The long road to silk revival

May 18, 2016

    Almost 30 years ago Japanese silk-weaver Kikuo Morimoto dreamt of reviving Cambodia’s ancient silk-making culture, which was in danger of being lost forever. It has taken decades of hard work, but the Rolex Laureate has succeeded in building an environmentally sustainable cottage industry dedicated to the ancient art. His Rolex Award in 2004 was the turning point for saving one of the world’s great artisan traditions and providing a livelihood for hundreds of women and their families.

    Text and photographs by Chris Taylor

    Kikuo Morimoto still has the faded sketch for a tiny village where he would revive Cambodia’s hand-woven silk industry. The sketch dates from 1996, the year he established the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) in Phnom Penh after helping UNESCO determine, what, if anything, was left of Cambodia’s silk-weaving culture in the aftermath of the genocidal Khmer Rouge era (1975–1979). The sketch features a ring of five small huts linked by a path that surrounds 99 — an auspicious Buddhist number — mulberry trees.

    Today Morimoto’s dream has become reality. IKTT, which is also called “Wisdom of the Forest”, is a sprawling, 23-hectare settlement some 30 kilometres north of Siem Reap, not far from the famous ruins of Angkor. Fifty houses are home to 150 permanent residents, and there is a school for 50 children. Morimoto’s vision of nurturing 99 mulberry trees to feed silk worms has been more than fulfilled: on the outskirts of the village there are up to 4,000 trees.

    The population of Morimoto’s village has shrunk in size since its heyday in 2008, when about 500 people lived there. Many have returned to their home villages and towns to resume weaving there, while others have established their own schools and businesses. But Morimoto is content with what he has achieved. He never set out to dominate Cambodia’s silk-weaving industry, only to resuscitate it, a goal he has achieved against enormous odds.

    Born in 1948, Morimoto – his face today creased by the sun, his shaven head dusted with grey – learned his trade in the ancient city of Kyoto, painting kimonos. Even during his apprenticeship, this time-honoured industry was in its death throes. “In Japan, silk fabrics are all machine-made today,” he says. “It’s the same almost everywhere, and, in many cases, silk has been replaced by polyester. It’s very hard to find hand-woven silk anywhere.”

    Unique chemistry

    The pity for Morimoto is that there is a unique chemistry to hand-woven silk. “The rhythm of human hands, the vision involved in the designs – they’re not even sketched out,” he says. Gazing over the busy village of weavers from the balcony of his stilted wooden house, he adds with quiet pride: “This is probably the only place left in the world where silk weaving is completely carried out by hand with traditional looms and natural dyes – and they’re made from plants and trees we planted ourselves.”

    His journey began in 1983, when he went to work in the refugee camps of north-east Thailand and discovered Thai textiles. From there he went to Khmer-speaking Surin Province, also in north-east Thailand, a region known as Isaan. By the late 1980s, Morimoto had a shop next to the old Erawan Hotel in the then popular tourist district of Bangkok’s Ploenchit Road, selling ethnic Khmer silk at a time when it was feared the craft had been destroyed, like much else in Cambodia.

    Morimoto’s UNESCO commission to survey the state of silk-weaving in Cambodia began in 1994 with a trip to Takeo province in the south-west. It was expanded into a national survey in 1995. He travelled on foot, by motorcycle, by car and by boat, sometimes without maps, from village to village. An attempt to survey remote eastern Cambodia had to be abandoned, however, “due to fighting between the government troops and Khmer Rouge guerrillas”.

    Back then he estimated that as many as 10,000 Cambodians still had some knowledge of silk weaving, but the skills were in danger of being lost. “Most of the time when I found these people in villages and asked them about raising silk worms and using natural dyes, they told me, ‘Oh, I stopped that 25 years ago’.”

    The few people still weaving – all of them women – were being forced to work through middlemen who took most of the money, obliging them to weave fast, to low standards and use chemical dyes.

    “The quality was very mixed,” Morimoto says. But, he still managed to find 10 weavers working to high standards who were passing on their skills to their daughters.

    By 2000, Morimoto was searching for an affordable plot of land where he could bring weavers together, allowing them to bypass the middlemen, and spend the months required to weave a single piece of silk to master standards.

    “It was hard. As soon as people knew I was a foreigner, they would double or triple the price – until I found this place. The land was bare, the trees had all been chopped down for firewood, and nobody wanted it.”

    The project initially involved Morimoto and 23 weavers and their families from south-eastern Kampot province, cultivating shoots from the stumps of trees and transplanting the seedlings of fruit trees and plants that produce natural dyes, such as indigo, on five hectares of land. The first “house” from all those years ago still remains – little more than a planked platform in the boughs of the only tree that survived at the time. Morimoto himself had to drive to Siem Reap every day, trudging 2 kilometres down a rutted trail to and from the road by foot.

    Looking for landmines

    But he admits those early days were hard, and there is little nostalgia to his voice as he recalls them. “We never found any landmines, just a few unexploded bombs,” he says cheerfully, referring to the dangerous legacy of Cambodia’s violent conflict.

    The Rolex Award in 2004 was the turning point. “It was very significant, not only in making Cambodian silk-weaving better known around the world, but also because it made it possible for me to expand the scope of the village,” he says. “Rolex was the push-up that made it possible for me to expand the village to 23 hectares, make it almost entirely self-sufficient and make silk weavings that people fly in from overseas to buy.”

    The village faces challenges still. It relies on fuel from Siem Reap to run its generators from 5 pm to 10 pm. Villagers abandoned early efforts to grow their own rice as it was too labour-intensive. Modern comforts that the otherwise austere Morimoto allows himself, such as ground Cambodian coffee, must also be brought in.

    Morimoto has been in poor health for some time, but sitting barefoot at home, he takes comfort from what he sees around him. “Everything can run by itself now. The weavers can supervise themselves, and so can the shop (in Siem Reap, visited by people from abroad eager to buy silk). I feel peaceful because I know that it can all continue without me.”

    About the weavers

    At just 36 years-old, Sol Sot Khean is one of Wisdom of the Forest’s master weavers. She comes from a village in Takeo province. She began learning to weave from her mother at age 13 and came to IKTT in 2001 when she was 20. In Morimoto’s opinion, she will become one of Cambodia’s greatest weavers within 10 years.

    The piece she is working on now, like most of her work, features motifs of Cambodian deities and rich red and yellow colours.

    “I’ve been working on it for about a month, so I’ve probably got another five months to go,” she says.

    However, at the suggestion it seems like a lot of work, she replies lightly: “It doesn’t feel like work; it feels like living art.”

    Khon Lay, Sol’s 56-year-old mother did not join her daughter from Takeo until five years later, in 2006. Today they live together in a house that Morimoto had built for the extended family – Sol and her husband, who works in the village fields, have a two year-old daughter.

    While her daughter works on “tapestries” that will emerge as full-fledged silk designs, Khon, who learned to weave from her mother when she was 18, spends her days teaching the younger weavers the rudiments of silk weaving, from preparing looms to making the organic dyes applied to bundles of silk, and the actual weaving.

    Small groups of women, often including three or even four generations, work in concentrated silence. Morimoto sometimes wanders among them, chatting fluently in Khmer.

    Siem Leng, aged 30, is working at a loom with her two-year-old daughter sitting close by, her mother and grandmother watching. “We can work whenever we like, wherever we like and with whomever we like, but mostly we all work together with our families,” she says.

    Learn more about Kikuo Morimoto

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