Mat weaving CAMBODIA UNCOVERED

Textile and handicraft tours in Cambodia

 

See and support Khmer textiles and handicrafts

Cambodia's recent war history meant that many artisans were killed, died or fled the country. For the past 15 to 20 years, as the country has become more secure, a resurgence in the arts has been going on. The age old traditions of silk and cotton weaving have resumed in some areas with grandmothers or mothers teaching daughters and grand daughters, skills they learnt many years ago. In some cases it is daughters teaching their mother as some organisations have helped communities re-establish industries and entire generations missed the 'handing down' from the previous generation

Mat weaving, wickerware, pot making and stone carving have all resumed and it is possible to see villages where all households have now become involved in one of these art forms. It is mostly women primarily involved in these activities which allows them the opportunity of supplementing the family income whilst they work from home

Despite this resurgence, many modern materials are replacing these age old products. In addition, Cambodia has few international markets so many of the traditional arts and crafts native to Cambodia are in danger of dying out. Mats made from synthetic material can be mass produced by machine more easily than hand made mats. Machine driven silk and cotton weaving is now more common in surrounding countries. As inflation increases in Cambodia and markets are not available for Khmer to sell their products, it becomes increasinly more difficult for families to carry on their traditions. By visiting villages where these activities still flourish, you can help encourage those involved to continue with their art form.

Cambodia Uncovered visits many of the places mentioned below in their 'usual trips' however, for those interested, we can organise your entire trip seeing textiles and handicrafts if that is what your main interest is. Contact us for more information and to tell us what you are interested in

Silk
Silk has been a part of Khmer culture for centuries. Unfortunately the war destroyed this activity for a couple of generations. In addition, the many mulberry plantations which the silk worms are reliant upon were destroyed. As a consequence, Cambodia currently imports about 95% of their undyed silk from Vietnam and China to weave into 'Khmer silk'. This means prices are higher for those involved in silk weaving which has lead to some experienced weavers abandoning their skills and expertise for alternative forms of income

A few organisations have been able to introduce sericulture - silk worm production which has allowed some communities access to home grown silk. Mulberry leaves are the only food source for these worms and there is therefore a need to have these trees before Cambodia can increase their silk production. Stung Treng Women's Development Centre is one of these NGOs that has established mulberry cultivation and training of women in silk making and weaving. There are others in Banteay Meanchey, Takeoand Prey Veng

There are two major Cambodian silk weaving techniques - silk that has a design (Ikat) and the other called 'uneven twill'. The ikat design is a laborious method but gives wonderful results. Silk for the weft is first wrapped around a frame and patterns are made by tying off the silk in the areas where they want to have particular colours. The traditional method was to use banana leaf thread fibres however now they mostly use nylon. Once all ties have been made for this colour (the first often being white), the silk is removed from the frame and then dyed. It is then dried and remounted onto the frame and the process begins again with more ties being added where they want the colour just dyed to remain. This process continues again and again until the darkest colour has been dyed and the pattern is complete. Patterns are diverse and vary by region. There are many motifs including temples, Buddha with monks, Apsaras, animals such as elephants, lions and the naga, flowers, birds and other motifs inspired by the Angkor era. The skeins of patterned silk is then placed onto spindles with the weaver aware of the order in which they get woven - difficult work!

The loom needs to be prepared before weaving takes place. The warp, (the vertical strands), are wound onto the loom. These yarns need to have equal tension which is painstaking work so the entire process usually takes about a week to set up. Weaving then begins, which is quite slow when a pattern needs to be ensured

"Uneven twill" yields single or two-color fabrics. The weft and warp are different colours, giving the silk a type of sheen. In addition, one colour dominates on one side of the fabric and the other determines the colour on the reverse side. This method is much quicker to weave although small designs such as gold or silver strands may also be added which can slow down the process

Traditionally five colours were used for dyeing - red, yellow, green, blue and black. Natural products used to get these colours included

Nowadays, chemical dyes from Vietnam and Thailand are used however there has been a resurgence in the interest of natural dyes for both cotton and silk. Various organistions have experimented with natural products incuding mangosteen skin, turmeric, sappan wood, and even fruits like banana, coconut and jackfruit

For more information on silk weaving and the dyes used see Technique of Natural Dyeing and traditional pattern of Silk production in Cambodia

If you are keen to see silk being made, we can take you to an ikat silk village in Takeo as part of a Takeo day trip. You will see many women involved in tying the silk, dying and weaving. Other possible sites to visit where you will also be able to see silk worms, include Stung Treng Women's Development Centre or Phnom Srok in Banteay Meanchey. Visits to villages on the Mekhong may also include silk villages

Cotton weaving
Cotton has also played a significant role in Cambodian culture. In the past, cotton was woven at home using various plants however most of it is now imported and much of it is unfortunately not 100% cotton. As with silk, weaving is common in some villages where the ubiquitous 'kromah' is often made. The pattern for the kromah is usually checks with some villages having their own patterns incorporated into the checked design. Other villagers weave 'samputs' 3.5 m lengths which are used to make a suit for women - traditional top and skirt. These are often one colour but designs may be incorporated (can be silver, gold or other colours)
As with silk, some organisations have experimented with natural dyeing techniques and these products are now available in various markets and shops
Cambodia Uncovered can take you to see cotton weaving in various villages along the Mekhong or to the Kampot Technical College where they have been experimenting with natural dyes

