Khmer Ikat and the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles

Last December, my family stopped over in Cambodia to see Angknor Wat. Discovering Artisans Angkor and learning about traditional Khmer crafts was an unexpected bonus. But my luck didn’t end with that. The hotel we stayed at was on the outskirts of Siem Reap, and every time we rode a tuk tuk back we passed by this sign:

As you can imagine, the words “Traditional Textiles” ignited my curiosity. I just couldn’t bare the thought of leaving Siem Reap without checking this place out! And so, after a full day of touring the temples followed by a visit to Artisans Angkor, I dragged my exhausted family to one more place before ending the day with a well-deserved dinner. 

We walked into the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) to find an unremarkable yard surrounding a traditional house on stilts. In the large area under the stilts, straw mats covered the concrete floor. Rows of looms and other devices filled the space. A few women worked sitting on the floor:

I felt a bit like an intruder, not sure whether we were allowed to be there or not. But then someone pointed to the “store” sign. We climbed up to the second floor to check it out. There, we met a very friendly Japanese woman speaking fluent English, who was generous enough to tell us more about the Institute and take us around. 

History

IKTT was established in 1996 by Kikuo Morimoto. Morimoto was a master kimono painter from Kyoto, specializing in natural dyes. He fell in love with Khmer silk while visiting Cambodia in the early 1990’s. With help from UNESCO, in 1995 he was able to tour remote villages in the still-war-revenged country, searching for weavers who were skilled in traditional weaving. He soon realized that war and modernity threatened the continuation of the art. Young people were no longer interested in learning weaving skills that would not allow them to support their families. Once the old generation died off, Morimoto realized, the art of traditional Khmer weaving will die with them.

And so, he established IKTT, and gathered the few old women who still knew the traditional craft into one village. He brought silk worms, set workshops, attracted young weavers and even bought land on which to revive the natural forest (the source for traditional dyes). It took many years, but now the Institute owns 23 hectares of revived forest; supports a self-sustaining textile village that is the home of 160 people; and runs the main office and shop in Siem Reap, which I visited. IKTT currently employs around 250 people.

Khmer Silk

Khmer silk is made out of yellow cocoons created by the silk worms native to Cambodia. These cocoons are smaller than the white cocoons used for Chinese and Japanese silk, and they produce much shorter threads: about 300 meters (984 feet) per cocoon vs. 1,400 meters (4593 feet) per white cocoon. However, the silk they produce is of higher quality.

Artisans cook the cocoons in banana ash. This removes the proteins and allows extraction of thread. They spin the thread by hand, creating an unevenly-thick thread that later creates a textured cloth:

After they spin it, they prepare it for dyeing.

Natural Dyes

Traditional Khmer dyes, like traditional Peruvian dyes, are extracted from the natural world: plants and insects collected from the forests. There are five main colors: yellow, red, green, blue and black.

Of course, despite the similar look of the Peruvian and Khmer natural dyes, each culture relies on the plants and insects that are available to it. Whereas Peruvian purple, for example, is extracted from purple corn, Khmer purple comes for the Lac insect. Sadly, this insect became extinct in Cambodia, and is now imported:

Artisans wrap the dyed thread on a wheel to dry, and then roll it into bobbins:

Weaving

Plain or Plated Cloth

The simplest Khmer silk cloth is plain, with the warp and weft threads being the same color:

Shot silk has two different colors: one for the warp and one for the weft. While visiting IKTT I saw two such examples, one with black warp and yellow weft threads resulting in darkish-yellow color:

And the other with red warp and yellow weft, creating an almost golden color:

IKTT artisans create plaid by using different colors in the warp, mimicked by a similar pattern of different colors of the weft:

Khmer Ikat

The most amazing Khmer silks, however, are those with Ikat patterns. These are the most complex and time-consuming to make. Khmer Ikat is a weft Ikat woven on a multi-shaft loom. This means that artisans have to weave each weft thread exactly in its right place to create the design. This type of weaving creates an uneven twill weave, meaning that the weft threads are more visible on the front of the fabric. 

Ikat silk is born when weavers divide threads into small bundles. They stretch these bundles on a frame that is the width of the final textile:

They then tie banana fibers on each bundle, at the place where they DON’T want the dye to take hold. That means that they need to know the final pattern BEFORE they even begin dyeing:

Now the threads are ready for the first dye. Artisans dip the tied thread bundles into dye pots. Once dyed, they stretch them again, remove the original ties, and put more ties to cover the parts which they don’t want the second dye to cover. This is painstaking work that takes many, many hours:

Artisans repeat the process for the third and any subsequent dye, until the threads reach their final color.

