Kikuo Morimoto, a Japanese silk-weaver who revived Cambodia’s thousand-year-old silk tradition, has died.

A Laureate of the 2004 Rolex Awards, Morimoto bequeaths to his adopted country not only the ancient craft that came close to disappearing after the conflicts that tore the nation apart, but the entire production process as it had existed for centuries.

Every step, from raising silkworms and plants to make natural dyes, to selling the exquisite fabrics, has been established at the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), or Wisdom from the Forest, a 23-hectare settlement about 30 kilometres north of Siem Reap, the town nearest to the ruins of Angkor. He built the village, which houses 150 permanent workers, with help from his Rolex Award.

The Japanese artisan had suffered from poor health in recent years but was content knowing he had achieved his goal. “Everything can run by itself now,” he said in an interview just over a year ago. “The weavers can supervise themselves, and so can the shop. I feel peaceful because I know that it can all continue without me.”

Decades earlier, Morimoto had learned to paint silk kimonos in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto. He described it as a time-honoured industry that was in its death throes even during his younger days as an apprentice. “In Japan, silk fabrics are all machine-made today. It’s the same almost everywhere, and in many cases silk has been replaced by polyester.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.”

Natural dyes

But speaking – without even a hint of pride – of his Cambodian village, he added: “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 discovery of the silk culture of continental Asia began in 1983 when he went to work in the refugee camps of north-east Thailand. There he discovered Thai textiles. In the early 1990s, UNESCO commissioned him to survey neighbouring Cambodia’s silk weaving. Part of the journey through the region had to be abandoned “due to fighting between the government troops and Khmer Rouge guerrillas”, Morimoto told UNESCO.

Morimoto estimated that up to 10,000 Cambodians had some knowledge of silk weaving, but when he asked them about their craft, a typical response was: “Oh, I stopped that 25 years ago.”

A few women were still weaving but forced to deal with middlemen who took most of the money. They had to weave fast and use chemical dyes for most of the colours.

High standards

“The quality [of the silk] was very mixed,” Morimoto said. But he managed to find 10 weavers working to high standards who were passing on their skills to their daughters and grand-daughters. These women helped Morimoto save the custom. He set up a workshop in Siem Reap, where the older women trained younger ones, often as their infants sat beside them. Their creations, each with a label bearing the name of its weaver, were sold in a shop on site, mainly to European tourists bound for Angkor who stayed in the town’s luxury hotels.

The region was impoverished. People had lost limbs from the thousands of landmines left behind by the conflicts, and children begged tourists. Morimoto gave hundreds of Cambodians paid work and a new purpose in life.

At the time he won his Rolex Award, he had found a site for his village, but restoring the silk tradition on a significant scale seemed a nigh impossible task. However, Morimoto worked with great determination in the following years, investigating every step of production, weaving and dyeing until he had replicated the entire process, with a whole village living and working in harmony. As well as 50 homes, Wisdom from the Forest has a school for 50 children. On the outskirts of the village, up to 4,000 mulberry trees, covering four hectares, feed the silk worms.

Silk creations

The modest artisan’s dream has become a reality. The rich pink-red and golden colours of his silk creations attract international interest and have been exhibited as far afield as Paris.

Rebecca Irvin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex, paid tribute to Morimoto: “It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Kikuo Morimoto. We extend condolences on behalf of Rolex to his relatives and colleagues. This gentle, quietly spoken man has achieved for Cambodia and for the world’s heritage a great accomplishment, rescuing an ancient and beautiful tradition from oblivion. And with this he has given a livelihood to hundreds of women and men. The town of Siem Reap and the nation of Cambodia will never forget him and neither will we.”

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