Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Weaving the golden silks of Angkor

Golden and fluffy native Cambodian silkworm cocoons attached to their special rearing baskets.
I haven't posted about silk weaving in Cambodia earlier as I thought my pictures weren't good enough for publishing... however, I've bee talking about this with both family and friends many times since our visit there in last October, so I decided to share what I'd seen despite the less than perfect pictures.

So here they are, my snapshots from the silk farm and "factory" of Artisans Angkor, one of the finest silk producers in Siem Reap; a company that not only sells stunningly beautiful silk products, but has also created many job opportunities for young people living in Cambodia's rural areas by reviving production of many traditional handicrafts there. The little factory is just outside the city and geared towards tourists willing to learn how more about the production of traditional Khmer "golden silk", called so because of it's natural, shiny yellow color as it is unraveled from the native Cambodian silk cocoons. 
Rows of white mulberries, grown as food for the silkworms - like pandas, they only eat one kind of plant, the white mulberry (that's why it took so long for Europeans to figure out how to grow silkworms; they didn't know what picky eaters they are...).

The worms are fattened before they reach the cocooning stage.

 Worms getting ready to spin their cocoons - poor little doomed creatures (the first picture of this post should actually come after this, with the mature cocoons).
Silk has been produced in Cambodia since the days of Angkor, and there are still almost 20 000 active weavers, mainly near Siem Reap and in the southern parts of the country. While silk production declined sharply during the 30 years of war and political unrest, it has been experiencing a revival, with a new generation taking over by learning the complicated process of silk making, from mulberry farming and silkworm rearing to cocoon processing and spinning the thin, lustrous threads into colorful fabrics with intricate patterns so typical for the Khmers of Cambodia.

Soft silk cocoons, before they are sorted by color.

Thousands and thousands of cocoons; the beautifully soft, golden color occurs naturally in the Cambodian silk. 
 The cocoons are cooked, and the thin silk threads are separated and spun per hand from the kettles; it takes long time to learn to do this complicated maneuver...  

A poor little naked silk worm after being cooked.

I'm not quite sure about the right terminology here... after the first spinning, the thin threads are processed further to produce glossy skeins of silk in many shades of yellow and gold.

Seeing the actual - rather painstaking, if you ask me - process of silk making from the mulberries and worms to the final, stunningly beautiful fabrics, scarfs and clothes was a real eye opener. The level of sophistication of the Asian cultures, producing and spinning these less that hair-thin strands for hundreds of years ago and planning the complicated colorings for the patterns is just mind-blowing - just looking at the dip-dyed silk garn, ready to be woven in a certain, predetermined order made my brain hurt a little. To have figured the technique out (without any computers...) is so telling - only a society of high level of knowledge, sophistication and resources - for spending time producing, using and appreciating them - could have come up with this kind of beautiful products. But then, the visitors, priests and dancers at the impressive temples of Angkor surely needed something accordingly handsome and beautiful to wear while praying to their gods.

The skeins are colored with plant based, natural dyes... here with young banana leafs.
 Pots of colorful dyes...

The patterns of many of the fabrics are woven, and the thread needs to be colored in a predetermined order for it to form the pattern on the loom. 

 A display of raw and dyed silks.

When visiting Cambodia, please pay attention and get the real, hand-made silks of the Khmers, and not the cheaper, imported goods flowing in from China to the many outdoor markets and shops - you will not only be supporting a centuries old Khmer handicraft tradition, but also the local communities that educate and employ the young women and men of Cambodia. These beautiful, painstakingly produced silks are more than worth every penny they ask for them.

 The carefully colored skeins (above) are spun on wooden sticks (below) that are then woven in certain order to form the pattern. 

I just couldn't get my head around the fact that the weavers get the single, dyed threads to form such exact patterns in the end... 

Like pure magic, the pattern emerges from the hands of the patient and skilled weavers.
 A relief depicting a procession of King Suryavarman II at Angkor Wat sometime at the 12th century... all wearing skillfully weaved robes and clothes, early predecessors of the fabrics woven today near Siem Reap and other places in Cambodia.


Unknown said...

Nyt ymmärrän miksi silkki maksaa niin paljon:) En oikeen tajua miten silkki kerätään noista toukist kun ne keitetään, irtooko niiden ympäriltä "kamaa" joka kerätään. Tosi upeeta et julkaisit tämän , tää on tosi mielenkiintoinen prosessi.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

no hyvä kun näistä on iloa - olin itse niin pettynyt, kun mielestäni kuvat eivät onnistuneet, mutta nyt ajan kanssa ne tuntuvat ihan kiinnostavilta... niistä pehmeistä koteloista tosiaan keitetään se ohuenohut silkki irti, se keriytyy pois veden kanssa ihan kuin hämähäkinseitti. Tosi aikaavievä ja vaikea prosessi. Mietin, että jos edes saisin yhden tuollaisen huivin aikaan, niin sillehän ei olisi mitään mahdollista hintaa olemassakaan, niin ihmeellinen sen luontiprosessi on.

Unknown said...

Omin käsin tehty silkkihuivi olisi kokemuksena korvaamaton, todellakaan sille ei voisi laittaa hintalappua:)

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Näin on, mutta minulta menisi varmaan vähintään pari vuotta sen aikaan saamiseksi... Olisi hienoa vaikka käydä joku kurssi tuolla paikan päällä, vaikka ei mitään konkreettista tulosta siitä valmistuisikaan!