Silkweaver’s Life

Generations Thrive Together in Complex, Traditional Trade

trapeang tea village, Takeo Province – Nearly every house in this village of 134 families sits atop a treasure. Not gold or jewels, although the colors are as rich, but something even more rare.

The women of Trapeang Tea are traditional silk weavers, plying their ancient trade on looms set up in the cool shade beneath their wooden stilt houses here.

Muted thumps punctuate the hot drowsy air of afternoon, a    languorous, sporadic sound like the first few kernels of corn to pop. It’s the sound of a single thread being driven home, and it comes from all directions.

“A machine can’t do this,’’ says Tou Yot, as she lines up her next thread. “A machine does not have eyes.’’ With the deliberation of long practice, she glances left, and then right, to see that the thread lines up where it should.

It is perfect, and she thumps it home.

Tou Yot, 58, is weaving silk for a traditional skirt in the ikat technique that she learned from her mother, who learned it from her mother and so on back into time.

Ikat is a complex art, in which the silk threads are first met­iculously tie-dyed in up to four  colors and then woven into a figured pattern.

It is expert work, and the finished, four-meter length of stout, close-woven silk will sell for as much as $100. A collector’s item, the dealers will say. A work of art, one of a kind.

It is work of staggering precision.

The piece Tou Yot is weaving—a dark, rich and intricate pattern of small golden diamonds shot with royal blue on a burgundy background—began as plain white silk thread.

The threads are first wrapped into two-meter skeins of about 20 strands and strung on a frame. Then each skein is tightly tied at intervals with thin plastic strips, following a master pattern.

When the skein goes into the first dye bath, the tight plastic bands prevent the dye from reaching the silk beneath, while the exposed silk is colored.

The silk is dried, the plastic cut away and the whole process is repeated with different sections of thread wrapped or uncovered then dipped into different colors of dye.

A single skein may be dyed as many as four times. The result is a series of silk threads than can change color every sixteenth of an inch in precisely measured patterns. It is these spark­ling threads that Tou Yot so carefully assembles into a finished work. An ikat piece can require threads dyed in a dozen or more different patterns, and it takes the eye and hand of a master to weave them in the proper order.

The dyed threads are wound on slender wooden spindles. To the untrained eye they are a confusing jumble of brilliant color, but in fact each represents a subtly different line in the pattern.

Tou Yot works stead­ily, moving smooth­ly from one segment of a pattern to the next, razoring threads neatly as she switches to a new set of spindles.

While nearly every house has at least one loom, many have two, three or even four. Next to Tou Yot’s wine-colored ikat piece is a second loom, where a graceful floral design in celery, violet and peach is growing against an orange-gold background.

She has four daughters, and all of them can weave. The two looms can each turn out a four-meter piece every 10 days, or about six per month. It is enough to support the household, she says.

“We have no need to ask the commune chief for help,’’ she says with quiet pride. “We can support ourselves. We are not beggars.’’

In fact, says her husband Ung Kres, a former commune chief, “The standard of living in this village is higher than in surrounding villages, due to the silk.’’ In the days before the Khmer Rouge, he says, “most families in this village were rich.’’

But the people here like the weavers’ life for more than the money. True, the town has an air of quiet prosperity, with its roomy, comfortable houses and relaxed air.

But the weavers like being able to set their own hours, to take a break for a chat or to chastise a child or start the rice cooking. They can rig a hammock next to the loom for a sleeping baby.

If they want to work hard, they can earn a lot of money. If they don’t need so much, they don’t have to push. It is their choice, not some foreman’s.

Friends, relatives, co-workers—it’s all one seamless whole. Children scuttle between houses carrying spools of silk, the way children in other countries might be sent to borrow a cup of sugar.

“Parents don’t want their daughters to go to town and work in the factories,’’ says Ung Kres. “Here, we can control our daughters pretty well.’’

A few houses away lives his wife’s sister, Tou Hang. She has four daughters and four looms, and one of her girls spent two years working in a Phnom Penh garment factory, sewing underwear.

It wasn’t awful, says the daughter, Chhin Sokhoeun, and she liked the friends she made. But the hours were inflexible and the money was no better. “Here is better than there, because nobody bosses me around.

“And it’s better to stay with your family.’’

Her 84-year-old grandmother, Tou Yiev, smiles broadly. She began to weave more than 70 years ago, and it took the Khmer Rouge to stop her.

She remembers the old days well, when the village raised its own silkworms and made its own silk, instead of importing silk thread from China and Vietnam.

Today she lives in retirement, dividing her days between her daughters and the pagoda. She no longer owns even one of the wonderful skirts she has made over the years.

And that’s fine with her. “The dealers bought up all of the old skirts, and all of the old looms,’’ she says without a trace of regret. “They said they were worth a lot of money.’’

But that was never what it was about.

“Silk allows us to live a simple life, with enough food,’’ she says. “It is just normal for us. It is our life.’’




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