Thought to have been introduced from Northern India during Angkorian times, Assamese Muga ‘Golden’ Silk was once a thriving industry in Cambodia. Golden threads were traditionally woven into luxurious sampot chang kben to dress the country’s elite until weaving looms – not to mention the country’s mulberry bushes – all but disappeared during Khmer Rouge times. While Cambodia now imports up to 95% of its raw silk from Vietnam to satisfy a small weaving cottage industry, Artisans Angkor have set out to revive sericulture on a massive scale. And it’s a promising venture. Even though golden silk worms yield less raw silk than the white variety (300-400m versus 1400m per cocoon), golden worms are easier to cultivate because they’re adapted to the climate and immune to pests.
The entire process, from leaf to finished textile, is on show at the Angkor Silk Farm in Siem Reap.
Of all the studios, social enterprises, co-ops and boutiques in Cambodia, Artisans Angkor stands in a league of its own. Founded in 1992 through a partnership between a European NGO and the Ministry of Education, Artisans operates vocational centres across the country to train rural Cambodians in Khmer craftsmanship. In Siem Reap – the traditional home of silk weaving – it’s all about the textiles. Incredibly, the Angkor Silk Farm employs more than 400 people.
Located in Puok district, about 30 minutes from downtown Siem Reap, the Farm is the only Artisans Angkor workshop that’s open to the public. The first thing you notice on arrival is just how gorgeous and green the property is. Several hectares of lush gardens are dedicated to rearing rare and endemic medicinal and dyeing plants.
The first stop on our free guided tour of Golden Silk production is the mulberry fields. In the beginning, many different varieties of mulberry were cultivated on the property to determine which one was best suited to the soil and climate. The native bushes thrived, and were planted out over vast fields. Cambodian mulberry is very different to the mulberry trees I’m used to seeing in Australia.
The thick bushes are trimmed every three weeks; their leaves shredded and transferred to a nearby stilted house. As we enter, our guide points out a unique architectural flourish – small motes made of concrete and filled with water have been added around every wooden pillar that touches the earth. The water stops ants and crawling insects from entering the house. It’s done to protect these critters – the precious silk worms.
The Angkor Silk Farm is home to millions of worms at various stages of their 42-day lifecycle. When the hungry larvae are mature enough to spin their cocoons, they start to change colour from white to gold. Only then are they transferred from the bed of mulberry leaves onto woven mats.
After 10-12 days, the cocoons are ready to collect. Sometimes the moths hatch early, breaking the threads and destroying the cocoon on their way out. Unlike in Eri ‘Peace’ Silk sericulture where the moth lives through the process of silk extraction, this is the end of the line for most Golden Silk moths. Only 20% are allowed to survive; kept to supply the eggs for the next generation of larvae.
Next, the cocoons are collected and boiled to extract the silk threads in a two-step process. The raw silk, which covers the outer part of the cocoon, is removed first by boiling approximately 180 cocoons in a pot together (pictured left). In this watery melange, the filaments slowly loosen and unfurl, catching together to form stronger threads. One end is hooked onto a wheel and slowly spun out of the pot. It requires constant close attention to ensure the silk is pulled in one long, continuous thread.
Sixty cocoons at a time are then transferred to a second boiling pot to extract the finer inner silk (pictured right). According to our guide, each cocoon produces around 400m of silk filament.
It’s difficult to appreciate the golden colour or compare the raw and fine silk at this stage. The characteristics of the silk become obvious once you see the different grades of filament side by side. The smooth, fine silk is a more vibrant shade of gold than the course, gummy raw silk in the centre.
Once enough Golden Silk has been extracted, a separate team of artisans sort, wash and spin the threads onto bobbins.
A large bobbin used to weave a roll of plain fabric contains 100m of silk fibre.
Some of the silk is set aside to be dyed. Artisans Angkor use mostly synthetic colours with some natural dyes thrown in. One of the most interesting dyeing techniques the artisans use is hôl, or Cambodian ikat. Much like Malaysian or Indonesian ikat, groups of threads are bound and tied before they are dip dyed. Repeated dyeing creates complex patterns on the threads. In a very specific sequence, the silk is transferred onto chopsticks that the weaver feeds into the loom.
All Artisans Angkor weaving is done on standing frame looms. A mechanical shuttle is used for long lengths of plain silk fabric, while manual looms are used to weave intricately patterned scarves and textiles.
The final stop on the tour is (of course) the gift shop. Even if you’re not in the market for a souvenir, it’s a good opportunity to see the finished textiles and garments cut from silk fabric woven just a few metres away. Artisans Angkor’s signature product is the Hôl Lboeuk scarf (right) – traditionally worn during ceremonies in Cambodia. The sophisticated motifs come virtue of ikat dyeing (as described above) and brocade weaving. When combined, these techniques create layers of embossed and coloured patterns, giving each scarf incredible depth and three-dimensionality. And just look at the silk’s natural sheen! These designs remind me of the Apsara reliefs at Angkor Wat, where different layers of carved stone are used to similar effect. One Hôl Lboeuk scarf takes 30 days to complete.
Artisans Angkor offers free guided tours of the Angkor Silk Farm daily, with the first tour departing at 8am. I recommend you arrive early, as this is a favourite stop-off for group tours and tour buses.