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Silk weaving in Cambodia

Siam Reap is the fourth largest city in Cambodia and is the centre for the Angkor Vat complex of temples. It is also home to a Government-sponsored silk farm which I visited in April 2009. It was set up to preserve ancient methods of weaving and to provide a source of income to people living in remote rural villages. At the moment, they have 1000 people associated with the silk farm but not all are based in Siam Reap. The arrangement is that girls from rural areas are tested for aptitude and ability and, if accepted, go to live at the silk farm. There they are taught all stages of silk farming from dealing with the silk worms to weaving fine cloth. I got the impression that it might take a year to complete the course. At the end of their course, some of them stay on at the Silk Farm and some go home. They might buy a loom if the family was wealthy. Otherwise, the silk farm has rural centres which house several looms and the weavers can use those. Anything they weave, they can sell themselves or send to the silk farm for sale.

PRODUCING THE SILK

The silk farm has many acres of land on which they grow mulberry trees. 18 different varieties were originally planted to see whether the silk worms had any preference. In the words of my translator,'The worms don't care'. Every morning, leaves are gathered, chopped up and fed to the silk worms (Figure 1). The silkworms need something to latch on to when spinning their cocoons and the silk farm has experimented with several different devices (Figure 2 to Figure 4). The circular basket (shown in closeup in Figure 5) is the most successful and is cheapest. They are produced by in-house basket-makers. Figure 6 shows the cocoons gathered ready for spinning. Note that the cocoons are a bright yellow and this colour is typical of Cambodian silk worms.

 

SPINNING AND DYEING

The cocoons are put into a pot of hot water at 80 degrees Centigrade, 50 at a time and the spinner pokes them continously with a forked stick drawing out the threads together and spinning them into a skein (Figure 7). The first thread taken off a cocoon is rough and lumpy and this thread is a silk noil. When the thread becomes transparent, the cocoons are transferred, ten at a time, to another pot of hot water, this time at 60 degrees Centigrade and a fine thread produced. I calculate the final thread to be equivalent to a 300/2NM thread. They then clean and ply the yarn (Figure 8) The skeins of silk are immediately bleached to get rid of the yellow colour and then dyed. Figure 9 shows the yellow skeins of silk ready for the bleaching process. There are two sorts of dyeing, one is a chemical dyes process (acid dyes) which give a range of brilliant colours (Visitors were not allowed in this shed). The other is natural dyeing which I did see. Figure 10 shows a number of skeins dyed with a range of natural dyes. A variety of natural dyes are used. Lacquer (resin from insects) is used to give various shades of red. These shades are very attractive (Figure 15) and range from pink to a dark maroon. Figure 11 shows the lacquer being boiled up. Various sorts of wood and bark are used to give different colours. Figure 12 shows wood chips being pounded before being boiled up. They do not use much in the way of mordants but do use rusty nails! (Figure 13). Figure 14 and Figure 15 show two more colours available.

WARPING UP

They have two large warping wheels and two girls wind warps on the wheel, then onto a warp beam and the warp beam is dropped into place on the loom. Figures 16 to 19.

 

PREPARING THE WEFT YARN

They weave several sorts of fabric. There is a fine organza which is used for painting pictures on. There is also silk noil which they weave as a plain fabric or with the odd narrow stripe in it (Figure 36). They also weave weft ikat. The warp is a plain colour but the weft is hand tyed in various patterns and dyed at least three times, starting with the lightest colour and finishing with the darkest. Figures 20 to 24 show the process.

 

LOOMS

The looms are mostly very simple and they are built and maintained on site. For the organza, the silk noil and the weft ikat, a two shaft system is used. Figure 26 shows sleying for organza and Figure 27 shows making the heddles. Yes, I said making the heddles. The girl is sliding the lower rod of the shaft progressively through the threads which are separated into those for each of the two shafts. As she slides the rod, she winds thin string round the upper and lower rod, separating adjacent threads. This is incredibly quickly done. They also have more complicated looms with up to 8 shafts where the heddles are permanent and threading up is carried out in a familar way (Figure 28 to Figure 32). The reeds on all these looms were metal and looked identical to European reeds. These were the only parts which they would have to buy in. Figures 33 to 36 show weaving examples.

 

OTHER CAMBODIAN LOOMS

At the silk farm they have a replica loom based on a royal loom of the 18th century (Figures 37 and 38). This is quite large and is like a draw loom All the wooden parts are of hardwood and are highly decorated. Figure 38 shows the carved end of the support for the shafts.

There was a loom and a weaver at the Victoria Hotel. The fabric was weft ikat. Figure 39 shows a general view of the loom. On the seat are a number of bobbins wound with the weft ikat (Figure 40). Each bobbin was numbered so that the bobbins were used in the right sequence. The reed (Figure 41) was held in a ornately carved piece of wood. The reed is actually of reeds (Figure 42). There were four treadles and four shafts (Figure 43) although the treadles were tied up to give tabby and only two were in use. The Warp beam (Figure 44) is actually a plank of hardwood about 9 inches across and an inch thick. It is held in wooden supports cut to match the warp beam's size. The supports were tied to a wooden beam which was, in turn, tied to the fixed back of the loom (Figure 45). A general view of the back of the loom is shown in Figure 46.

 

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