Amazingly, the patterns are not written anywhere. The motifs and designs are passed down through the generations, with each artist re-creating them from memory. Thus, every complete textile is unique to the person who created it.

Weavers weave the dyed threads into a fabric. The threads you see in the pictures above, for example, look like this on the final textile:

The traditional Khmer textiles were skirt wraps: Sampot Hol for women, and Sampot Hol Kaban for men. The most complex Khmer Ikat was the Pidan, a traditional wall hanging for religious ceremonies. In the latter, the pattern has no repetition at all!

Many of the textiles created by IKTT artisans take over three months to create!

The Shop

The second-floor shop offers the finished silks for sale. Don’t expect to find bargains here. IKTT silks are of the highest-quality. Their prices rightfully reflect that. Keep in mind that for your money, you will get a unique piece of art, support an entire community, and help preserve a traditional Khmer art.

Many tourists visit Artisans Angkor, but IKTT is a hidden gem. It truly is a must stop for any textile lover.

For more information on the Institute visit its website.

 

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What to Do if You Have One Day in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Southeast Asia has been on my to-go wish list for decades. Last winter break I finally got there. My family booked a trip to Thailand. Before it started, we managed to squeeze in a day and a half in Cambodia. We went to see Angkor Wat, the famous UNESCO world heritage site.

Once there, I really wished we had more time to explore the area. Although Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, there are actually over a thousand other temples all around. Angkor, after all, was the capital of the Khmer Empire for nearly six hundred years (from the 9th to the 15th centuries), and was, at the time, a magnificent mega-city.  

What to do if, like me, you have only one day?

Arrive the day before. Since you really want to start your tour early (see below), you should plan to arrive in Siem Reap the day before. If you really have only 24 hours, plan to arrive in the late afternoon and leave the following day around the same time. If you can afford a few more hours, arrive earlier so that you have time to explore Siem Reap as well.

Visit Angkor National Museum. If possible, do this the day before you visit the temples. Angkor National Museum has nice displays portraying the history of the city, the Khmer Empire, as well as a 3-D model of Angkor Wat. You will understand the history, mythology and structure of what you see a lot better if you visit the museum first.

Book a Private Guide. You can try to plan your visit on your own, but booking a private tour guide in advance is so much simpler! There are many tour operators and English speaking guides. They will come pick you up from your hotel, help you buy tickets, take you around and explain what you see. If you hire your own guide, you won’t have to wait around for other people.

Get Up Early. Most tour guides try to be get to Angkor Wat when the site opens at 5:30 am. The official reason is to see the sunrise (though I wasn’t that impressed with it). HOWEVER, the early morning hours also tend to be the most pleasant temperature-wise. It gets very hot and humid later in the day… Getting to Angkor Wat as early as possible will give you more time to explore other temples later on.

Even if you get up at 4:30 am and feel that you traveled to the end of the world, though, don’t expect to be the only tourist there. Angkor Wat is quite crowded, even at dawn. Thousands of people from all over the world try to take pictures of the sunrise!

Once there, don’t get close to the monkeys! You might be as excited as we were to see monkeys in the wild, but they can get aggressive and even bite…

Enjoy the amazing architecture and beautiful reliefs. Although I learned art history in both high school and college, I don’t really know much about Khmer art. The architecture and reliefs in Angkor Wat are different than the art I’m used to, and are truly breath taking! You will enjoy them even more if you understand the Hindu mythology they depict (I didn’t).

Visit other temples. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, but other temples and ruins in the area are just as beautiful. We visited two additional temples. The last place we went to was Ta Prohm, mostly known because of the film Lara Croft Tomb Rider. I really liked it, mostly because it isn’t as well-kept as Angkor Wat. The raw ruins and grown-in vegetation give it a wild, Indiana-Jones feel!

Wear a hat and stay hydrated! The days are very hot, and you will dehydrate quickly. I could barely walk in the second temple we visited.

Finally, be prepared for rain. Cambodia is in the tropics, and it can rain. Carry a rain poncho, just in case.

 

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Artisans Angkor: Traditional Crafts in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Southeast Asia has been on my to-go wish list for decades. Last December I finally got there. My family booked a trip to Thailand, but before it started we managed to squeeze in a day and a half in Cambodia. We came to see the temple of Angkor Wat, and stayed in nearby Siem Reap. 

Because of the temples surrounding it, Siem Reap is buzzing with tourists. It offers plenty of accommodations and wonderful food options, as well as different kinds of activities. If, like me, you are passionate about traditional crafts, the town has enough to satisfy your curiosity before and/or after you visit the temples.

The night markets offer everything from food to handicrafts, and are fun places to explore. There are several of them, so you might want to stretch your visit to these markets over a couple of nights. If you only have one evening to spare, you can ride a tuk tuk from one market to the other. Riding those is an experience all by itself!