Mat weaving
Mat weaving is common all throughout Cambodia. The style and size of the mat is dependent on the type of reeds, grass or trees grown in the area. Near Phnom Penh in Kandal province, there are numerous villages that grow the grass reeds used in their colourful mat weaving. It is a lengthy process which takes a few months before one is able to use or sell their mat. The grass is grown during the dry season months in much the same way as rice is grown i.e. seeds are first planted - often close to their homes and when seedlings are tall enough, they are transplanted into their rice field (rice is grown in the wet season). They grow the plants in clumps just like they grow their rice. After a few months, they are harvested, washed, flowers are trimmed and then the stem is sliced into 5 pieces. The four outer slices are dried and used for the mat and the inner, softer core of the plant is used in place of string to bind together vegetables, flowers or other goods. All sliced pieces are left to dry in the sun before the outer slices are dyed - usually in bright and bold colours

The warp then needs to be strung. Jute is made by the villages to use as the warp. These plants are also usually in close proximity to their homes and harvested, dried and spun to make the jute. Looms are set up on the floor under the house. The process until this time takes quite a few months. From there on, the mat weaving then begins with 2 people involved in the mat weaving. One person threads the dyed pieces (keeping count of how many colours of each is inserted) whilst the other controls the pattern and the tightness of the weave. It takes two persons a few hours to weave each mat. Thereafter, the edges are tied off or in some villages, material edging is sewn to tidy up the edges

The villages each have their own unique design and colours which is usually very distinctive. You can watch the villagers transplant, cut and prepare the grass depending on the time of the year but weaving is often done all year round by families who have grown enough grass to keep them busy for the entire year. The best time to see the entire process of weaving is from January to May however weaving is possible all year round and some houses may still be dyeing throughout the year

In Svay Rieng, a very different type of mat is woven. Here the grass used is much thinner and unlike Kandal mats, is woven by just one person. The grass is left in its natural colour rather than dyed however for those with years of experience, they are able to weave in various patterns to improve the sale price. These mats are commonly found for sale in markets and are used to cover the floor at temples, during family parties, to sleep on etc

In Battambang area, the reeds are slightly different to those found in Kandal. They are more 'primitive' and shorter than others so the mats tend to be smaller and 'more rustic'. They are woven on a loom and used as mats or occasionally for wall coverings

Sugar palm leaf mats
The leaf of the sugar palm is made into matting or baskets. The leaf is also made into rooves and wall coverings in rural areas. They last about a year or two before having to be replaced when used like this

Rattan mats
In the north and north west of Cambodia, rattan is found and used by locals to make furniture, baskets, mats and other household items. The mats are very sturdy (and heavy) with a long life span. They can be found for sale at some markets

Water hyacinth
Water hyacinth is an environmental disaster in Cambodia. It was introduced from South America and has taken over the waterways in many South East Asian rivers and streams. In Cambodia, the Tonle Sap lake now has many areas where hyacinth has taken over. Indeed some waterways are now choked up that one cannot travel through the water. Some resourceful people have now started to use the stems to weave hammocks, mats, baskets and furniture. Unfortunately the rate of use is outweighed by the speed in which this plant grows, but hopefully other ways of using it will be developed

Wickerware and Basket Weaving
Wickerware and basket weaving is common in Cambodia and various materials are used including rattan, sugar palm and nipah palm fronds. Khmer always use the local endemic plants from their area and adapt them to their needs. Palm and Nipah fronds are used also to make rooves and walls of housing

Stone carving
Stone carving in Cambodia dates back centuries which is obvious by having Angkor Wat as a masterpiece of the Khmer Empire. Sandstone and soap stone are commonly used and one can see the artisans carving their works on the roadside near Pursat, Banteay Meanchey and Kampong Thom. Cambodia Uncovered can take you to these places where you can see the slow, painstaking work

Silversmiths
Silversmiths have been making their craft for centuries however they have now diversified and make ornaments, bowls and other souvenirs from not only silver, but often a mixture of nickel and silver as well as in more recent times, copper. Only a few villages are involved in this activity and all are close to the former royal capital of Oudong, north of Phnom Penh. Many houses practise this art as their major source of income and often many families are involved in this cottage industry
One can see the moulding of silver into the shapes of various animals, fruit or vegetables, the method of applying patterns and adding appendages such as elephant trunks or tusks etc. Even if you are not interested in buying such pieces, it is worth witnessing this ancient art form. Similar pieces can be seen at many markets throughout Cambodia

Pots
Earthenware pots are made in many parts of Cambodia with often different designs according to the region. The most famous site for pot making is Kampong Chhnang - indeed the name means 'port of the pots'. Pots have been made in Kampong Chhnang for hundreds of years and they are famous around Cambodia. Like other artistic pursuits, it suffered under the Khmer Rouge and only in the past 20 years have they revitalised their craft. Almost all households in some villages make some sort of pot, charcoal stove or other items made of the red clay. They are mostly made by being banged into shape however some people now use a foot-spun wheel. They are almost always unpainted but they are often decorated with various designs. There is now a wide variety of items made not just pots including light shades, vases, mosquito burner holders and other small ornaments. Firing is done in an open fire by burning coconut husks, rice husks or other natural products
A trip to these villages is fascinating for those interested in pottery

There are other villages in other parts of Cambodia that also make pots. One of these is on the road to Kep and if you take our tour to Takeo then Kep, you will be able to stop to see their designs and methods. It is somewhat different to Kampong Chhnang however no less fascinating

For trips to any of these places, be sure to ask us when you contact us. We are very happy to take you to places that are of interest to you

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