Silk weaving in Cambodia: An age-old tradition struggles to survive

26 December 2010 at 10:05 47 comments

Cambodia has a long and rich history in silk production and weaving dating back more than a thousand years. Women across southern Cambodia have looms in their homes, and they practice the art passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. But now the ancient craft is slowly dying as the cost of imported raw silk continues to climb while the price of finished silk textiles drops.

Silk weaving has been part of Cambodia culture for centuries. At Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex built in the early 12th century, images of women wearing traditional silk garments that are still worn today are carved in bas-relief. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who visited Cambodia in the 13th century wrote, in one of the only first-hand accounts of the Angkor empire, about immigrants from Siam raising mulberry trees and silkworms to feed the thriving silk trade. Raw silk was one of Cambodia’s main exports to China during this period.

Now, however, the Cambodian silk industry relies on China and Vietnam for most of its raw silk. The Khmer Rouge era decimated the mulberry tree population which are the exclusive foodstuffs of silkworms. Before the Khmer Rouge took power, Cambodia was producing an estimated 150,000 kilograms of silk per year. That number dropped to just 800 kilograms after years of political and civil unrest.

At MAXIMA Mikroheranhvatho, we have given nearly 900 Kiva loans to weavers, most of them working in the silk industry. But many of them are now abandoning the craft. The price of imported raw silk has been rising steadily–prices have gone up 60% in the last year. At the same time weavers are paid less than ever; the prices for finished products have fallen 56%. Silk weavers are now working extremely close to the margins–or even at a loss–and many of the 20,000 estimated weavers in the country are trying to find other work.

During my fellowship I met with many weavers, and saw even more abandon their trade in favor of working in garment factories. There are a couple of islands in the Mekong outside of Phnom Penh where most of the women living there are weavers. I visited the most famous of these islands, Koh Dach, and at house after house saw abandoned looms being used to hang laundry.

55 year old Ny told me that the women of her family have been weaving for generations, since “ancient times.” She taught her five children to weave, including her three sons. But when I asked why her loom was dismantled and now being used to prop up a bicycle she explained that it just wasn’t lucrative enough anymore, and that she had switched to farming vegetables. She’s kept the loom rather than selling it in the hopes that she will be able to start weaving again in the future.

Most weavers in Cambodia are women–the craft is passed down from mother to daughter. They usually start weaving when they are in their early teens and continue until their eyes give out. Many of them are subsistence farmers during the rice season, and most have one or two looms set up in houses that lack running water.

I met a young woman, Sinet, who at 20 had been weaving for 6 years like her mother before her. However, because her income has dropped precipitously, she was reluctantly considering abandoning weaving and looking for decidedly less-skilled work at a garment factory, one of the only sources of reliable income for young rural women. Although the garment factories provide a steady paycheck, they are also known for forced overtime, low pay and sweatshop-like conditions.

The Cambodian government is aware of the challenges that the silk industry is now facing, and in response recently suspended all import taxes and value-added tax for silk imports to help keep down the spiraling cost of silk. In addition to lowering the costs of silk imports, the government also recognizes the importance of making locally cultivated silk available to weavers and has tried to encourage farmers to begin growing mulberry trees, the main source of food for silkworms.

The process is a slow one, however. Propagating mulberry trees is not difficult, but many Cambodian farmers prefer to go with more secure crops such as cassava. Last year the United Nations financed a project to help create a silkworm production center here but Cambodia still only produces only 2% of the thread used by its weavers, who continue to rely on silk imports.

Despite declining profits and overwhelming obstacles, many weavers say they cannot imagine leaving a profession that they have worked at for so long. Khon Phum (pictured above) has been weaving since she was a teenager, and now, at 62, her beautifully detailed work attests to her expertise at the craft. She said that weaving has been her livelihood and her identity for nearly fifty years.

We talked about the difficulties the industry is currently facing and I asked her if she had considered doing anything else. Phum seemed to find the idea of finding another type of work absurd and said that despite the challenges she faces, she, like many other weavers in Cambodia, will continue weaving.

Lina Goldberg recently finished her Kiva Fellowship at MAXIMA Mikroheranhvatho Co. Ltd. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She plans to stay in Cambodia working on other projects and just generally being Lina Goldberg.

Entry filed under: Cambodia, KF12 (Kiva Fellows 12th Class), MAXIMA Mikroheranhvatho Co., Ltd.. Tags: , , , .

No Place Like Home Wait, What Do You Do Again?

47 Comments

  • [...] in Cambodia – and for street foods in Asia! Her page describing the weaving industry in Cambodia here, about customs and rice here and more about her here. If you are going to Asia check out her [...]

