Cambodian Silk Weaving on Koh Dach (Part 1)

© Emily Lush 2015

Koh Dach, otherwise known as Silk Island, is just a short drive from Phnom Penh. Famed for its small-scale sericulture and rich tradition of silk weaving, I was lucky enough to visit the island this past weekend with Chomnab Ho (thanks to our mutual friend Jane Heng for the introduction!). As well as working full-time for social enterprise Cambodia Knits, Chomnab runs his own label, FAIRWEAVE. He has been collaborating with artisans on Silk Island since 2009, and now leads semi-regular tours for anyone who’s interested in learning more about Cambodian silk weaving. He doesn’t have a formal tour schedule at the moment, but Chomnab kindly agreed to take me along the next time he was heading to Silk Island for business. His wife, who does research for a company in Phnom Penh, also accompanied us.

An Insight into Cambodia’s Silk Industry

On our way out to Silk Island, Chomnab gave me a quick run-down of the silk weaving industry in Cambodia. FAIRWEAVE works with co-ops in Kandal, Prey Veng, Takeo and Bantay Meanchay – but of these, Chomnab explains, Prey Veng is the only place where silk weaving could be considered sustainable. In Prey Veng, co-op groups are larger (typically 10-15 people versus an average of five in the other provinces), and weavers use fly-shuttle looms, meaning they can work a lot faster to produce greater quantities of textiles. They also weave with silk organza, which lowers the price of their textiles and makes them more attractive to exporters. There are, of course many downsides to scaling-up production; Chomnab is passionate about helping women weavers boost their income, and his focus is on working with smaller groups on product diversification.

Cambodia is home to approximately 20,000 weavers (most of whom work exclusively with silk), but there are only 50-100 sericulturists (silk producers) in the entire country. That’s a ratio of 400:1! It’s no surprise, then, that 95% of Cambodia’s raw silk material – about 300 tonnes annually – is imported from neighbouring Vietnam. A mere 3-4 tonnes is grown locally, something that private sector and development stakeholders are looking to change.

Vietnamese silk is still dyed in Cambodia, giving the weavers control over the colour hues and dying process. A lot of co-ops use synthetics, but on Silk Island, Chomnab is promoting the use of natural dyes. His colour samples include plum, moss, green tea and sunflower. My favourite shade is a rich golden brown, achieved with pigments extracted from coconut husk.

Silk Island

The drive to Silk Island takes about an hour from downtown Phnom Penh. The car ferry is the most pleasant but quickest part of the journey, taking only 15 minutes to cross from the mainland onto Koh Dach, a long and skinny island that rests in the middle of the Mekong River. Pulling up at the jetty, we were presented with one of the more picturesque views of the Mekong I’ve seen: stilted houses and floating bungalows, thick green grass, and fishermen paddling into shore. No doubt this scene would look very different during dry season, when the river recedes to reveal high banks of dried-out mud.

© Emily Lush 2015
Koh Oknhatei Village

Once off the ferry, there are signs pointing visitors in the direction of Silk Island’s main tourist centre. I was pleased when Chomnab started driving in the opposite direction, away from the small throng of tourists and tuk-tuk drivers and into Koh Oknhatei village. Silk Island isn’t as pastoral as I had imagined; the houses and shops are quite densely packed. In Koh Oknhatei, many of the high-stilted homes have looms set up underneath. There’s also a bright orange wat looming in the distance, and plenty of cows wandering the streets. Life operates at a slower pace here. It’s easy to see why so many visitors from Phnom Penh flock to Silk Island for a day trip – as Chomnab says, it’s the easiest way to experience Cambodia’s ‘country lifestyle’ without venturing too far from the city.

© Emily Lush 2015 © Emily Lush 2015
Sampot Chang Kben

Our first stop in Koh Oknhatei was at one of the households Chomnab works with. Manipulating a dizzying volume of bright-green threads, the women here were busy preparing the warp for a sampot or sarong skirt. There are dozens of different sampot designs, and when exactly each one is worn depends on social class, time of day, or what occasion is being celebrated. Chomnab refers to the particular garment they are making as a sampot chang kben, a four-metre length of woven fabric – oftentimes heavily embellished with delicate repeat patterns and metallic threads – that is worn fixed around the waist. Chang kben woven on a jacquard loom are favoured by Cambodia’s wealthy, including the Royal Family, whereas simpler textiles like the ones being woven here are generally affordable enough for most Khmer, and are usually worn at weddings.

Wedding season falls during Cambodia’s dry season, so once the rain picks up, the market for sampot chang kben all but disappears. Silk scarves, on the other hand, are a perennial product (and more popular among tourists), which is why Chomnab and others (notably the ITC, which has been supporting Cambodian weavers since the early 2000s) have introduced scarves and other products to fill the annual void in weavers’ incomes.

Preparing the Warp

Having satisfied Chomnab’s latest order of scarves, the women had moved on to a chang kben. Working with 2500 silk threads and 56 bobbins, the process of preparing the warp takes two or three people about a fortnight to complete. After the threads have been separated and organised on the warping tool, each individual thread is then fed into a reed – a task that is even more time-consuming and very hard on the eyes. The pattern is then prepared on the loom, and only then can the weaving begin.

© Emily Lush 2015 © Emily Lush 2015© Emily Lush 2015© Emily Lush 2015© Emily Lush 2015© Emily Lush 2015© Emily Lush 2015

To get an idea for the end product, I was also shown a partially finished chang kben on the loom. This particular garment features the same colour palette and a detailed jasmine flower pattern. The women here sell their chang kben on to local traders, which makes for a piecemeal income. Because of its time-intensive nature, they only attempt two or three chang kben per year, weaving for a few hours per day in between other work. With the addition of Chomnab’s scarf orders, they now have enough work to keep them busy throughout the year.

© Emily Lush 2015

Had we come a few days earlier, we might have witnessed a different stage of silk preparation: bobbin spinning. This step is the precursor to the warp preparation, so it shows what colourway the women are going to weave with next. Their homemade spinning wheel is quite a contraption, thriftily patched together from sticks and powered by a re-purposed bicycle wheel.

© Emily Lush 2015
Backyard Weaving

Our second stop for the day was a totally different set up. The woman at this house underwent product development training with ITC several years ago, and as a result, she went on to set up a small shop inside her living room where she sells textiles woven by the women in her community. Naturally, she also has a loom. Since her house is concrete and set on the ground, her weaving studio is set out the back in a covered courtyard. She too was working on a chang kben on the day we visited.

© Emily Lush 2015 © Emily Lush 2015© Emily Lush 2015

It was such a privilege to see weaving and the different stages of silk preparation in some of Koh Dach’s less-visited homes. Even if you’re visiting Silk Island alone, it still makes for an excellent day trip out of Phnom Penh – especially if you’re interested in handicrafts. Part 2 of this post will include information about the visitor’s centre and sericulture demonstration.