Ellie Dyer meets an inspirational woman who is helping to preserve the Kingdom’s woven heritage. Photography by Conor Wall.
The skilled women deftly manipulating a maze of loom frames and colourful threads are bringing a piece of Cambodian history to life. As shuttles fly back and forth in a network of airy rooms surrounded by fields of Mulberry trees, around 30 kilometres from Siem Reap town, complex three-dimensional sculptured reliefs slowly rise from stretches of fine, glistening silk.
“It was made by skilful masters for the kings,” explains Golden Silk’s charismatic founder, Oum Sophea Pheach, of the historic fabric — known as Royal Brocatelle — that is being recreated by artisans at the centre using threads from Cambodia’s native golden silk cocoons.
Pheach was inspired to bring ancient techniques back into the modern era after seeing a single picture of a traditional Khmer fabric, thought to date back to the 19th century, in a book. Re-creating its intricate patterns has, however, been a long and arduous labour of love. With much expert knowledge lost during the Khmer Rouge regime, Pheach and her team had to almost start from scratch.
Golden Silk’s first brocatelle looms were a staggering five-metres high and six-metres long and needed seven people to operate, some standing on a high second level. Over the years, through trial and error, they have become long and squat, requiring only three workers — who can now weave raised brocatelle onto diamond-shaped brocade — to manipulate a labyrinthine complex of hanging threads.
“The Cambodian pieces are something that is unique from the blood of Khmer people — it comes from their minds and spirit,” says Pheach, strolling through the idyllic silk farm located on the way to the 10th-century Banteay Srey temple.
Belief in her country and its people, a passion for the preservation of heritage, and a quest for development are just some of the major drivers inspiring the woman at Golden Silk’s helm.
Born in Cambodia, she spent her childhood in the Kingdom before moving to Uruguay, at age nine, due to her father’s work at its Cambodian embassy. They later found political asylum in France in 1975, escaping the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, before she returned to work in the Thai border camps in 1988.
What started as a six-month trip rapidly turned into a decade of humanitarian work. Pheach was based in the border camps until 1992, before going on to set up an orphanage in Battambang province. In 2001, she changed direction to become a director of the National Silk Centre and consequently launched Golden Silk.
Weavers in modern-day Cambodia often use imported silk thread in their work, but Pheach was determined to do things differently by sourcing the country’s golden silk cocoons, which had been preserved in communities in Northwestern Cambodia, including Banteay Meanchey province.
Using the small, oval cocoons spun by long white silk worms — whose moth parents mate on sheets of newspaper before their wriggling young is fed a diet of fresh mulberry leaves by workers at the centre — creates unique challenges. They contain a much lower thread count than other varieties, with around 13 to 15 times less thread spun from a single cocoon, which rules out the use of machines.
“Everything has to be done by hand,” explains Pheach, whose patterns are designed using Cambodia’s temples, such as Angkor Wat and nearby Banteay Srey, as inspiration.
Wandering through the complex, the dedication to authentic techniques that underpins Golden Silk — whose high-end products can take years to weave and retail from $45 to more than $20,000 — is clear.
In one room, a row of women spin out glistening strands of silk from bubbling pots of cocoons. In another, artisans tie strands of silk threads in patterns in order for it to be dyed before being woven using Ikat and Royal Brocatelle techniques. Nearby lie huge pots of bark, fruit, harvested insect eggs and other natural substances that are used to dye the threads in an array of rich colours.
In an out-building, another project to weave the Royal Arms of Cambodia is underway. “It’s already a year and a half,” says Peach of the work. “The message is for Cambodian people to live in harmony and to be inspired with dignity.”
And inside the harmonious and peaceful farm, which is in itself a small family as many employees bring their children to work, it seems that both Pheach and her French husband Patrick Gourlay — who first met his wife in 1987, but waited 10 years for her to return from Asia before they married — have taken that message to heart.
For them, taking the easy way is not an option. Instead, remaining true to the art form and Cambodia’s dignity and heritage is at the core of all they do. “It’s a piece of art from our heart that we expose to the world,” says Pheach. “It’s something that we love — the way we are, the way we do — and we want to share with others.”
Visitors can make an appointment to take a $10 tour of the Golden Silk farm by calling 012 59 68 11. Visit Goldensilk.org for more information.