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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