  • 2. mara  |  30 December 2011 at 12:15

    Hi Lina, we plan to visit Cambodia – can you please advise the best place to see Khmer women actively do the weaving?? Thanks

  • 3. gvipromote  |  2 February 2011 at 22:36

    เที่ยวญี่ปุ่น เที่ยวฮ่องกง ทัวร์มาเก๊า

    Great post Lina! I love the vivid photographs – keep up the good work!

  • 4. ziggy  |  6 January 2011 at 16:29

    I have an “adopted” Laotian family that my parents befriended and fostered in the 1980′s. Boonthom, my mother’s friend and “adopted” daughter had weaving in common. I have some fantastic yard goods still waiting to be made into a garment as well as a beautiful piece i made into a classic shirt that is forever timeless. I have seen these looms close up, and it’s amazing the complexity of the operation. Silk is always in fashion. Timeless.

  • 5. Jean Huang Photography  |  5 January 2011 at 02:37

    I just came back from a trip to Cambodia. At Ankor Wat, we visited the silk farm where production is sponsored by French. I was under the impression that the silk-worms were raised on-site. Your post helped clarify the truth. They had beautiful products and hefty prices. I’m curious how much of it is benefiting the locals, other than creating job opportunities.

  • 6. al619  |  2 January 2011 at 10:06

    This is also the same case with the Philippines;s Ifugao people in the northern part of the country. This part is known for the rice terraces built hundreds of years ago to farm rice production. The heritage of planting rice this way is endangered as the new generation of Ifugaos are migrating to the big cities in the country for jobs. Still the main reason for leaving has a lot to do with economics and poverty.

    With the right government support, i don’t see how the silk weaving industry in Cambodia or the rice farming in the Ifugao region in the Philippines cannot be sources of income in themselves. Sometimes it is a matter of pure political will.

  • 7. Blog Round Up « Reinvented  |  2 January 2011 at 04:06

    [...] post on silk [...]

  • 8. Turkish  |  1 January 2011 at 14:49

    tenks goood

  • 9. NiceArtLife  |  1 January 2011 at 06:00

    Unfortunately we can’t preserve these ancient wonderful crafts in these ‘modern’ times. The quality of these products and crafts are so much better then the today’s machine-made clothes. Interesting post! Happy New Year!

  • 10. strangetributes  |  31 December 2010 at 11:18

    What an awesome post. Love your blog.

  • 11. btlau  |  29 December 2010 at 07:00

    thx for the post and making me learn something new

  • 12. warren00stanley00pollock  |  29 December 2010 at 04:21

    I have not travelled to Cambodia, but I have travelled to many countries in Asia. It is my view that this problem is exists worldwide, or at least in many countries in Asia, Africa and South America. It is not a problem specific to silk but to any fabric that is woven by hand. Hand production is no longer competitive against machine production in either of quality, design or price. I recently saw a wall “rug” that was a beautiful “picture” of a man’s two daughters. It was created by a machine from a digital imagine. It was of fine quality and reasonably priced. The modern consumer demands this type of product and really is not interested in the “traditional product” as lovingly, and painstakingly as it was made. You must remember that at one time the hand loom was an innovation and it displaced other “traditional” methods. A country can and will only subsidize “tradition” for a certain length of time. Perhaps in Cambodia more hand silk weavers should be directed towards silk production because, as you state in your article, the price of silk continues to rise. Some weavers may have to become planters of mulberry plants, providers of silk worm farms and processors or raw silk. I do not say any of this with meanness or with a lack of empathy, it is just that the world marches on and some traditional methods or techniques pass away.

    • 13. Lina Goldberg  |  29 December 2010 at 09:21

      I thought about including some of these points in my article, but it’s just not something I know enough about to really discuss in an informed way. When I was researching this I did wonder if this is just a natural result of development in Cambodia. When the cost of labor (and living) goes up it becomes less feasible to do these sort of labor-intensive crafts to make a living. So perhaps it’s a mark of progress for Cambodia that this is happening, but for the individuals affected, it’s definitely not.

      I’d love to hear some other opinions about this.

  • 14. Evie Garone  |  28 December 2010 at 22:34

    Very interesting post. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! Thanks for sharing!

    evelyngarone.com

  • 15. Veronica Samuels  |  28 December 2010 at 17:52

    Lina,

    Interesting post. It’s unfortunate to hear how a craft that has been passed down from mother to daughter since ancient times is being lost. I’m going to share this post on our World Moms Blog facebook page. Thank you!

