silk village. The larvae inside of the cocoons that are killed can be used for human nutrition. The young girl who reeled the silk filaments off the cocoons ate one and we were told that they taste delicious.
We were also shown how the silk filaments are soaked in 70 degrees hot water by a young girl and the filament was winded up on a whorl with the aid of an old bicycle
Next to her, a woman was preparing spools of weft for weaving. 6 strands of silk filament were spooled together for the weft.
The looms are simple but efficient. They have a long stretch between the warp beam and the cloth beam. For the patterned silk cloth produced at Koh Dach each warp thread is threaded through a ground heddle. The warp threads used for the pattern are threaded through both ground heddles and pattern heddles .
The looms have either two or three ground shafts and up to c. 20 -25 pattern shafts.
The girl begins to learn pattern weaving at the age of 13-15 years. She is taught weaving and how to work with silk by her mother or another experienced woman in her family. Little by little, the girl will learn how to weave more complicated patterns until her mother has taught her everything she knows. We were told that every family had one particular motif/pattern that would be woven only by that family The women do not write or take notes but know every detail of the family motif/pattern by heart. This is why every weaver only knows one of the complicated patterns.
Another interesting discovery was the hammocks, which were placed in the Silk Iceland Park, just outside the workshop. Some of the hammocks were made of textile tags for washing. A fanststic example of how textiles can be reused.
Day 4, 2Day 4, 22 January 2023
Julie Nosch and Sofie Lervad Sørensen
Kompong Loung with silver and copper smiths and Udong
The fourth day of the CTR trip was spend on the road from Phenom Penh to Battambang. We left the hotel early to make several stops on the way. The first stop was in the Konpong Loung village, known for silver and copper smiths. Here we visited a female owned silver smith shop and learned about the history of silver smithing and silver mines in Cambodia from an eager young translator and storyteller – the nephew of the owner, who himself had also learned the craft of silver smithing.
After a bit of silver souvenir shopping, we headed towards Udong, the former capital of the pre-Angor kingdom and home to an assemblage of royal stupas attracting many tourists and Buddhist pilgrims. We too, claimed the 400 steps to see the beautiful stupas at the top and the breathtaking view over the landscape. Later, back at the foot of the hill, we discovered the link between Cambodian cooking and textile production! Here we had the opportunity to taste the local snack: spicy, fried silkworms!
We continued our bus ride to Battambang driving through the Cambodian landscape alongside fields and villages. On the road, our local guide told us many facts and stories about Cambodia and introduced us the meaning of the textiles worn by Buddhist monks.
When finally arriving in Battambang in the evening, we enjoyed a lovely dinner with the national dish of Cambodia – “Fish Amok” and “Mushroom Amok” for the vegetarians – and raised a glass of the local Angor beer to the Chinese New Year!
We look forward to the rest of our trip and all other exciting adventures in the Year of the Rabbit!
Day 5, 23 January 2023
Cotton weaving village and dyeing workshop
From Battambang we went to the Fair Weave workshop in Snoeng.
We were welcomed by the leader of the group of weavers. A cotton scarf was given to every member of the CTR Group to dye in a bath of mango leaves in their lovely garden on the open fire. Excellent dye agents for bright yellow. Then a tour around the loom workshop with goose eye weaving on a number of looms in the shade under an open workshop. The fine thin cotton threads on cones were not twined but just laid together side by side . The weavers produced mats and blankets for home textile collections and very nice scarfs too. Often two weavers sit at the same large loom sending the shuttle with the weft to each other in a joyful atmosphere. We had lovely chats and turns on the looms (Sophie, Eva and Susanne).
We tie-dyed scarves and stayed for tasting of tamarind and tye dye Mary and Fran shared the their dye experiences. A workshop visit in a nice atmosphere of mostly young women and very well directed by their warm welcoming leader.
After a ride on the bamboo train in the countryside we were off on to Siam Reap (long and beautiful bus ride with rice fields and sunset colors in the scenic landscape).
