Vannary San has made it her mission to breathe new life into Cambodia’s age-old silk and textile traditions whilst coming up with new ways to weave fabric. Editor Marissa Carruthers finds out more about her latest venture. Photo by Lim Sokchanlina.

Two men sit hunched over a bench with concentration etched on their faces. They focus on the tough outer shell of a large banana stem. Using machetes, they skilfully remove the flesh before teasing out a layer of fibres that resemble guitar strings.

The Royal University of Phnom Penh students are two of eight young Cambodians who are learning how to transform banana stems into fashionable fabrics – Vannary San’s latest innovative way to help poverty-stricken rural communities while producing stunning, Cambodian-created materials.

Once they have mastered the craft, they will travel to Kampong Cham province – famous for its swathe of banana farms – where they will train banana farmers in the meticulous methods needed to extract the harsher yarn from the case of the banana stems, as well as the finer thread from the fleshy inside of the stem to create a soft fabric similar in texture to linen.

“I wanted to come up with a new material, and a new way to provide farmers with an additional form of income,” says San, who puts Cambodian communities at the heart of her business. “This is very important for me.”

Helping to improve the lives of her fellow Cambodians has been a number one priority for San since she launched Lotus Silk in 2005. Starting off creating fabrics using one sewing machine and a tailor in a room of her home, her business has gone from strength to strength as she has ploughed her passion into revitalising Cambodia’s weaving heritage while supporting struggling rural communities.

“I became very depressed when I discovered Cambodian silk had almost disappeared,” the mum-of-three says. “I knew I had to do something. It’s a big part of our culture, of who we are – you can see this on the temples at Angkor Wat. I couldn’t let that happen.”

Determined to breathe new life into Cambodian golden silk and reinstate national pride in the material the country was once famed for, three years ago San scoured the country to find creative communities to help her.

Today, she works with three farming communities who grow mulberry trees to feed the silkworms in Kampot, organic cotton growers in Battambang, weavers in Prey Veng and Takao and dyeing experts in Kandal. The banana farming communities in Kampong Cham are next on her list.

A year ago, she launched her Golden Silk Collection, which has already garnered huge international interest and led to her scooping a string of awards for her work, including Women’s Creativity in Rural Life award and woman entrepreneur of ASEAN.

In August, she was crowned Top 5 Designer of the Year 2017 by the Modern Ethnic Design Centre. And San recently discovered her fashion brand is one of four Cambodian lines selected by the Asia Japan Centre in collaboration with the Ministry of Commerce to be in the running for the Good Design Award.

She will work with Japanese experts ahead of a show in Japan next year, where Cambodian fabrics will be promoted to the country’s market.

“It makes me very happy that I am able to show the world what great fabrics can be made in Cambodia, while providing local communities with a sustainable form of income,” she says.

But her mission is far from over. San is currently working on building a silk museum, The Silk House, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Slated to open in December as an interactive and educational museum, she hopes to attract both locals and foreigners wanting to learn more about the ancient craft of silk weaving, from fattening up the silk worms with mulberry leaves, through to creating soft silk scarves and other intricately-designed items.

She has already recruited master weaver, Yors Bopha, to guide visitors through the hand-spinning and weaving process. And she has set up a handloom so visitors can see the painstaking methods of creating the intricate array of patterns that adorn the fabrics, – which range from traditional ikat through to more modern designs. They can also have a go themselves.

There will also be a dyeing room and tailoring room to showcase how the fabric is transformed into scarves, skirts, bags, dresses and other items, as well as a coffee shop and spacious garden, with a meeting room that is available for private hire.

“For me, it is so important that this handicraft is kept alive,” says San. “We have such a beautiful history in silk weaving and textiles, and there are incredible communities across the country who have these skills that need to be kept going. I want to show this to Cambodia and the world.”