    Veronica Samuels
    http://www.worldmomsblog.com

  • 16. Leanne  |  28 December 2010 at 17:20

    it’s so sad when old traditions die out due to modern technology overtaking
    I am actually planning to evolve my blog into a movement reverting us to the ‘good old days’
    it’s gonna be the next big thing!

    lovess

    thanks for a great post!

    http://urbanoptimist.wordpress.com/

    Leanne.

    xxx

    http://urbanoptimist.wordpress.com/

  • [...] Silk weaving in Cambodia: An age-old tradition struggles to survive « Kiva Stories from the Field. [...]

  • 18. Breland Kent  |  28 December 2010 at 15:19

    What a great blog, I had no idea the silk industry over there had plummeted so much. That is a shame.

  • [...] Silk weaving in Cambodia: An age-old tradition struggles to survive (Kiva Stories from the Field) Cambodia has a long and rich history in silk production and weaving dating back more than a thousand years. Women across southern Cambodia have looms in their homes, and they practice the art passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. But now the ancient craft is slowly dying as the cost of imported raw silk continues to climb while the price of finished silk textiles drops. Silk weaving has been part of Cambodia culture for centuries. At A … Read More [...]

  • 20. rachel  |  28 December 2010 at 11:33

    This is a poignant story. Are most of those traditional weavings used for ceramonial clothing? Would increasing exports help?

    • 21. Lina Goldberg  |  29 December 2010 at 09:25

      The more expensive, labor-intensive fabrics seem to be used for the domestic market. One of the issues seems to be that the weavers themselves don’t have direct access to the export market–they are just women working alone in their homes that sell their finished pieces to a middleman who comes by every few weeks to pick them up.

      I discussed this issue with one of the Maxima staff and he said that because the weavers produce large pieces of material that aren’t “export ready” ie. they aren’t in foreigner friendly pillowcases or scarves that no one really bothers to try and sell them to a foreign market. There are some NGOs doing this but they only work with a very small number of weavers.

  • 22. The Bantu Girl  |  28 December 2010 at 11:08

    What an interesting article. You might want to check out this website: http://www.laotextiles.com/, she is an American living in Laos trying to do her part. Fascinating.

  • 23. neurotype  |  28 December 2010 at 09:09

    It’s a shame, and worse because this isn’t just a consequence of globalization: it’s equally driven by the actions of the Khmer Rouge. Thanks for sharing.

  • 24. journeyexplorer  |  28 December 2010 at 08:00

    Cambodia is receiving a lot more attention in the last couple of years…which is bringing about change both positive and negative….thanks for your post!

  • 25. 1344353  |  28 December 2010 at 06:36

    O Jesus, son of Mary! Is thy Lord able to send down for us a table spread with food from heaven?

    http://jesussonofmary1432.blogspot.com/

  • 26. Sister Earth Organics  |  28 December 2010 at 05:25

    Thanks for your post-it was fascinating!

  • 27. ZACH  |  27 December 2010 at 20:52

    Interesting article, I don’t travel much, but I do learn alot of other countries from blogs like this. Thanks ~ZW

  • 28. Wyck  |  27 December 2010 at 18:20

    I just returned from my first visit to Cambodia on Sunday. Silk products were a prominent tourist gift item everywhere I went. I bought a pashmina-silk shawl for my mother myself.

    However, I noticed great differences in price and design quality–from the generic designs sold in the French Quarter Old Market, to the more elaborate designs in the Fair Trade shops, to designer pieces at the airport. Any idea how these were made, and where the money is going?

    • 29. Lina Goldberg  |  27 December 2010 at 18:55

      Although I’d guess that not all silk sold in Cambodia is actually woven in Cambodia, a lot of it is. Many of the patterns and styles I see at the markets here are the same as the ones I saw the weavers working on at their homes.

      As you mentioned, there’s a big difference in price and quality–this is based on cost/quality of the materials and the time it takes to complete. Simple scarves that are made of silk blends are much cheaper and take less time to make. The weaver that I mentioned, Sinet, who is 20 (and has less experience) was doing this sort of weaving. She said she can make about 20 of these a month. The more complex patterns made from better-quality silk costs more and require weavers with more experience because they are so much more complicated. They can’t produce more than a few of these a month. This kind of weaving is usually sold in large pieces that are then used to make Cambodian formalwear and don’t seem to make it onto the market for visitors.

      Many of the weavers have contracts with middlemen who sometimes provide them with the thread on credit and then buy all of their finished product for a set price when they are done. In many ways this is easier for the weavers but gives them little room to negotiate.

  • 30. Magnificent Minimalist  |  27 December 2010 at 14:40

    This post makes me want to look at and feel a piece of Cambodian silk.

  • 31. eburdullis  |  27 December 2010 at 14:06

    hello fressly pressed! Congrats Lina! Hope the fellowship went well!

