As far back as historical records can show, looms have been part of the scenery in the Cambodian countryside, set up among chickens and water jars outside houses.
For generations, women have been weaving intricate patterns based on highly complex methods. One technique commonly used is “hol,” which consists of dying the pattern on silk thread before weaving, said Gillian Green, author of the just-released book “Traditional Textiles of Cambodia.”
Another technique produces silk fabric that is one color on one side and a different color on the other. This “uneven twill” technique involves weaving with three threads so that color of one thread dominates on one side of the fabric, while the two others determine the color on the reverse side, Green said.
“I don’t think the weavers themselves realize how amazing it is what they do,” she said.
“For them, it’s like breathing—they learn it on their mothers’ knees. It’s is very, very unbelievably complicated, and yet they just do it.”
When and why women have adopted the uneven twill technique, unique to Cambodian weavers, remains a mystery. However, it already was in use 150 years ago, Green said.
In 1856, the “Gift of Mutual Respect” sent by Thailand (then called Siam) to then US president Franklin Pierce included three pieces of silk fabric done in uneven-twill—which had to have been produced by Cambodians, Green said.
Even though designs and techniques live only in the memory of weavers, the patterns and techniques of today are the same as the ones used in the 19th century, she said.
Patterns for a sampot (a piece of cloth) to wrap around one’s hips can be classified into four categories—lattice grids, realistic or abstract nak (mythical serpent), small flowers and stars and spots—but variations abound, said Green. Her 320-page book illustrates this with more than 300 color photos.
On one woman’s sampot skirt, dating from the first half of the 20th century, a lattice of hooked ferns in diamond shape surrounds stylized buds and flowers.
Another sampot made after World War II reproduces the earlier design but in a less compact pattern; the lattice is made of dotted lines with a central diamond, and the rows of stylized flowers, less geometric in style, alternate with rows of diamond shapes.
Despite the variations, general rules still apply. Motifs for head cloths usually feature stars or flowers in the center and uninterrupted borders framing the central section. Borders for a sampot tend to follow the length of the fabric, which ends with a band of plain fabric.
In spite of this continuity since the mid-19th century, very little is known of Cambodia’s textile traditions and techniques, said Green. In addition, the country has no collection of ancient textiles that would make a study possible, she added.
The lack of data is one of the difficulties Green faced when she started researching Cambodian textiles 10 years ago.
During her many trips to northern Thailand in the late 1980s in search of collectible fabrics for her mother’s gallery in Sydney, she had noticed a marked difference between Cambodian, Thai and Laotian textiles.
After a visit to Cambodia in 1993, Green decided to investigate. A bio-chemist by profession, she enrolled in art history at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, in 1997 to pursue a masters degree in Cambodian textiles. Green completed her thesis in 1999. A year later, she embarked on additional research and writing to turn it into a book.
In an attempt to trace the history of weaving, Green tried to find the roots of Cambodian words for textiles and techniques. Suppya Bru-Nut, an ancient-Khmer expert, helped her with this task for the Angkorian era.
Technical terms, however, don’t appear in stone inscriptions—the only written records left for that period—and textiles named in the texts are unknown today, said Bru-Nut. Moreover, names of today’s fabric are absent, she said.
“We don’t know whether those [Angkorian] textiles have disappeared or whether names for fabric have just changed,” Bru-Nut said.
Official records carved in stone allude to textiles used to trade land and slaves, she said.
They also mention fabric used to cover sculptures—in Angkor times, statues of divinities were dressed in the richest of fabric, and sometimes were even protected from insects by mosquito nets, Bru-Nut said.
Clothing details—down to pleats in the fabric and patterns in the textile—also appear on stone sculptures and bas-reliefs of monuments, Green said.
Zhou Daguan, the Chinese diplomat who wrote an account of his visit to Angkor in the 13th century, left hardly any information on the weaving trade in Cambodia, except for mentioning the backstrap looms that women stretched between their waists and legs, she said.
After the Angkor period, visitors to the country would comment on Cambodian clothes, but not on weaving, Green said.
In 1879, Etienne Aymonier, a specialist in ancient stone inscriptions, wrote that “each dwelling in Cambodia has its own weaving frame and all the women take great pride in knowing how to use it in their spare time.”
At the time, the French understood the importance of this trade in the country, but no study on weaving patterns and techniques was conducted, Green said.
In the 20th century, some information was supplied by a few French researchers—such as Jean Stoeckel in the 1920s, Jean Delvert and Eveline Poree-Maspero in the 1950s, and Bernard Dupaigne in the 1960s—even though they approached weaving from a larger economic and social context, Green said.
Still, because of Stoeckel’s study, it is known that many of the textiles of the 1920s are still made today, such as damask silk cloth and silk woven with metallic thread, she said.
Poree-Maspero noted in the 1950s that techniques to make the finest pieces were family secrets. This was still the case in 1995, when Morimoto Kikuo conducted a survey on silk production and marketing on behalf of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said Green.
Poree-Maspero noted that Pidans— woven paintings on Buddhist themes designed for pagodas— were the specialty of one village, Ang Kep Bok in Takeo province; and that Prep Reing village in Kandal province was noted for its hangings on ship motifs, Green said.
Produced during a 50-year period that ended around 1926, those woven hangings feature ships, either clearly or in symbolic form, and are surrounded by marine life—from crabs and turtles, to sharks and seahorses, she said.
Birds, dragons and a tree of life, which represents the link between the human world and the underworld, also figure in the scenes, Green said.
Today, their purpose is unclear, she said.
“However, the weaver’s supreme mastery of the hol technique enabling these vibrant images to be portrayed, and the commitment involved in their production attests to a once important role or roles in Cambodian life,” Green wrote in her book.
In “Traditional Textiles of Cambodia,” weaving is presented both as an art and a science.
Although Green tries to describe processes as simply as possible, she cannot avoid giving basic technical details to explain the complexity of the work or the characteristics that set Cambodian weaving apart from others.
However, she has included a section on the weaving process, complete with a description of Cambodian weaving tools; a glossary of weaving technical terms; and a glossary of Khmer weaving words written in Roman letters and in Khmer script, with English-language descriptions.
The book, which was published by River Books in Bangkok, also contains a chapter on fabric used today for Cambodian clothes, and a section on hill tribe textiles.
“Traditional Textiles of Cambodia” required five trips to Cambodia, said Green.
Since she never stopped researching while she was writing, it took her more than two years to complete. “I had to rewrite the chapter on Pidan 28 times,” she said.
Born in South Africa, Green immigrated to Australia when she was 18 years old. She went to England in the mid-1960s to pursue post-graduate studies in bio-chemistry. She later married and raised her two daughters in that country. In 1988, she returned to Australia where she now lives.