Although Siem Reap, Cambodia, is almost exclusively known for Angkor Wat temples, there is certainly plenty else worth exploring. Since I’m a textile junky, we toured a silk factory outside Siem Reap. The factory was built as a part of project aimed at “providing professional skills for communities with limited educational opportunities” as well as reviving Khmer cultural heritage. The women who work there make a good living wage and they don’t have to move away from their home towns to a city for a paying job, so the positions are sought after. The factory has a training program that every woman must go through for 6 months wherein they learn the entire silk making process, from worm to weaving. After completing their training, they can decide which job they prefer to be hired for.
Silk worms only eat mulberry leaves so next to the factory there is a big field growing mulberries over 5 of the 8 hectares of the factory. Fresh leaves are picked and fed to the worms every morning and evening.
The worms go through their lifecycle grown in trays, protected from ants by a moat around the building.
After the worms spin their cocoons, they are killed so that the casing remains intact as it is spun from a single silk thread and if the worm is allowed to hatch it breaks through the thread. The cocoons are yellow, unlike the white cocoons you see in China, because of the strain of worm that grows in Cambodia. The yellow coloring fades quickly. Each cocoon has two types of silk – the coarser outer silk and the finer inner silk.
The cocoons are dropped into boiling water and the coarse silk is spun using a wood and metal tool to pick up many strands coming from different cocoons and to keep them raveling evenly to create a smooth fiber.
The individual strands of the inner silk are especially fine so ~25 cocoons are spun into a single thread of silk to make the finest (and most expensive) silk.
While there are machines that can fulfill the roles that the women play in the silk production process, everything is intentionally done manually because, as I mentioned before, a primary goal of the organization is to provide jobs for local people, not just to make money.
The hanks of silk are bleached before they are dyed other colors. This is a hank of the coarser outer silk.
This woman was winding thread onto bobbins (probably not the right term) that are used to weave the silk scarves. Bicycle wheels have replaced traditional wheels as the current mechanism of choice.
Each woman has her own loom and sets it up for her own design. It takes an entire day to set up the loom and several more to weave a scarf. The silk woven there was some of the most beautiful that I have seen, and certainly worthy of the expensive gift shop prices both for its quality and for its social mission.
The factory also had a little exhibit of traditional Cambodian textiles and, of course, I had to photograph every single piece. The textile in the top center (as well as the one being woven in the first photo in thes post) is an example of Hol Lboeuk, a technique where weft ikat (different from the warp ikat I learned about in Bali, the weft yarn is dyed before weaving, not the warp) is combined with a brocade weaving pattern.
While I didn’t buy anything at the silk factory, I did buy a few handmade scarves (both cotton and silk) while in Cambodia. Very close to the Preah Ko temple (one of the temples you’ll see if you are touring around Angkor Wat) is an orphanage called Little Angels. They teach the orphans traditional Khmer arts such as weaving, stone and wood carving, and leather tooling and the works of art are sold to benefit the orphanage.