Day 6, 24 January 2023
Visit the Khmer Golden Silk Workshop, Phnom Srok village
This morning we drove out of the buzzing Las Vegas style town of Siem Reap to the village of Phnom Srok about 1.5 hours away to visit the Khmer Golden Silk Workshop.
This is a community enterprise involving around 300 local people. Members of the community are involved in a variety of processes that contribute to the finished product - from setting up the looms, weaving, knotting the ends to create the fringe, and in the shop.
There are several looms in the workshop where workers can come and weave as a group and there are also looms in community members homes - about 50 looms in total. Most of the workers weave part-time and work part-time in the rice fields.
They use both local golden silk produced from a nearby silkworm farm, and cotton which is imported from China. Many of the weave patterns are inspired by ancient temple carvings. The warp on these looms can be up to 100 metres long.
The co-operative have their own shop in Siem Reap where the finished items are sold - blankets, shawls and scarves. Once an item is sold each worker will get paid a percentage. We were overwhelmed by the variety and beauty of the shawls and scarves and obviously felt compelled to buy - a lot! Here the husband of the shop manager was creating beautifully eco-printed silk scarves using local leaves and flowers.
Day 7, 25 January 2023
Laura Cristina Viñas Caron
Golden Silk Pheach workshop and Khmer Traditional Textiles
After a turbulent bus trip on an unpaved rough road (quite "oscillating"), we arrived to the Golden Silk Pheach workshop. Despite being remotely located in the countryside of Siem Reap, it was recently included in the list of 50 Reasons to Love the World by the BBC.
During our visit, we learned more about the production of the rare Cambodian golden silk thanks to the inspiring founders Oum Sophea and Patrick Gourlay. Since 2002, their aim has been to bring back to life the patterns and techniques used in the Angkor empire, while helping local communities and preserving the silk weaving tradition for future generations. The whole production process is labourious and can take up to 1 year or more. To produce 4-5kg of silk, about 1 ton of local mulberry leeves are required to feed the silkworms. The native trees are cultivated on site. During the 42 days of life cycle, they become more and more yellow in colour. The cocoons are then boiled and, during the unwinding of the silk, the outer coarse and inner fine threads are separated. After the obtention of the thread, the silk is sorted by colour, quality and diameter size.The thread is twisted and spun into bobbins. Then the sericin is removed (degumming) and the silk rinsed. Interestingly, we learned that after the degumming step the silk adopts an ivory colour and becomes much softer.
The most complex is however yet to come: the Ikat technique. This consists in tie-dyeing the threads in a frame to replicate the pattern before it is died and woven.
In the afternoon, we visited the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles, located in a village nearby with many families and children. There, we observed the preparation of a red dye obtained from stick lac (khang) an insect and the preparati of of Ikats.
We ended up the day playing football with the kids of the village in a joyful atmosphere.
Day 8, 26 January 2023
Visit to Angkor Wat, Baphuon and Ta Prohm
The first day with no textiles at all. The local guide Narin told us that the Kapok tree is called Cotton and Silk Tree but that was the only time textiles was mentioned.
We made a full day tour of Angkor Wat, seeing three of the temples.
The most important one is Angkor Wat that was built in 1113 of 20 ton of sandstone. It is the highest building in Siem Reap, nobody is allowed to build higher.
The temple has three levels, hell (bottom), earth (middle) and heaven (upper). We made a short visit to Heaven and Narin told us of some of the stories symbolized by the reliefs in the galleries. He also gave us a lot of historical information that made the visit to the temple more colourful.
Angkor Thom is 70 years younger than Angkor Wat and was built in only 5 years, using stones from old, ruined temples. The reliefs showed that when China was invaded by Mongolia many Chinese fled to Cambodia. They were good businessmen already at that time and as arrogant and unreliable as they are today. There were also other peoples who came to Cambodia during that time. The original people of Cambodia looked very much like Indian people but now they have been mixed with other peoples.
The vegetarian lunch in restaurant Pteas Boran was welcomed after all the temple walking.
After lunch we visited Prasat Ta Prohm, the temple that is overgrown with big trees. The tree trunks and roots form interesting shapes that resemble snakes. Many photographs were taken and Narin was active in taking group photos of different kinds.
