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Colourful resurgence for silk island artisans

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sar San holds a silk skirt she made on Koh Dach in the capital’s Chroy Changvar district last month. Hong Menea

Colourful resurgence for silk island artisans

Among Sar San’s earliest memories is the sight of her mother sitting at a loom weaving silk and cotton skirts, and karma. Born without the use of one leg, she unknowingly inherited this knowledge.

Although the number of practitioners is declining, the villagers of Koh Dach – known as silk island, Phnom Penh’s largest – have continued the traditions of Khmer weaving for decades, passing their knowledge from generation to generation right up until the present day.

Koh Dach commune chief Pech Cham, who has just taken office for a fifth term, said that in the past, almost 70 per cent of the people in the commune were weavers, but the number has declined to just 20 or 30 per cent due to the rising costs of raw materials eating into profit margins.

“About 20 percent of the businesses are still going strong because they are weaving expensive products and their weavers are very experienced elderly people,” he said.

After seeing a flood of weaving products of both her own mother and other villagers going unsold or sold at very low prices, 28-year-old San began to look for better ways to market the home-made products and revitalise the tradition of weaving.

“Many villagers stopped weaving and went to work in factories – I think about 50 percent of them gave up their weaving careers. Recently, we have seen various associations and organisations coming to the island and buying them again, so many are returning to the craft. In particular, as the Covid-19 pandemic winds down, we are witnessing a gradual build of momentum to support Cambodian products again,” she said.

As a member of the younger generation, San was unsure about the older styles. She began buying and selling Khmer silk and cotton products during the time of the first outbreak of Covid-19 in Cambodia, because she saw a lot of weavers were not selling their products and merchants were lowering the prices they offered.

“When I saw that my mother was weaving but unable to sell her goods, I decided I would search for a market for them. At first, it was difficult, because the traders who passed through our area only offered low prices. I decided that I would act as a broker for the island’s artisans, and began buying up products from all of our neighbours,” she told The Post.

She instructed the weavers of the village to improve the quality of their products and urged them to aim at the high end of the market.

“We strengthen the quality of weaving to make the skirts more beautiful and I encouraged the weavers to get creative and make them as attractive and unique as possible. This way, they are more attractive to buyers, and I can ask for higher prices for our goods,” she said.

She said the number of Kbal Koh villagers who have returned to tradition business has been increasing, along with the prices of the skirts they sell. The villagers are starting to produce a lot more goods and she is being kept very busy, both in her role as broker and in her efforts to raise the standard of locally produced skirts and scarves.

Suon Samnang, 44, has been weaving for 30 years, but left the island to work as a security guard in a supermarket with her husband when Covid-19 shut down the market for her products. Worried about the education of their seven-year-old youngest son, they decided to return home.

With her focus being on her children’s education, Samnang was pleased when San helped her install a loom and told her about the increased prices she was getting for woven goods. Samnang is now happily holding heald frames and stepping on treadles again.

“Because my children are old enough to go to school and the products I can make are selling for higher prices, we have come home. I installed a loom and my husband found work as a construction worker. As a traditional weaver, I rely on my niece San to select modern yarns and designs,” she told The Post while weaving on her loom.

The entrepreneur San set up a Facebook page for Koh Dach weaving handicrafts from Kbal Koh village, Koh Dach commune, Chroy Changvar district to promote and sell their products.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Silk clothing woven on Koh Dach Island in Chroy Changvar district. Hong Menea

San said some people are unaware Khmer seung, as well as Khmer silk (Hol and Phamoung), so she uses social media to promote more of the villagers’ products. In the past, most of the products went directly to traditional markets nearby, but now they are posted and sold through Facebook – to a diverse range of wholesale clients from all over the country.

She used to participate in various community activities through workshops and this instilled her with the mindset of wanting to help the community.

“I was buying finished goods from local weavers in small numbers at first and then reselling them. As I have attracted more customers, I have expanded my orders, and in fact the business has been growing steadily since day one. Our current customers range from market vendors to tourist shop retailers. We are no longer afraid of a lack of markets like we were before. Even though we do not have many retail customers, we have regular wholesale customers,” she said.

In the past, weavers’ products often had imperfections or shrinkage because they were hand-woven.

As the broker, San knows that if she sells poor quality products, she will lose customers. She regularly inspects the quality of the weaving to ensure it will meet the standards that she herself guarantees to her clients.

“We have been improving our quality control since we began. I want to encourage all of my weavers, so I will still buy a piece that has flaws – I just won’t pay full price. I offer constructive criticism, because the higher the quality of their weaving, the higher their incomes,” she added.

However, the 28-year-old admitted that instructing some of the elderly to adjust their traditional weaving techniques to meet new market demands had been a challenge.

San said that some women and men accepted advice about what is lacking in their products, but some refuse to change, believing that they know best.

“I do not want to force them. If they accept my advice, their products will improve and they will earn more money. If they are not interested in my ideas, they usually don’t ask me to purchase their work. Generally they sell their goods to far off markets for lower prices. Maybe they think that I am too young to advise them,” she said.

Many of the older weavers refused, due to the expense of the upgrading their loom frames, but when they saw that sales were increasing, they reconsidered and followed suit.

In the past, a Khmer seung skirt was made with a 10 to 20 heald frame. These products often featured imperfections, and sold for 23,000 to 40,000 riel. Now, the villagers working with San are switching to 25 and 30 heald frames, and the increase in quality means they are earning up to 80,000 riel per piece.

“I am working with 20 weavers in Kbal Koh village, but some families have more than one loom,” she said.

She has also noticed an increase of weavers in other villages due to other local dealers, like her. Although these vendors were not selling abroad, she knew of some wholesalers who were exporting.

Many of her customers were buying the woven goods and selling them online she said.

“I really want to expand my reach to other villages on Koh Dach,” said San.

She imports yarn from China and neighboring countries in bulk to ensure reasonable prices, and has 500 to 1,000kg stored at her house to supply to those weavers who cannot afford it. This is easy to manage as she lives in the same village, but the transportation costs would increase if she were to work with other villages.

“It works this way. After the villagers buy yarn from me, I buy their finished products. At present, I do have two more buyers in other villages,” she added.

San also remains worried about the loss of the traditional skills of the islanders because the younger generation is less interested in learning this complex art.

“Right now, I do not see many young people who are interested in learning to weave, or any of the other skills associated with it,” she said.

Commune chief Cham acknowledged that the weaving industry in Koh Dach has certainly increased from what it was a few years back.

“Across all of the villages of Koh Dach, there are now about 1,300 looms. There is a resurgence of weavers across the island,” he told The Post.

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