SIEM REAP—Silk may signify luxury but it can also keep poverty at bay, as Cambodians are finding out.
Silk weaving had been a tradition since the 7th century in the Southeast Asian state but the booming industry was devastated during the 1975-79 rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge as people were forced to build capacity for growing rice at the expense of other farm sectors.
At the forefront of the silk revival is the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles near Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia and the gateway to the world famous Angkor Wat temple.
Some 300 Cambodians work at the institute, set up in 1996 by a former Japanese textile consultant in a bid to restore the silk weaving tradition through skill training and research, as well as promoting silkworm raising and weaving as cottage industries.
"I work hard," said Ni Sok Lim as she weaves a sarong at the institute's workshop in Chup Som village, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Siem Reap's provincial seat.
"In a day, I weave about two decimeters (eight inches) of silk pieces. In a month, I weave five to six meters (16 to 20 feet)," she said.
"This is an average. If I weave quickly, they might get eight meters (26 feet) in a month, said Ni, who left her hometown in Prey Kabas district in Takeo province many years ago to learn silk weaving.
The incomes of workers at the institute vary but are competitive. The less experienced fetch about U.S. $50 per month, while the experienced ones get around U.S. $270—similar to wages at factories and hotels in tourism-driven Siem Reap province.
Silk is key for the Cambodian rural economy and poverty reduction because it generates higher value-added than general crops such as rice, according to the Food and Agricultural organization of the United Nations, which has launched a U.S. $475,000 project to help develop the Cambodian silk sector.
“It is also labor intensive, so it will create much needed rural employment, particularly for women, and at the same time generate regular cash income for rural households,” the FAO said in a statement when it launched the two-year-project at the end of 2009.
The project will assist the production of disease-free silkworm eggs, provide good quality silkworm and mulberry, strengthen government staff technical capacity, and train and disseminate new technology to farmers, FAO said.
If the silk industry is fully developed to meet domestic demand, it will generate employment for some 25,000 additional people and result in import savings of about U.S. $10 million year, it said.
Current national demand for silk yarn is about 400 tons per year, less than five tons of which is met by local production. The gap is being met by imported silk yarn from China and Vietnam.
Products sought after
At the institute's workshop, annual production is about only a ton of silk a year, but the products are much sought after.
Tourists who buy the products at the local market praise them for their quality.
Oum Seak Houy, among those marketing the products, said small scarves could cost U.S. $25 each. Prices can go up to more than U.S. $2,000 for large pieces of silk with decorations and drawn images.
At the institute's sprawling 23-hectare (57-acre) area in Chup Som village, four hectares (10 acres) are allocated for growing mulberry trees to feed the silkworms as well as other trees used to provide natural dyes for silk colors.
"Our silk production is all organic and natural. During the growing of mulberry trees, we do not use chemicals. We use only natural fertilizers. We do not use any machines. We dye silk by hand. And when we weave, we do it by hand," said Meas Thol, the institute's head of planning.
For example, the so-called "kulen tree can turn the silk silver and a little black," said Mot Rina, who is skilled in using dye from tree barks.
"Dye from coconut tree bark makes the silk turn dark pink. Regular coconut tree dye can be a little bit red. You can’t use these tree barks to dye any materials other than silk."
Foreigners are becoming more interested in Cambodian silk, said the institute's Japanese head, Kikuo Morimoto, who some refer to as Cambodia's "silk savior."
"The production is still [produced] on a small scale, but I hope that in the future, there will be more. Do you know that the world is interested in Khmer silk, and it has the best quality?" he asked.
"They want to buy more and more of the products," said the former UNESCO textile consultant.
Silk from the institute has been taken to exhibitions in Japan, France, Germany and the U.S. in true Cambodian tradition.
When the King of Thailand came to the U.S. in 1856, he brought as a gift for President Franklin Pierce a fine Cambodian silk cloth.
Cambodian silk was used not only by kings but also as an offering to gods, said Michelle Trane, a Khmer archeologist. Khmer monks also wear robes made of silk.
Reported by Hang Savayout for Radio Free Asia's Cambodian service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.