Future's bright for basic thread of a silken past

Traditional Textiles of Cambodia
January 7, 2005

The beauty and complexity of Cambodian silk weaving are revealed in this lavishly illustrated book that traces its techniques and origins. Unlike other cultures with an ancient weaving heritage, almost nothing survived the devastating war and the Pol Pot regime in the Seventies. To research this rich tradition, therefore, involved exploring private and public collections outside the country.

Gillian Green, a former biochemist from Australia, embarked on the task after a trip to Cambodia in 1993 when she became captivated by Khmer sampots (hip-wrappers), kramas (scarves) and pidans (temple hangings).

These are woven in radiant colours by the process of hol , the Khmer word for resist-dyeing or tie-dyeing silk weft threads into a predetermined pattern before they are woven, known as ikat in Southeast Asia. The technique involves wrapping strands of raw silk on to a frame then tying them with banana-leaf threads into patterns. The silk is then removed, dyed and remounted to be re-tied for other colours in the pattern. A base-coloured silk is strung lengthwise on to the loom and the dyed threads, the weft, are woven into the pattern created by the tie-dyeing.

Green shows how the recent revival of hol weaving harks back to what used to be a fundamental part of life, practised by women in both royal and rural circles, is linked to Buddhist and animist rites and coordinated with the annual cycle of rice growing. She associates the textiles with their weavers and wearers, and she starts with Cambodia's history to trace these traditions. Among the 300 sumptuous photographs are the carvings on the temples of Angkor, dating from the 9th-14th centuries. The sculptors delighted in meticulously recording the details of pleating, knotting, looping, wrapping and layering that went into costume construction, yet Green finds no evidence of the use of framelooms during the Khmer Empire and concludes that silk came from Siam, Java and India.

But by the 19th century, production was highly refined, as evidenced by extant textiles that show sophisticated silk-weft hol weaving that must have evolved prior to this, and Green quotes French sources from the colonial era claiming that every Cambodian dwelling had a loom. The supreme skill and "unassuming aplomb" with which textiles were woven invested the process with special significance. While silk has always represented luxury and prestige, magical qualities were ascribed to it, symbolic of purity and healing.

Textiles were for religious purposes, as well as decoration, as their imagery demonstrates, with temples and cosmological symbols juxtaposed with elephants, tigers and peacocks. Temple hangings were illustrated with Buddhist themes of the most complex composition.

One recurring motif is ships, and Green's research into the enigmatic "ship cloths" is fascinating. Although very few of these esoteric textiles survive, she has uncovered numerous pieces in private collections, which show astonishingly detailed ships with masts, sails, cabins and anchors.

The oldest examples date to a century ago but there is little recorded information on their function and cultural context. Green surmises that they would have been ceremonial hangings and were portrayals of maritime traders' vessels visiting Cambodia. She suggests that, based on similarities to other Asian weaving, they symbolised the "hereafter", a spiritual journey or a vehicle for expelling harmful influences.

Verification is unlikely, she adds, as production of these "fantastical cloths" ceased long ago. The pidan are similarly shrouded in mystery. Why, she asks, was the complex and expensive medium of silk-weft hol employed for this purpose? Who commissioned them? Who wove them? Were they for special occasions? "Answers to these questions," she concludes, "may prove to be irretrievable."

What remains, however, is an array of spectacular textiles. This study of their quintessential character and cultural relevance is timely as these artistic skills, almost destroyed in the 20th century, are being revived.

This is, therefore, an invaluable record of a unique heritage and an inspiration for a new generation of silk weavers.

Denise Heywood worked in Cambodia as a journalist for three years and is a lecturer for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies and the British Museum's Asian Art Course.

Traditional Textiles of Cambodia: Cultural Threads and Material Heritage

Author - Gillian Green
Publisher - River Books, Thailand, distributed by Thames and Hudson
Pages - 320
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 974 8225 39 9

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