Evocative Khmer Cloth

IKTT Revives Cambodia’s Weaving Tradition

In Cambodia, generations of women taught their daughters the art of the loom. Sophisticated and complex, Khmer cloth was as evocative as any textiles found in India, Japan or Indonesia. Luminous natural colors defined patterns that were both bold and nuanced. Historically, Cambodian textiles were one of the great art forms of Asia.
Sadly, this magnificent tradition was almost entirely destroyed after decades of war and conflict. Many weavers did not survive Cambodia’s dark years, and most of the looms, as well as other cloth production equipment, were ruined. In addition, the mulberry trees that nourished indigenous silkworms had been chopped down for firewood, almost eradicating the caterpillar population. Even the indigo plants used for dyeing could not be cared for and virtually disappeared.
It has become one man’s passion to reinvigorate the art of Khmer cloth. Surprisingly, this man is not a Cambodian himself, but the Japanese kimono artisan Kikuo Morimoto. Ten years ago, Morimoto started the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) with only a handful of Cambodian fabric artists. Today, more than 500 people are connected to the organization, and once again brilliant textiles are being woven in Cambodia.
Morimoto set up the IKTT studio in Siem Reap, the town that borders the great temples of Angkor. But before he could establish the workshop, Morimoto had to find the few surviving textile experts and ask for their help with his project. These artisans were primarily women in their mid-to-late sixties, and each possessed a different area of expertise regarding the production of cloth. Morimoto needed to piece together the total process from the bits of information each woman had preserved. Fortunately, Morimoto was able to convince these women to join IKTT and to participate as teachers and mentors to a new generation of textile artists.
Today, IKTT is a great success, and Morimoto’s dream is being fulfilled. The textiles are exquisite in both execution and design. The great masters are passing on their knowledge to enthusiastic students, and most types of traditional Khmer cloth can be seen at the studio. In addition, the studio is a place filled with life and optimism. The workplace has a relaxed feeling, almost like a small village. Women bring their children to IKTT, and it is not uncommon to see babies in hammocks placed next their mothers’ looms. One gets the sense these women know they are doing something important. Their involvement in the studio is empowering.
Now that IKTT is well established, Morimoto is developing a rural forest preserve and village, Chot Sam, where the natural materials needed to support the fabrication of the cloth will be cultivated. Currently, many materials are being imported from neighboring countries, but the hope is that in the future the weavers can get all they need from Chot Sam. Mulberry trees have been planted and the silk worms are returning. Chot Sam gardeners are growing indigo and other plant species used for dyestuff that give Khmer textiles their alluring colors.
In creating IKTT, Morimoto has done more than help restore an important Cambodian art form. He has given hundreds of people work with dignity and a reason to be hopeful about the future. 
This article first appeared in Folk Art Messenger. For more information about IKTT, please visit: http://iktt.esprit-libre.org/en.



Please signup or login to comment