  • 32. rtcrita  |  27 December 2010 at 13:24

    Thank you so much for this post. I find this to be a sad and depressing dilema for the Cambodian women who have made their living throuout the years in this precious and skilled craft. I sew and was taught by my mother when I was 5 years old. She also taught me how to crochet. I think it is extremely important for such skills to be handed down to my daughter as well. Sure, you can take classes for some of these things, but there is just something sacred about teaching your own child at an early age and giving them the skill and time to learn a craft till it becomes an art through time and patience. I know, for myself, my sewing skills have at times helped to provide an income for myself and my family. I hope something can be done to remedy this problem, at least to a degree where this tradition will never be lost completely. Especially since it is such an important piece of their culture. Thanks, again, for sharing.

  • 33. benganje  |  27 December 2010 at 12:58

    My mother used to weaver when she was younger and your article made me think of her–thanks so much!

    The new way to search the market-period

  • 34. Lakia Gordon  |  27 December 2010 at 12:33

    Wow, you did a fellowship with Kiva? Thats awesome.. I liked your article too :)

  • 35. jule1  |  27 December 2010 at 12:16

    What a shame. Another art being lost to “progress”. Just the beautiful, intricate work in the two pics included (of woven pieces) lets you know that nothing on earth will match this type of weaving once it’s gone.

  • 36. Tammi  |  27 December 2010 at 11:42

    Lina,

    As a seamstress and working with silk fabric making couture draperies, I really appreciated this article. You put a lot of time and effort in the research and I am going to share this with my Facebook friends, most of whom are in my industry as designers and workrooms.

    These textile arts are dying out unfortunately as even in my business, young people are not taught to sew anymore so the average age of those in my profession are in the 40′s and 50′s now. I would love to have a loom and learn how to weave the silk!

    Tammi

  • 37. acleansurface  |  27 December 2010 at 11:14

    My grandmother wove wool from her own sheep, but I imagine silk is more difficult, being so thin a fiber, requiring so much detail. This posts reminds me of working in the public schools here in California, where Mulberry trees are on every elementary school campus. Students study silkworms for the insect curriculum and they need the leaves to feed the silkworms. After the lesson ends, the silkworms are destroyed (sssh, don’t tell the students). I think this is to prevent them from breeding and eating up all the Mulberry trees. They have voracious appetites.

  • 38. notesfromrumbleycottage  |  27 December 2010 at 10:40

    What beautiful and amazing work. I never knew that mulberry trees were the prefered food source of the silkworm. Thank you for showing and telling.

  • 39. Calogero Mira  |  27 December 2010 at 10:01

    How is silk from Cambodia?

  • [...] rest is here: Silk weaving in Cambodia: An age-old tradition struggles to survive Posted on 2010 年 12 月 26 日 by lanshang1460. This entry was posted in 未分类 and tagged [...]

  • 41. Mikalee Byerman  |  27 December 2010 at 08:32

    The art of weaving absolutely astounds me.

    Very interesting post … many thanks for sharing! :)

  • 42. Shirley  |  27 December 2010 at 02:36

    Great post Lina! I love the vivid photographs – keep up the good work!

  • 43. Jerry  |  27 December 2010 at 01:49

    Nice post Lina. I especially like your picture on the excerpt. You got quite a bit of information from the weavers. How did you deal with the language barrier?

    • 44. Lina Goldberg  |  27 December 2010 at 02:49

      Thanks, Jerry. Because MAXIMA had so many weavers as clients we did a lot of visits to weaving communities. I was very interested after my first visit to one of the weaving islands and did some research. Later I got to go to go to Koh Dach with our HR manager–his English is outstanding and he was willing to sit and translate for me as I asked a million questions. Most of the time, though, the language barrier was a serious problem.

  • 45. Lina Goldberg  |  26 December 2010 at 18:35

    Eric, they say that it’s due to a couple of reasons. Severe weather and some flooding resulted in reduced mulberry production this year. Additionally, the demand for silk within Vietnam has gone up due to a new silk-processing plant there so they aren’t exporting as much. Moreover, some farmers have been turning away from mulberry trees because other crops are more profitable.

  • 46. Eric Kim  |  26 December 2010 at 15:35

    Great piece Lina! I had a question though. Would you know what’s been accounting for the recent rapid increase in imported silk costs? Have prices been spiraling upward ever since the Khmer Rouge era or has there been some recent developments that can be attributed to a significant increase in the rate of increase over the most recent years?

  • [...] posted my final Kiva blog post about the silk weaving industry in Cambodia. You can read it here: http://fellowsblog.kiva.org/2010/12/…es-to-survive/ Any comments on the post are much appreciated! I know many of you have made loans to the weavers [...]


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