A deeper look at Cambodian textiles

As a newer volunteer with Collective Humanity, I am honored and very excited to explore one of my favorite subjects, Textiles!  I know textiles may not always seem the most exciting and energizing topics, but it can visually represent so much about a culture and people. It is no surprise then why I LOVE how Collective Humanity showcases exceptional hand-crafted products made from Cambodian textiles.

While I am sure I could write novels on all the different textiles and methods, I focused my attention on the fascinating history and process of Cambodian silk weaving. I want to share what I have learned about the history, process, and use of silk in Cambodia based on the wonderful book On the Golden Silk Trails.

According to On the Golden Silk Trails, silk weaving is believed to have been brought to Cambodia during the 13th century. The process of raising and breeding silk worms (known as sericulture) as well as silk weaving is a very intricate and an important process traditionally done by the women. 

Mothers would pass down these elaborate techniques and traditions to their daughters. When the mother’s thought the daughter was ready for the responsibility of raising a silk worm and weaving the silk on her own, “around 12 years old”, she would oversee her own silk process. Similarly, Collective Humanity empowers women to showcase their craft and pass on time honored traditions.

Silk comes from silk worms which exclusively eat mulberry plants. When raising silk worms, they are placed on a bed of mulberry leaves that is changed regularly. When the silk worm is ready to form a cocoon, it will spin one over three to four days. These cocoons are then carefully collected and unraveled in hot water to prepare the silk. The silk processing takes several days and involves several steps to clean and prep the yarn for dyeing. The weaving loom also takes several days to set up and is traditionally made with bamboo. Long yarns are stretched across the loom creating the “warp” portion of the fabric. Yarns are then woven under and over these warp fibers to create the textile either by hand or a power loom. The woven silk fabrics are then used to create beautiful pieces of traditional apparel such as the sarong and home textiles. While not currently displaying silk products, Collective Humanity home textile products are woven in a similar process with ancient techniques. Every textile involves a lot of skill, technique, and creativity and results in one of a kind pieces. 

The silk industry faced many challenges including during the Khmer Rouge regime where many villages were destroyed. Remaining mulberry plantations needed to be reallocated to agriculture during the war. 

By the 1990’s sericulture was dwindling and remained as small-scale operations in a few villages. To add to the difficulty of maintaining sericulture, the industry was lacking access to the market making it less profitable. 

By the mid-1990’s the weavers received support from the government of Cambodia and Agence Francaise de Developpement to revitalize this important industry. The weavers were able to organize associations to collectively fill larger orders and gain access to the market. The Cambodian silk industry has since expanded and was noted to now have “over one-hundred villages producing silk.” Supporting local industries expand and earn a living wage is at the core of Collective Humanity. Each product provides a direct link to the dedication, skill, and heart of the local artisan weavers. Collective Humanity recognizes and honors this link by providing women access to the global market and living wages.

I am continually amazed at how this industry has grown and its contribution to Cambodian society. I have certainly grown in my appreciation the Cambodian silk industry and how it is produced. The time, dedication, and attention to detail needed to produce such beautiful silk is nothing short of amazing. When I think of Cambodian textiles, I think of dedication, patience, resiliency, and beauty.  

Collective Humanity’s artisans specialize in modern cotton textiles, while remaining mindful of traditional techniques, to create beautiful Cambodian hand-woven products. These products are made with the people, culture, and environment in mind striving to blend sustainable techniques and modern design. My hope is that this has provided some insight and sparked some curiosity into the fascinating textiles of Cambodia.

Randi Ponce