If you only have little time in Siem Reap and wish to stock up on locally-made souvenirs quickly, the Made in Cambodia market is the place for you. Small, pleasant and not overwhelming, it has an array of booths displaying a wide verity of local handicrafts. I was happy to see some upcycling, such as these bags by Angkor Recycled:

After I bought something at one of the booths, I got it in this self-made bag, made out of newspapers. How cool is that?!

For those who have more time, Artisans Angkor is a must stop. This company, which started in the 1990’s, aims to revive some of the traditional Khmer crafts that nearly disappeared during the years of the civil war. It provides vocational training to uneducated villagers, teaching them new skills and allowing them to supplement agricultural work. The company gives its workers the opportunity to work near their home villages (the center at Siem Reap is only one of twelve sites in the province), and provides a safe work environment in addition to social and medical welfare.

Artisans Angkor is also an educational center for tourists. Visitors are invited to take free tours with English-speaking guides. They can visit all the workshops, and read English signs explaining the different stages of each craft. Some workshops even give hands-on experiences, which can be quite fun for kids and adults alike.

Nothing beats seeing craftspeople in real life, so if you find yourself in Siem Reap, make sure to visit Artisans Angkor. For those of you who can’t make it, here’s a brief virtual tour:

Stone Carving

The tour of the stone-carving workshop begins with a sign explaining the different kids of stones.

Clear displays then show the stages of carving a stone statue, from a block of stone to a smooth, finished image.

With hard stone, the artists start with a drawing on the stone. They then drill holes along the outlines, and begins to chip away the spaces. After the carving, the artists polish the statue to remove tool marks, and then sand it to make it smooth:

Soap Stone, which is softer and crumblier, can be made into smaller and somewhat finer sculptures. Artisans polish it with water, creating a smoother feel once finished:

In the spacious and clean workshop visitors can see artisans at work. Each person has their own bench, and is working on their own project.

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Carving a relief of a face

Wood carving

Wood Carving is similar to stone carving, except it begins with a drawing on paper, which is attached to a block of wood. The artisans carve the spaces out, polish the statue to remove tool marks, and, once finished, wax it to protect the surface:

Artisans paint some of the sculptures once finished, and decorate them with gold leaf. When finished, they protect them with patina as well as wax.

Metal Smiting

Cambodians use copper leaves to make boxes. Artisans first clean the copper sheets, fire-mold them, and then pound them to give them shape. They gently pound designs, usually that of plants or animals such as elephants. They make smaller details, such as elephant tasks, separately, and glue them on. Once finished, they dry and clean the boxes, and then soak them in a silver bath.

Cambodians also use copper leaves to decorate wooden sculptures such as elephants. These people, for example, are working on saddles they will later attach to wooden elephants:

Metal decorations are also added to lacquered wooden boxes:

Lacquer Work

Cambodians love to apply lacquer to boxes, sculptures or paintings. The process begins when artisan apply several layers of lacquer over two and a half weeks to create the background color.

For paintings, they use a pad with talcum powder on tracing paper to create the outline. They then apply varnish to the parts that need to be gilded. They gently check with their fingers to make sure the varnish is ready, and add the gold leaves carefully when it is. When the piece is finished, they spray it with hydro varnish to make it safe for humans. It takes up to a week for the hydro varnish to dry.

Silk Painting

For silk paintings, artisans stretch silk in a frame over an existing painting. They copy the outline of that painting onto the silk, and then fill the details in with colors. When done, they apply patina to protect the painting.

Silk Weaving

Cambodia has amazing textiles. Nowadays you can find many cotton weaving in the different markets, but traditionally the country excelled at silk weaving. Silk weaving was probably introduced to Cambodia in the 13th century, through the Silk Road. Local people turned woven silk into sarongs and scarves.

At Artisans Angkor, you can see a demonstration traditional Hol Lboeuk scarf weaving. Women weave these scarves entirely by hand on traditional looms. They take weeks or even months to complete.

Artisans Angkor also has workshops for ceramics and silver jewelry.

Your tour at the facility will inevitably end at the store. Beautiful and modern, it displays the work of the company’s craftspeople. Many of the traditional methods have been adapted to modern tastes and lifestyles, resulting in souvenirs of the highest-most quality. The prices, accordingly, are not cheap. Please remember, though, that any money you spend there will support the continuous preservation of traditional crafts, as well as the community of local craftspeople who could really use your help.

For those of you who are interested in textiles and are willing to go to the outskirts of the old town (a short tuk tuk ride away), Siem Reap offers yet another treat. The Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles will allow you to follow the process of silk weaving in even greater detail. But that, I think, deserves its very own post…

 

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