Cambodia has a long and rich history in traditional silk production and weaving, with wooden looms visible in many stilt homes within Cambodia’s rural villages. Silk weaving is an art practised predominately by women, with the skill being passed down from mother to daughter. Unfortunately, many artisans with this skill were persecuted during the Khmer Rouge regime and as a result the art is dying. More recently, many surviving silk weavers abandoned their craft to seek regular employment in larger cities. At KBEN & HOL, we were inspired to help preserve the highly skilled art of silk weaving and bring the technique and artistry of this community from remote villages to the world.
In this blog, we will take you through the very complex and refined process of silk production and traditional silk weaving that is used to create our pieces, hopefully highlighting the importance of preserving this art form.
Silk Production Process
Some of our products are made from rare "golden silk” native to Cambodia, while others use silk that is regionally sourced. The neglect of mulberry plantations during Cambodia’s civil war has meant a significant decline in the production of Cambodia’s native golden silk. The majority of silk used in Cambodia today is imported from Vietnam and China.
The production of golden silk typically takes place during rainy season. It is known for its strength, lustre and naturally golden colour. The process begins with silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves. The silkworms take 1 month to grow and develop, then 3 days spinning a cocoon. Once formed, the cocoons are placed into hot water, killing the larvae and readying them for the next stage of production.
The cocoon has two layers of silk — raw outer silk and fine inner silk. The individual strands of the inner silk are especially fine. The raw (outer silk) has a more uneven texture and is also used to make clothing, accessories and furnishings. If the natural golden yellow colour of silk is desired, then no dyeing is needed.
At KBEN & HOL the dyeing process for our threads is mixed and we combine different techniques with our designs. Where possible we use natural dyes, which are created from leaves, bark and plant extracts.
HOL is the Cambodian technique of resist dyeing weft silk thread in a predetermined pattern prior to weaving. In other resist dyeing techniques such as tie-dye and batik, the resist is applied to the woven cloth, whereas for HOL the resist is applied to the threads before they are woven into cloth. In the case of HOL, ties are applied to thread in specific places so that the dye will not colour that portion of the thread. When ready to be dyed, spools of thread are placed in clay pots full of water and natural dye. Traditional colours for Cambodian HOL include red, maroon, indigo, red overdyed with indigo to give purple, yellow, yellow overdyed with indigo to give green and blue for highlights. In addition, grey tones are created from ebony fruit, orange colour from annatto seeds and yellow from jackfruit. The nest of the lac insect is used to produce the colour red.
Once dyed, the bundles of thread are then hung up to dry. The resist material is removed and new resist material may be applied on the same thread for a second dying in a different colour and so on until the pattern is completed. The step is repeated as many times as necessary to produce the range of colours required by the weaver to accomplish the pattern. When the multiple rounds of dyeing are finished all the resist bindings are removed and the threads are woven into cloth. Our artisans are highly skilled in creating patterns by hand. Multiple colours and intricate patterns demonstrate the complexity of the design and artistry of the weaver.
A characteristic of IKAT or HOL textiles is an apparent "blurriness" to the design. The blurriness is a result of the extreme difficulty the weaver has lining up the dyed threads so that the pattern is seen perfectly in the finished cloth. Cambodian HOL is distinctive because the blurriness of the designs is reduced through the use of finer thread such as golden silk or by the skill of the weaver. IKATs or HOLs with little blurriness, multiple colours and complicated patterns are more difficult to create and therefore often more expensive.
Once weft resist dyeing is complete, the bundle of dyed silk is placed on a swift for winding onto bobbins. Spinning requires great concentration in order to obtain a regular and twisted thread by hand. Silk/cotton is spun, slowly gathering into a thicker, larger thread. The bobbins are inserted into shuttles, which are used on traditional wooden looms to weave the final product.
Cambodian HOL is a weft IKAT woven using a multi-shaft wooden loom. Wooden looms are typically 3 metres long and 1 metre wide. Silk or cotton threads are stretched out on the loom and woven by hand. It can take up an entire day to set-up a loom. Cambodian HOL is distinctive because of its uneven twill weave - this results in the weft threads being more visible on the front side of the fabric.
Weft IKATS (like Cambodian HOL) are much slower to weave than warp IKAT as the weft threads must be carefully adjusted after each passing of the shuttle to maintain the clarity of the design.
Our cushions, throws and textiles are woven and dyed entirely by hand, making each piece one-of-a-kind. The process can take between 1 and 3 months depending on the complexity of the design. It is this refined process and artistry of our talented female artisans that we endeavour to help preserve in Cambodia.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of Cambodian textiles, we highly recommend Gillian Green’s book, “Traditional Textiles of Cambodia, Cultural Threads and Material Heritage”. To receive further updates from our blog, please subscribe to our e-newsletter at www.kbenhol.com
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