By Lilian Doyle.
Bakong’s beauty and tranquility, as well as its infrequent tour buses and monastery make it feel like you are a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. We’re here to visit Ms. Hun Yoeun, a silk and cotton weaver originally from Takeo Province. She greets us into her workshop/store with one of the warmest smiles I’ve ever encountered, and in Cambodia, that’s saying something. Inside, a couple of German tourists are happily waiting for change after buying some souvenirs. They rush back to their tour bus before it leaves them behind, both men looking very pleased with their purchases.
Yoeun has been weaving cotton and silk since she was a young girl, learning first from her mother. She explains to us that every village usually has its own special skill and in her village that skill was silk weaving. She goes on to explain that in her village when she was growing up every household had a loom and the women of the house produced silk garments for sale. It was also common for the men of the house to build the looms and even Yoeun’s father built the loom in her childhood home. Unfortunately, silk weaving became less common in her village when garment factories began to open in the area around Phnom Penh.
It’s taken a long time for Yoeun to develop her weaving skills. Generally, it takes three to four years to become a professional silk weaver, but to get to Yoeun’s level and be able to not only operate the loom but also be able create designs for the scarves could take five to eight years.
Learning how to install designs on the loom can take a long time; before a worker can even begin weaving they must create the design and then install the thread to make that design. However, many of Yoeun’s weavers only have four years of training or less so they only know how to follow the pattern they are given. She points out that this could be a problem for the future because not enough weavers know how to create the designs and install them onto the loom, meaning that there is an increasing risk of the tradition dying out.
When I ask Yoeun why she has stuck with silk and cotton weaving for so long she tells me that because she didn’t receive very much education growing up she decided to continue working with silk to make money to be able to provide for her family. While she was working for an NGO teaching others how to weave, she established her silk and cotton weaving business and has steadily built it up to what it is today. Her hard work and business savvy have allowed her to provide an education for her children, something that is very important to her.
The process of weaving silk by hand is a slow and intricate one. It takes two days to put the silk threads into the heddles of the loom (for cotton it only takes half the time). On average, each worker produces one scarf per day, a lot slower than if they were made by machine. However, watching the women weave by hand is fascinating. There is a tremendous amount of skill involved and their hands move so quickly and without hesitancy that, at times, it’s hard for the eyes to follow them.
Finding people this skilled, and willing to build upon that skill, has been challenging for Yoeun and in the past she has had a lot of problems with finding people who can work with silk and be skilled enough to create designs.
Yoeun tells us that she wants to find more workers, but it hasn’t been easy, in fact, besides competing with cheaper machine made products, it’s one of the biggest difficulties she faces. A lot of potential workers tend to move to other countries such as Thailand where they can earn more money. This lack of human resources means that if she gets a big order for silk scarves she might have to turn it down if she doesn’t feel confident that she can complete it on time. In addition to that, because her workers are all female, many leave to get married and start families.
Finally, Yoeun shows us how to identify real handmade silk scarves and tell them apart from cheaper ones that are machine made using synthetic silk. She tells us that industrial machine made scarves are usually very thin and they all look exactly the same. With handmade silk scarves the thickness varies depending on the design and quite often they don’t look exactly the same.
Finding authentically handmade products in Cambodia can be challenging at times, especially near the touristic spots. But, finding when you do find them it’s worth t knowing there’s a story behind it which makes the souvenir all the more special and is worth the extra effort to find.