The Forest Village devoted to high-quality silk production, established in 2003 by Japanese Laureate Kikuo Morimoto near Cambodia’s ancient capital, Angkor Wat, is gradually taking shape, recreating a way of life that would have been lost if not for Morimoto’s imagination and determination.

“About 150 people are now living at the village and more people will come to live there,” the 2004 Laureate explained recently at an exhibition in Paris of the intricate silk fabrics produced at the village, which is now in full operation.

Revived from Near Ruin
Cambodian silk production was decimated by decades of war and came perilously close to disappearing. Remnants of the ancient silk culture remained in the 1990s, but they were overshadowed by the production of inferior silk with chemical dyes. Morimoto has recreated the entire process of traditional, chemical-free silk production — from raising silkworms to weaving and dyeing the fabric.

To revive the silk industry as it was practised for hundreds of years in Cambodia, Morimoto combed the countryside to find examples of ancient silk fabric, and, even more important, women who had mastered the techniques of silk production before the devastating conflicts. He recruited four “silk grandmas” to teach younger women all the old techniques. Two of the grandmas still work in his workshops as revered teachers for the younger generations.

Something to Work For
In the past decade, hundreds of people, most of them women who weave and dye the silk, have found employment in a workshop Morimoto set up in 2000 in Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat, and now in the Forest Village. He is glad to be able to give them work in a country where women are in dire need of employment — although Cambodia is now a relatively stable country, its annual GDP of only US$300 per capita is barely one-tenth that of neighbouring Thailand.

But Morimoto’s intention is to give those who work for him something more valuable than a job — he is giving them a livelihood. After learning weaving and dyeing skills in his workshops, many of the silk-workers have moved on, working for other silk producers or returning to their villages to produce their own silk. In many cases, they are making more money than they did when employed in his workshops.

“That’s a positive thing,” he explains. “I consider myself to be like a tree; young weavers can take shelter on the branches while they learn the skills. But when they are strong enough they can fly away and be independent, and not need the tree anymore.”

Silk as Art
Originally trained in the intricate art of kimono dyeing in Kyoto, Japan, Morimoto runs the workshops not as a businessman but as an artist determined to create the most beautiful silk possible, and to bring harmony among nature, workers and art. The entire process of silk production in his workshops is natural, with fabrics made either from pure silk or a mix of silk and cotton, and all dyes made from local plants.

Everything necessary for the production is grown and raised at the Forest Village, with the sole exception of a red ochre that is one of the most distinctive colours in Cambodian silk. At present the dye is being imported, but Morimoto hopes that by next year it will be produced in adequate quantities at the Forest Village.

Morimoto’s achievement in Cambodia is a considerable one: in the 12 years since he established the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) with the “goal of reviving traditional silk production in Cambodia”, he now has a core team of 20 women who are completely versed in the silk production process.

Quality Endures
Cambodian silk is increasingly being recognised as some of the best in the world, whereas previously Thai silk had all the glory. And, Morimoto states with obvious pleasure as he looks around the elaborate fabrics from his workshops on display in Paris, silk is being recognised as art, not just as a craft.

As he explains it, top-quality silk deserves far more than just a glance of the eye or stroke of the hand: “As we make our textiles, we bear in mind that they will be used for 10 years, or for 20 years, and with that use in mind we want to make good use of raw materials, skills and experience. The lifespan of a natural fibre begins when it is dyed with a natural substance, and with the passing of the years its colour deepens. The colour is living, just like an infant. The fundamental difference is that chemical dye is at its best when just done, and it goes on to fade.” He himself marvels at colour tones in Cambodian fabrics that are 70 or 80 years old – fabrics that he has managed to track down and now uses for inspiration in his workshops.

Exciting Expansion
Morimoto has also had 30 houses constructed at the Forest Village and he lives in one of them himself. The village has its own generator to provide electricity at night, during the day no power is needed as all the work is done by hand. The village is now replacing the Siem Reap workshop as the main location for silk project.

Morimoto says that thanks to the Rolex Awards, the silk made in his workshops is becoming known worldwide. Before he won his Award, most of the foreign visitors to his workshops were from his native Japan. Now about half of them are from Europe, especially Germany and Spain. There is also growing interest in France, particularly thanks to the exhibition in Paris sponsored by French travel agency Asia and to an article about his silk in a French magazine Marie Claire Maison, in October 2007.

Although the IKTT silks are sometimes sold at exhibitions and in museum shops in Europe and the United States, Morimoto says that the best place to buy them is in Siem Reap and the Forest Village. Each fabric has the name of the principal silk-maker for the article on the label.

Morimoto adds that, along with his Rolex Award, one of his greatest honours was being granted an audience with Cambodia’s King Sihamoni at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh last year, after the king expressed interest in the silk.

Dr Linda Hanssen, curator of textiles at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said after seeing IKTT fabrics on display in Paris: “In the creation of these dazzling and colourful silk weavings one can witness the devotion of the Cambodian women who produce the silk, who tie and dye the yarns into intricate patterns and weave their silk heritage. The elaborate and extremely fine textiles we can admire today express an extraordinary creativity by creating and recreating the rich Cambodian textile tradition.”

Edmund Doogue

Learn more about Kikuo Morimoto

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