Reviving Cambodia’s pride: Khmer golden silk

Article updated on April 20, 2022
Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

I could harldy be further from the haute couture stores of Avenue Montaigne or Rue Saint Honoré in Paris, the stronghold of fashion since the 16th century… Still, the finest silk pieces I have ever seen are sliding through my fingers and I feel their soft and delicate textures. The shiny fabrics reflect the light delicately. The relief of the silk gives it an unexpected depth. I am in rural Cambodia a stone’s throw from the temples of Angkor where this rare Khmer silk was made, exclusively for the king: “It took more than 10 years of research, and trial and error to revive the century-old forgotten techniques of silk weaving of the Khmers!” says Sophea Peach, the founder of Golden Silk, and it all started with the devata‘s sculpture of Angkor… Let me show you…”

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Unexpectedly, Sophea’s husband, Patrick Gourlay, hands me a pair of 3D glasses. I am closely studying the clothes a sensual woman wears on a human-sized 3D photo of a 12th century Khmer sculpture from the temples of Angkor. This devata is dressed with fabrics of different textures, and more specifically, a piece of cloth around her hips that shows a delicate relief. “This is how we found out that during the golden age of Angkor, the Khmers had very sophisticated weaving techniques to design the finest fabrics in golden silk”, Patrick explains. Indeed, the fine piece of silk I am holding in my hands shows the same 3D texture: I am amazed! “The little that had not been forgotten was destroyed and lost under the Khmer Rouge regime. A few local farmers succeeded in preserving some yellow silkworms. It took us 10 years to open: we researched sculptures, books, interviewed weavers, tried, failed, and tried again. Today, we employ 100 Cambodians, mostly women with no proper education. Others come from the Sovannophoum Komar orphanage I founded in 1992. They are all proudly making these fabrics and a living of their own” Sophea details with modesty.

Sophea can be proud. Nicknamed Mother Theresa of Cambodia by the late king Sihanouk, she has spent years working at the Site B refugee camp in Thailand, and supporting the Cambodians who were not as lucky as her during the Khmer Rouge regime. Her family fled to France where she received an excellent education. She was about to get married to Patrick, a banker in Paris, but she knew she had to go back to Cambodia to support the less fortunate. She planned on staying for six months. It was in 1988. Today, she is still here in Cambodia, and Patrick has moved here as well.

Working in camps was necessary in the aftermath of such a genocide, Sophea realized after spending many years helping refugees, but this is not a long-term solution. Pushed by the desire to rebuild the prestige of the Khmer culture with the ultimate goal of empowering Cambodians, Sophea established Golden Silk in 2002.

Out of the showroom, we walk amongst mulberry trees with Patrick in the heat of the dry season. “The life cycle of the yellow silkworms lasts for a month and a half”, Patrick describes. It all starts with the egg… or the butterfly…

In an enclosure, long butterflies with short wings are kept. Their life span is only three days and females produce 150 eggs on average. The eggs are put on a newspaper for about 10 days, until they hatch. The feeding process of the tiny caterpillars starts: fed four times a day exclusively with mulberry leaves from the 12-hectare (30 acres) organic plantation, each worm eats 4 kilograms (9 pounds) of leaves in 25 days, multiplying its weight by 8,000! Worms literally chew their way through the handpicked leaves that are evenly spread on them. This will give them enough energy to produce their precious golden-coloured cocoons they will enclose themselves into. At first, the cocoon fibre is coarse as the young worm needs to learn how to control the amount of matter. Then, about half way, the cocoon is produced more regularly and this part will lead to the finest and highest quality golden silk. After about five days, most of the cocoons are taken to the next stage to be transformed into silk, and a few are put in the butterfly enclosure in order to start a new cycle. Males are longer than females and this shows at the cocoon stage: some male and female cocoons are selected for the breeding. Butterflies cut the cocoon that cannot be used to produce silk anymore and have one day to mate.

