In learning about the context of handmade textiles in Cambodia, by tugging on one thread leading to another thread and the unraveling of a whole tapestry, reveals a resilient people, a rich culture, and so much more.
Naihoang and her niece Gueckhour picked me up at my hotel and off we went, driving out of Phnom Penh and towards somewhere. I didn’t know a road trip was our plan (that detail not clarified in our email), but we were on our way to visit one of Craft Village’s master weavers two hours south. I was elated of course and getting to know Naihoang and Gueckhour there and back made it even more fun.
I had met Naihoang's sister, Naiseng, at NYNOW a year prior and was lured by Craft Village’s handwoven silk scarves, determined to visit them on my return trip to Cambodia.
Sokhom welcomed us to her home in Ta Non village, Takeo Province. She showed us the beautiful silk scarves she designed, having learned weaving as a girl from her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother before that.
Sokhom is known for combining rough and smooth silk, using subtle, subdued colors that evoke presence. Additional training in textile design and color dyes through community development grants, as well as working with Naiseng, helped refine her talents that evolved into creating her own style.
One of my intentions for this trip was to know more about the materials, processes, and context of handmade textiles in Cambodia. I came to know that traditional Cambodian silk, or Khmer golden silk, dates back many centuries. The knowledge of sericulture, or the raising of silkworms for the production of raw silk, had also nearly died out. There's been a modest revival over the decades, but it remains a luxury. To meet the current demands of silk textile production in Cambodia, white silk from Vietnam is imported.
Sokhom admits that she prefers working with Khmer golden silk for its high quality and ease in weaving, but it’s not readily available for her to buy locally. So she buys the white silk imported from Vietnam, both fine and raw bundled silk thread. She then dyes the threads using both natural and low-impact dyes, finally spinning the thread to prepare it for weaving on her loom.
While we were there, she was preparing silk threads with a pattern for hol (ikat) dying, but admitted that she doesn’t really want to do hol weaving. It takes too long and it doesn't earn her as much money.
Sokhom’s gratitude from working with Craft Village over the years was palpable, and Naiheang shared that both families had come to know each other well, creating a trust that was special. She has been able to support her family with weaving, and that’s been very important for her.
I felt grateful to meet Sokhom and to learn how weaving has given her a better life and broader opportunities. While her three grown children were all taught how to weave, none are pursuing weaving as a livelihood for income. Sokhom struggles to get enough orders as she once did.
The current socio-economic changes in Cambodia challenge the sustainability of its skilled weaving traditions. It is set against the increasing presence of garment factories that employ many young women to urban places, confronting gender norms in the process. My friend Yennie Tse of Fourth Sector Collective wrote an insightful piece, Daughters of Cambodia: Past and Future, that says it all so well.
Yennie also wrote, "It isn’t until we get a deeper understanding of a society and its people that we can truly appreciate or be effective partners."
In learning about the context of handmade textiles in Cambodia, by tugging on one thread leading to another thread and the unraveling of a whole tapestry, reveals a resilient people, a rich culture, a brutal recent history, and forces in regional economics and government positions that continue to alter the warp and weft of Cambodia.
A selection of Sokhom's scarves came home with me, acquired for Indigo Lion's Cambodia Collection. They are that much more meaningful. I met her. Her scarves are woven with her energy, her story, her worry, her hopes. They connect me to a better understanding of Cambodia. The story of Sokhom's scarves continues, from her hands to mine, from mine to yours.