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Silk Revival in Cambodia

A sample of finished woven silk. The natural dyes bring out colours typical of the Cambodian tradition and patterns.

A sample of finished woven silk. The natural dyes bring out colours typical of the Cambodian tradition and patterns.

A sample of finished woven silk. The natural dyes bring out colours typical of the Cambodian tradition and patterns. Morimoto, the mastermind, founder and director of IKTT (Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles) in Siem Reap A mother and child in the workshop - a common scene at IKTT giving Cambodian women a career, income and future for their families. Traditional schooling ends at age 11, IKTT employs women to become artisans. Their paintings may not be sold, its not about the money, its about instilling an appreciation for art from an early age. Morimoto hopes they will one day become textile designers.

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  • Image © 2009 Liz Smailes

When the Khmer Rouge fled in 1979, they left behind over 2 million dead bodies and a country they had stripped bare of all culture, heritage and expert knowledge...or so they thought.

Not far from the Angkor temples is the workshop of IKTT (Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles). Located in Siem Reap and founded by Morimoto Kikuo, IKTT provides work to 300 women making textiles, and in a similar way as it took the American entrepreneur Jim Thompson to rescue Thailand's silk industry, Japanese native Morimoto Kikuo could be considered Cambodia's equivalent silk savior.

Morimoto arrived in Cambodia in 1995 as a textile consultant for UNESCO, and so devastated was the countryside after years of war that he could hardly find a person who knew anything about the old techniques for making cloth - not even a map to take him to a village where people might have preserved the craft.

"Where silk-worm raising or the use of natural dyes are concerned, normally, answers by villagers to my questions would be 'I stopped 25 years ago...'"he explained. "Back then one of the greatest challenges was the infrastructure and finding someone who would take me through baron landscapes. One day the road would be safe, another day I couldn't find a driver within a 5-mile radius willing to take the risk. The first six months of my research were spent traveling through potentially dangerous territory, meeting dormant artisans and drawing up a map as I went along."

Besides reviving an industry rejected and wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, today, in two wooden houses on the outskirts of this small town, the women who work here have found refuge and rebuilt their lives. Morimoto's goal is to help impoverished Cambodians resurrect traditional silk production. His project also aspires to a broader prospect. By reviving this industry, Morimoto is laying the groundwork for a larger rejuvenation of his adopted country.

Morimoto has devoted years to reviving the ancient Cambodian silk industry and wherever he goes, artisans welcome him into their homes.  During those uncertain times when a stranger wasn't to be trusted, Morimoto experienced warmth and generosity. It was an aspect of his research that clearly still touched Morimoto as he spoke of it during our interview earlier this year, and as he showed me the collection of tools he had gathered along the way - now on display in Siem Reap - Morimoto's expression was enough to tell me each piece had a fascinating story behind it, had I only a few more hours to spare and hear the full accounts.

It all began 1971 with an apprenticeship as an artisan of dyeing, and so began his love affair with all things silk-related - from the raw materials used to obtain the dies, to the final product. Morimoto learned the art of yuzen - silk dyeing for kimonos - in his home town of Kyoto. From thereon he progressed throughout the industry to become a company manager, a teacher at refugee camps and UNESCO consultant.

In 1980, when Morimoto was working in Thailand supervising the local operations of a major textile concern, he discovered Cambodian silk and was very impressed by its incredible quality.

Three years later he moved to Thailand, teaching people in the rural communities and refugee camps the techniques of how to naturally dye and hand weave cloth. Since then he has forged friendships and shared knowledge with those who fled the Khmer Rouge to Thailand, taking with them their silkworms, heritage and skills.

During the year when he was contracted as a textile consultant in Cambodia, the scope of his findings was so broad and enticing, Morimoto knew he wouldn't be able to walk away.

Cambodia had been striped bare of not just the skills and knowledge, but of the vital raw materials to produce both silk and natural dyes. When the research project came to an end, he started on his own a project, initially around Phnom Penh, to restore the silkworm culture of yellow cocoons, re-importing a single silkworm from his contacts in Surin, along with seeds to replant mulberry bushes.

In 2000, Morimoto moved his workshops from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, a real "village laboratory" close to the countryside, to better apply and position his rural renewal idea. Fifteen years later, Morimoto's vision is already providing livelihoods in silk weaving and dyeing to more than 400 Cambodians, weavers and farmers, many of them are young women who would otherwise be begging from rich tourists at the nearby temple ruins or following less salubrious professions. He recruits trainees from rural areas with priority given to those from poor families, handicapped and orphans.

