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Column: Shoi's Pick


An Ancient Tradition Which Almost Disappeared

by Shoi

I've always loved the whisper of luxurious, liquid silk against skin... and the decadent rustle of heavy silk furnishings.

Growing up in small town Ipoh (my hometown in Malaysia), I used to follow my mother to the little, crowded textile shops — Fingering lengths of rainbow-hued silks... listening to mother haggle over prices... and then waiting impatiently for her to transform them into pretty dresses or cushion covers on her old Singer sewing machine — Magic to a little girl.

And with the mysterious disappearance of Jim Thompson ("Thai Silk King") in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in the late 1960s, further allure was added to this fabled fabric.

Decades later, Chinese and Indian silks as well as the exotic ikat weaves of Borneo - together with stories of their rich traditions and history - hold me captive still.

Then I heard about "The Japanese Silk Man" of Cambodia... and found another silk tradition, another captivating story...

The origins and beauty of Cambodian silk

Intricately woven Cambodian silk

Cambodia's silk tradition dates
back to ancient Angkor times

Under the weaver's skillful hands rows of graceful Apsaras ("celestial nymphs" in classical Cambodian ballet) make their slow stately dance across a swathe of red and gold silk — The weaving is so fine that you can discern each dancer's intricate headdress and jewelry.

This design is inspired by the bas-reliefs at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat... offering vital clues to the origins and beauty of Cambodian silk.

Cambodia's silk was once amongst the region's finest. But 30 years of armed conflict, including the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, left millions dead and the Khmer culture, arts and traditions in shreds.

Now, thanks to one man's vision... the nearly-lost Cambodian tradition of women weaving (and wearing) exquisite silk - a tradition that has been passed down through generations from mother to daughter - is enjoying a renaissance.

Savior of the ancient Khmer silk arts

Kikuo Morimoto trained in the Japanese art of yuzen (silk dyeing for kimonos), and ran a successful textile studio. But he began to question what that success meant to his life.

In the early 1980s, Morimoto volunteered at the Thai-Cambodian border refugee camps. It was there he discovered the beauty of Cambodian silk. In the 1990s, when a UN mission brought Morimoto to Cambodia, he met a few of the weavers. Many of the women were in their 70s and 80s, living in remote villages — The only ones left who knew the secrets of the craft.

Morimoto and the Silk Grandmas

Morimoto and his “Silk Grandmas”

Morimoto sought out a handful of these "Silk Grandmothers" - as the elderly expert weavers came to be known - to help teach the craft to Cambodian village women.

In 1996, Morimoto established the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles — IKTT is non-political and non-profit oriented — It aims to restore and revitalize traditional Cambodian textiles... and in doing so, create a means for artists and artisans in related cottage industries (silkworm raising, dyeing, weaving) to support themselves.

IKTT has trained over 500 people today, primarily women. After trainees complete their 3-year training and return to their villages, IKTT continues to help sell their work for them.

Behind every piece of Cambodian silk is a human being... weaving a future...

You can purchase Cambodian silks online at Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries

Choose exotic Cambodian silks as gifts this Christmas

You'll be supporting IKTT's efforts to restore an almost-lost ancient art and help Cambodian artisans build a brighter future for themselves and for their community.

Each piece of textile bears the name of the weaver and the plants the colours are derived from...

A simple reminder that behind every piece of fabric is a human being weaving a future.

Cambodian silk products are sold at the IKTT in Siem Reap, Cambodia. You can also buy them at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington D.C. or from their online museum shop.

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