Cambodian silk, works of art

25 July 2008 at 7:31 pm (Discovery) ()

An empire as great as the one that built Angkor Wat (or my favourite temple, Bayon) must have had some impressive textiles. Silk has always been a precious commodity, and one which I’ve never thought much about because I figured silk was silk (always thought silk = Chinese silk, which is smooth and slippery). Also, I always thought silk was a bit of an auntie thing … and only used for cheongsams and such. I’ve been to a silk farm before, in China, but it was still interesting for me to see how a strand of thread from a silkworm is transformed into a piece of silk cloth. It’s an art, and the resulting piece is an artwork; the process of making silk is a really painstaking one.

Surprising fact: these silkworms are kept indoors their entire life. I initially thought they would be eating their fill out in the orchard or wherever their food was. This is also partly to prevent them from being eaten by their predators (snakes). There are entire fields of mulberry leaves at the silk farm we visited, and cultivated especially for the silkworms. When we started our tour of the silk farm, the guide pointed out a snake (which I couldn’t see, thank goodness), and explained that this is why the silkworms are kept indoors.

Each worm eats and eats till they’re “of age”, which is when they turn a rich golden yellow colour. They are then taken off the mulberry leaves, and placed in a special circular rattan container, where they are left to spin their cocoon. Each worm produces a single strand of thread, which goes round and round inside the cocoon.

The outer layers of the cocoon is where they get the raw silk (rougher in texture). The inner layers is where the fine silk is. We were allowed to touch and inspect everything, and the guide handed us a single thread to check out. For a single extra-fine strand of fibre, it’s exceptionally strong, and you start to see why silks are such precious commodities.

After the threads are extracted, they are dyed — either with natural dyes, or with commercial dyes. Then they’re spun onto spools. These ladies are spinning the commercially dyed threads onto large spools. You can usually tell if the dyes are natural or commercial from the intensity of the colour. The commercial dyes almost always are really intense and rather artificial-looking.

Over in another workshop, there were a few women preparing threads to be dyed in ikat (tie-dye) fashion. They use something that looks like raffia string to tie in the patterns.

In the workshop next door, about half a dozen weavers working on weaving together the tie-dyed silk threads. I watched them for about 5 minutes (during which the tour guide just charged ahead to the next stop … the gift shop), and it was amazing. They were working from memory; there were no patterns beside them for them to follow. The threads have already been dyed to a set pattern, and they were now weaving them into a single piece of cloth. I was gob-smacked!

This is the back view of a gorgeous traditional Khmer costume. I can only imagine how heavy the entire ensemble must be, with the metal belt and heavily embellished costume. Awe-inspiring!

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