The move brought out yet more knowledge, including a weaver who heard of the project and cycled over 40 miles every day for two years so that she could work with him. Offering wages between US $30 - $80 a month, instead of US$ 5 -10 elsewhere, this is enough to keep a family together and allow children the freedom to go to school. Today that weaver is able to work from home.

Walking around the workshop I met generations living and working side-by-side, children sleeping and playing amidst the therapeutic rhythms of looms, the clacking of bobbins, hush of thread and songs. I was introduced to Chan Peth from the Takeo province. At 65 years old she is one of the oldest survivors sharing her knowledge with Morimoto's mission. In the workshop, master weavers reproduce new textiles from old textile designs with skilled weavers as apprentices. There are currently four senior weavers who are working as master weavers at IKTT.

Next to Chan Peth sits Das Sosase, 55 years old. Forty years ago she bred silkworms near Phnom Penh, but stopped everything during the civil war. She migrated to Siem Reap in 1969 to sell fish and vegetables. Today, working for the IKTT she feels secure, perhaps for the first time in her life. Her husband has a small shop, also in Siem Reap, where he resells medicines (herbal medicine) that he buys in Phnom Penh.
While the showroom and workshop represents the hub of the action, the core today can be found 25km outside Siem Reap at the related Project of Wisdom from the Forest (PWF), which began in August 2002 when the site was barren and trees had been cut down before they could even grow big enough for firewood.

"We had come to the point where our mission to restore traditional Cambodian textiles could not be accomplished without restoring the natural environment that supports the textile villages, more specifically without rehabilitating the forests. PWF's plan is to reforest where trees have been cut downed and create villages in which lives follow.

"At first the road to it was no different from an animal trail. About five years later the trees had grown at least twice the size, turning the barren landscape into a grove. In ten years it is likely to be a small forest. To accelerate the growth of the trees, we clear the weeds at ground level and remove things that prevent the trees from growing. We truly practice growing a natural forest," Morimoto tells me, as we wove our own path through the workers and children.

The PWF site currently has 23 hectares of land, twelve of which are used to nurture pre-exiting trees and to rehabilitate natural forest. The remaining 11 hectares of land are used for plantations of mulberry, cotton and indigo trees. It is also used to grow plants used for dyeing, as well as fruit trees and vegetables, making it almost self-sustainable for the 35 families who live there.

With more than 200 people including children living in the PWF's village there is also a small schoolroom, and a grocery shop will soon be opened, which will be followed by the installation of wells for water and electricity supply. Solar panels are already installed to generate electricity.

"It was only through the PWF's natural forest rehabilitation project, that I began to realize how rich Cambodia's natural dyeing in the past was. We learned from the villagers of plants that can be used to produce natural color dyes. Even some trees that we were previously unaware of used to be significant plants in the world of natural dyeing in Southeast Asia.

"This illustrates for me the rich co-existence of the world of trees used to produce natural dyes and textiles. Moreover, in the distant past, before the sericulture industry came to be known, in Cambodian forests there were insects that reeled wild yellow yarns. Probably during those ancient times, clothes were woven using yarns taken from these cocoons."

Cambodian woven material is dyed using five basic colors: yellow, red, green, blue and black, and the country has long produced natural dyes for those colors. The oldest example of Khmer silk hangs in the Smithsonian Museum in Seattle, which experts date at around 150 years old. "The most basic red dye is made from the nest of an insect called lac. The nests are collected after lacs have moved from one tree branch to another during the breeding season in December. Our indigo and red dyes made from lac are not as rich as the colors I saw in that antique example. Even today, its evident the natural dyes have held their color. Machine work and synthetic colors will never be able to survive in such a way," explained Morimoto with a warm glint in his eye, and an engaging smile.

We finish our tour where we began, in the painting class. At first glance it may appear to be an activity centre out of place, but once again Morimoto has gone to the root of the cause. "Education finishes at such a young age in Cambodia, there is no school of art, no opportunity to learn appreciation for fine art, drawing or tap into sensitivity towards color and beauty." Every day, a group of young girls are paid to paint and never allowed to sell a piece of work, "they can't do it to earn money, they will never develop a love for the arts if money is exchanged at such a young stage" remarks Morimoto.

Whether these budding artists-in-residence go on to become textile designers, colorists, dye experts or branch into a totally different career, Morimoto is planting a seed and laying the groundwork in a community willing and able to nourish the arts and crafts industry, hopefully for many years to come.

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Published on 7/21/09

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