On the textile trail around Siem Reap, Cambodia

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At Samatoa Lotus Textiles, microfibers are extracted from lotus stems by hand, one of the labor-intensive steps in producing luxury fabric.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 11th post in the series about our experiences.

We were on foot exploring the downtown area of Siem Reap when we noted that we were repeatedly seeing glass bottles filled with a pineapple-yellow liquid, stacked in rows, often in a metal rack. Some bottles retained labels of what they had previously contained, such as Johnnie Walker Scotch or other alcoholic beverages.

The bottles were generally dirty and obviously had been refilled more than once. But what was inside? Certainly nothing potable for human consumption.

We asked our guide, Tony, that very question the second morning of our temple touring as we were en route to Banteay Srei (see previous post).

“Petrol,” he said, and added that he is frequently asked this question.

That made perfect sense. Out in the countryside, we saw few gas stations, but did observe many of the same bottle racks as we’d seen in town.

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Note the yellow bottles behind the woman who is filling up the gas tank of Reab’s tuk-tuk.

On our third day of touring rural Cambodia, we had a chance to see a fill-up with our driver, Reab, as we paid for the gasoline for his tuk-tuk as he took us around on our textile tour.

Susan is a member of a weavers’ guild in Florida. A woman who had recently been to Cambodia gave a presentation to Susan’s group, and Susan gleaned enough information on a possible guide and route to plan our day out.

Susan set up our excursion with Reab via his Facebook page. His written English turned out to be better than his verbal skills, but he was a careful driver and we got to our five venues without incident. Reab had a tuk-tuk totaling accident in the weeks before our arrival, injuring his wrist. Susan kept tabs on his health and efforts to get a replacement vehicle in the days leading up to our meeting.

My favorite stop of our textile trail was off the beaten path, as in no other visitors there when we were and no admission fee. It was also the most unusual and interesting. In other Asian countries (and Turkey), I’ve seen many demonstrations explaining how silk is produced, from farming worms to finished products.

But I’d never visited a lotus farm, where thick stems are the stars in a labor-intensive process that transforms 100-percent organic microfibers into stain-resistant, fast-drying luxury clothing and other textiles.

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A field of lotus plants grows behind Samatoa Lotus Textiles. The company also draws from fields in other locations.

With the exception of the man out back spraying the heavenly beautiful lotus pond, all the workers were women.

The lotus flower is a sacred symbol in Cambodian and other cultures. It signifies purity, wisdom and spirituality, and as such was the obvious choice for artisans to carve as decorations into the Angkor temples. The pedestals that the divinities sit on are often lotus flowers, and the floral shape is also depicted in temple finials.

Textile production is just one of the lotus plant’s many uses. It has medicinal and cosmetic applications, and can be made into tea. In our cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we prepared a fried rice dish studded with lotus seeds. For presentation, the rice was encased in pliable green lotus leaves and accented with the dark electric pink petals. I’ll be writing about the cooking class and our visit to the market in HCMC in a future post.

According to the signage, and the Samatoa company website, it takes more than 40,000 stems to produce 3,000 meters of thread for one meter of lotus fabric (or 3,280 yards of thread for 3.3 feet of cloth). An experienced weaver can produce about one meter of cloth per day.

Grasping a bunch of stems in her right hand, one of the seated women broke off a lengthy section with her left hand and in the same motion pulled the microfibers from the plant, stringing them onto a low wooden table positioned in front of her. This movement was repeated with machine-like precision until the stems were spent and the artisan reached for a new supply. (Some of the women were using knives to cut the stems.)

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Freshly dyed, nearly sheer fabric made from lotus fiber being hung to dry.

Other women were working on the next phases of production, such as spinning the fiber into thread, weaving or hanging newly dyed pieces of the delicate fabric to dry.

Samatoa Lotus Textiles was founded in 2003 as a fair-trade and eco-friendly company by a French telecommunications engineer named Awen Delaval. Several years passed before the company was able to stabilize thread production — the fiber is more fragile than silk — and overcome weaving challenges.

