Weaving > 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. It was set up to preserve ancient methods of weaving and to provide a source of income to people living in remote rural villages. 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 silkworms 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 silkworms 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 silkworms (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 yellow (see Figure 9) and this colour is typical of Cambodian silkworms.
Figure 1: Silkworms feeding on chopped up mulberry leaves
Figure 2: Trial home for spinning cocoons
Figure 3: Another trial home for cocoons
Figure 4: Basket now in use for cocoons
Figure 5: Close up of basket with cocoons latched onto vertical faces
Figure 6: Cocoons ready for spinning
Spinning and Dyeing the Silk Yarn
The cocoons are put into a pot of hot water at 80 degrees Centigrade, 50 at a time and the spinner pokes them continuously 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.
Figure 7: Taking the silk thread off the cocoons
Figure 8: Spinning the silk
Figure 9: Silk Skeins ready for bleaching and dyeing
Figure 10: Skeins dyed with natural dyes
Figure 11: Making a dark red dye from lacquer
Figure 12: Pounded bark to make a yellow dye
Figure 13: Silver grey made from bark plus rusty nails
Figure 14: Yellow dye made from another type of barkFigure 15: Silk dyed with lacquer
Figure 15: Silk dyed with lacquer
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.
Figure 16: Bobbins of dyed silk waiting to be used on the warping wheel
Figure 17: Two girls working on a warping wheel. The threads from the bobbins are just visible on the left
Figure 18: One of the warping wheels
Figure 19: Another warping
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.
Figure 20: First ties on a weft. The girl has a paper pattern under her hand.
Figure 21: Some of the pattern tied up
Figure 22: First weft tying completed – used as a standard
Figure 23: Tying the weft for a second time
Figure 24: Partially completed weft
Figure 25: Completed weft woven in. Shown on the loom
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 familiar 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 35 show weaving examples.
Figure 26: Sleying a reed for organza
Figure 27: Making heddles for organza
Figure 28: Mending threads
Figure 29: A more complex loom
Figure 30: Close-up of Figure 29
Figure 31: Back Beam
Figure 32: Weft ikat woven up
Figure 33: Weft ikat
Figure 34: Weft ikat scarf
Figure 35: Silk Noil cushions
Other Cambodian Looms
At the silk farm they have a replica loom based on a royal loom of the 18th century (Figures 36 and 37). 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.