Summing it up, 1 ton of leaves (1,000 kg or 2,200 lb) leads to 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of cocoons, leading to 5,8 kilograms (12.8 pounds) of  raw silk that is washed to eventually produce about 4  kilograms (8.8 pounds) of degumming silk! This is a labour-intensive process to understate it…

We get out of the worm station to enter the spinning section. Three finely dressed young Cambodian women are seated on low wooden stools. In front of them, vapour rises out of bubbling metal bowls that fill the air with a light undefinable odour. They quietly spin shiny threads of delicate silk from the cocoons that are being boiled to kill the worm and make the silk workable. They steadily rotate a wheel to transfer the strands of warm and wet silk onto a frame. The silk known in the West, the most commonly used, is white silk. It has a long cocoon of which long threads can be made relatively easily. On the other hand, the Cambodian yellow silkworms produce a smaller cocoon, making it way more labour-intensive to get a thread and leading to yields that are about 10 times lower. The youngest woman interrupts her spinning: because of the difference in density between the first half of the cocoon and the second half, she is now spinning the finer silk separately in order to differentiate the highest quality silk.

Irregularities on the silk are eliminated by hand and sizes and colours of threads are sorted out: another young woman shows the assurance and speed of a highly-skilled professional and her focus is extreme. When there is enough of the same colour and size, the actual spinning can start. Contrary to the white silk, this process cannot be mechanized.

Slightly twisted by hand to make the fibre stronger, the threads are formed, washed and hung to dry. Softer and clearer in colour, the shiny silk threads are ivory and a trained eye is required to distinguish the slight colour differences that may affect the dyeing.

It is now time to choose a pattern and a size for the fabric to be made. In the next station, the silk is arranged on a wooden frame and the pattern takes shape with colourful pieces of plastics. Patrick explains the process: “It is not uncommon to work for eight months wrapping the same piece. Different colours of plastics are used and once the wrapping is completed, the frame will be soaked in a colour bath to be dyed. Based on the colour to be obtained on the silk, a specific colour of wrappers will be unknotted, and the frame will be dyed again, and so on and so forth until the appropriate colours are obtained reproducing the original pattern.” After our little experience of a dyeing workshop, I interject surprised: “but the silk is not woven yet”. Indeed, this is the next step: from the wooden frame, the thread is spun again and brought to the loom. The loom is set up for the exact same size of fabric so that the thread is woven and the colours fall in place to create the chosen pattern. I am merely puzzled at the extreme accuracy and dedication that are required to achieve what connoisseurs call ikat.

I see the grin on Patrick’s face, and I am guessing he has something else to show us. Walking towards another facility, he reminds us that 3D silk patterns were a lost skill, and it is thanks to studying the sculptures of the royal palace that Sophea decided to recreate it in original Cambodian style. Another team of three women is describing arabesques with their arms as they are setting up a special loom used for 3D weaving. They are extremely focused even though the atmosphere is cheerful. The process is very delicate and requires the utmost precision and discipline. I cannot apprehend the way they are working with all these horizontal and vertical threads that they are treating one by one to ensure they are in the correct position before the weaving starts. In the next room, like a wizard carefully noting down the recipe of her new potion, an older woman is scribbling indecipherable signs on a notebook. This is the recipe for setting up the loom in order to obtain the specific 3D pattern. “In 2000, there were about 10,000 weavers in Cambodia. Today, only 300 weavers are left. We want to salvage this know-how and develop it by reviving such techniques” Patrick explains.

Back in the showroom, I look at every piece differently. Their beauty and fineness have not changed, but understanding the process better, I realize the dedication it takes to produce the finest silk of all, the Khmer golden silk, and to weave it into unique elegant scarves, shawls, throws or royal brocatelle. Sophea Peach has made Khmer golden silk a reality here, on the mulberry tree plantation and Preservation Centre of Golden Silk, not only reviving a century-old tradition, but above all, giving pride and a job to the Cambodian communities she works with regularly visited by by the crème de la crème of haute couture…

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7 thoughts on “Reviving Cambodia’s pride: Khmer golden silk

  1. You might recall in one of your posts we commented about our journey to Siem Reap too. And where we visited a local artisan’s school too. Cannot recall where it was. Hopefully the younger generations will keep this tradition!

  2. absolutely loved your blog. Traditional weaving is facing similar decay even in Indian rural sectors too. Such a rich history of techniques this industry has. I bought few meters of silk fabric while traveling in Vietnam. They claimed it to be from the soil of Cambodia. what fine finesse! But then, silk everywhere is a sign of luxury. 🙂

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