Needless to say, anything that requires so much time and effort to produce is going to be expensive. Ordering via the website, one meter of lotus fabric costs $318, with an average jacket requiring four meters. So a custom-made garment can easily cost thousands of dollars. Samatoa also sells silk-blended fabrics.

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Cambodian ikat silk being woven at one of the workshops of the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles. A child is asleep in the blue hammock in the background.

Earlier in the day, at the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles, we also saw women weaving and spinning, but here the workshop was employing silk. IKTT celebrates the revival of an ancient Khmer tradition that was nearly lost due to the years of war and the destruction of mulberry trees, a silkworm’s favorite food, and other natural resources.

Ikat fabric dates to at least the time of the Khmer kingdoms (ninth to 13th centuries). Some decorative figures illustrated in stone at the Angkor temples are clad in flowing cloth garments.

Ikat itself refers to the warp or weft threads (sometimes both) being tie-dyed before being woven into cloth. The weft threads are mounted crosswise on a loom. The warp threads go over and under them in weaving.

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One golden silkworm cocoon can produce about 300 meters (about 328 yards) of silk. Golden silkworms are native to Cambodia.

The person instrumental in IKTT’s story is Kikuo Morimoto, originally from Kyoto, Japan. A trained natural dye expert, he is also a master of kimono painting. He encountered the Khmer silk tradition while working in refugee camps in Thailand, according to the IKTT website.

Morimoto, a “silk fanatic,” traveled around rural Cambodia in the mid-1990s, seeking out the few villagers who retained knowledge of the traditional ways. He reintroduced golden silkworm farming to villagers, the first step in revitalizing the weaving industry, and their road to a better future.

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A pattern emerges on a lap loom at IKTT.

Some women were weaving on large floor looms, but others were seated on patterned mats on the concrete floor with small looms across their lap. Several children were scampering among the workers in this multi-generational space.

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Finished IKTT textiles are arrayed around a scale model of one of the Angkor temples in the IKTT showroom.

IKTT has a lovely showroom upstairs from the workshop, selling a variety of brightly colored, high-quality textiles.

Our first stop of the day was at Les Chantiers Écoles, a school that teaches artisanal skills to impoverished young people. Students are trained in creating lacquerware, silk weaving, painting on silk, stone carving and wood carving. It was also the most commercial operation that we visited.

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Artisans paint on silk at Les Chantiers Ecoles, a school that teaches traditional Cambodia crafts.

The upscale showroom is a one-stop opportunity for visitors who don’t have the time or inclination to seek out smaller workshops. Prices were definitely not a bargain. If you’re looking for a souvenir, try one of the many shops or markets in town, where merchants are more open to good-natured haggling.

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White silk and golden silk threads are slowly extracted from cocoons at the Angkor Silk Farm.

Les Chantiers Écoles also runs the Angkor Silk Farm, where visitors can see the multistep process from worm cultivation to weaving. A smaller showroom is onsite as well. A free shuttle goes between the two facilities twice a day (9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; booking the shuttle by phone or website is recommended).

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Silk weaving in progress at the Angkor Silk Farm.

We visited the silkworm farm with Reab. At both facilities we had a young man show us around, and the tours were probably under 15 minutes each, after which we wandered around by ourselves to watch the women weaving on floor looms. They facilities were the only places where the guide suggested rather insistently that we tip him. We declined.

Our final stop was the Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Center. The goal here is much like Les Chantiers Écoles: a better life through learning a traditional craft.

We must have visited on an off day. Very few staff were around and no demonstrations were going on. In that there wasn’t much to see, we didn’t tarry long.

Quick reference: Samatoa Lotus Textiles: http://samatoa.lotus-flower-fabric.com

Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles: www.ikttearth.org

Les Chantiers Écoles (Artisans Angkor) www.artisansdangkor.com

Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Center: http://www.khmerceramics.com

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