We walked about 13000 steps and climbed an immense number of stairs.
In the evening we enjoyed a good and cheap dinner of Hot pot, arranged in a very simple restaurant by Narin.
Day 9, 27 January 2023
Tonle Sap lake and Saray Cooperative
Today we started at 7am to drive to the Tonle Sap lake where we took a boat to the Machrey floating village. The boat ride was through the trees and past fishermen out with their nets, and we were often passed by people in smaller colourful boats, delivering goods and people and some times acting as floating shops.
We visited the Saray Cooperative where women work with water hyacinth making gorgeous basketry products. Some of us had a try at the basketry but we did not really understand how so more women were drafted in so we practically had one to one tuition! It made us realise what a skill it was. We could only watch the splicing of the stems with amazement, so easy for the experts. And there was much laughter at our attempts, but in the end, with a lot of help some mats were achieved! The stems are harvested from the lake and dried for 15 days. Some are then dyed with local resources.
In the afternoon we returned to Siem Reap to visit the Museum of Traditional Asian Textiles. This is a venture funded by the Mekong Ganga Corporation and showcases the textile traditions and fashions of Cambodia, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. It was a delightful discovery with good descriptions of processes, especially silk and dyeing, but also flax and cotton. We were shown round by knowledgeable guides. The collection is interesting and demonstrates a range of techniques and dress styles. We saw an eri silk shawl and here we have rarely seen the broken cocoons used for their silk. We recommend a visit if you are in Siem Reap, it is very close to the Angkor Wat ticket office.
Day 10, 28 January 2023
Krobey Real village and Samatoa Lotus Farm
Another early start and we drove to Krobey Real village about 15 mins outside Siem Reap. Here many of the villagers are involved in basket weaving using rattan grown in the North on the border with Laos. This is very much a home-working industry; they sell either directly from home or in the local shop.
We then drove a little further to the Samatoa Lotus Farm. This is a fascinating social enterprise - an eco-responsible and Fairtrade textile company set up in 2003. The aim is to connect the poorest of people to the wealthiest - buying one luxury jacket made from the lotus fibre can support the work of one artisan for 2 months.
The farm harvests around 20 hectares of lotus plants and has 30 local farmers, spinners, weavers and tailors. The lotus fibre comes from the stalk - it is incredibly porous which makes it strong and breathable and also anti-bacterial. Here they make scarves, bags and small items for sale but they also sell to high end outlets in 19 different countries around the world.
Part of the ethos of the company is to share their skills with visitors. We all had a go at cutting the thick stalks to extract the long fine fibres.
Some of the waste products are boiled up with oil and starch to create paper. One of the papers is also made with elephant poo! They call it ‘vegan leather’.
Future plans include using the rest of their waste products to create bio-energy to supply the local community with electricity - a true circular economy.
Afterwards we went back into Siem Reap for a tour around the Siem Reap Arts & Crafts Training Centre and Artisan Market. Here they train young people from age 18-25 to become weavers, stonemasons and woodcarvers as a way of elevating them out of poverty, preserving Cambodia’s handicraft skills for future generations and providing job opportunities.
Following another delicious Khmer lunch some of the group visited the Angkor National Museum. There are several different rooms to visit - the most impressive being the room of 1000 Buddhas - a beautifully crafted room with lighted boxes of miniature Buddhas lining the walls. There were also rooms relaying the history of Cambodia, the myths, legends and beliefs and costume of Cambodia as well as statues from 1st century onwards.
Day 11, 29 January
Eva Andersson Strand
Today we are going back to Copenhagen and CTR. We have had a fantastic time and learned so much. We warmly thank all the amazing and skilled crafts people we have met for their generosity to share their knowledge with us. We also kindly thank all colleagues at the university in Phnom Penh and the museums we visited. Finally we thank our tour guides Channak and Narin for introducing us to Cambodia and of course CTRs own textile guide Kerstin Andersson.
Please also see the trace of how we communicated our tour on twitter #CTRinCambodia