Hand-woven Fabrics from Cambodia, What You Need to Know

Blended hand-loomed fabrics Cambodia

Cambodia has a long and rich history of hand-weaving fabrics and like so many handicrafts in Asia. it is a tradition and skill that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Cambodia first started hand-weaving fabric in the 13th century. During the years of the Khmer Rouge era, a lot of the hand-weaving stopped production due to the political turmoil of the day. Since this period many organizations have worked to help Cambodia revive its hand weaving industry. Cambodia weaves three kinds of hand weaves such as IKAT, twills, and plain weaves. In the past, most fabrics woven has been 100% silk, but today Cambodia is starting to weave some interesting blended fabrics.

Colorful display of hand-loomed fabrics Cambodia
A colorful display of hand-loomed Cambodian fabrics.

A history of the start of textile weaving in Cambodia

The exact history of hand-weaving Cambodian textiles is not exactly known. It is believed that the skill was brought to Cambodia during or before the Angkor period. The reason for this is because ancient stone-carved reliefs on the wall of Angkor Wat show women who are wearing the traditional Cambodia skirts, which are very similar to what is being worn in present Cambodia. These skirts are believed to have been hand-woven.

There is a very interesting history of Cambodia during the Angkor Wat period that was written by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Cambodia between 1296 and 1297. Besides Zhou Daguan making observations about the Cambodian daily life and trade he also spoke a bit about their fabrics and their weaving of fabrics.

Here is a quote from Zhou Daguan about the Emperor and the clothes he would wear:

“Only the ruler can dress in cloth with an all-over floral design…Around his neck he wears about three pounds of big pearls. At his wrists, ankles and fingers he has gold bracelets and rings all set with cat’s eyes…When he goes out, he holds a golden sword [of state] in his hand.”

zhou daguan

He spoke of how the Cambodian people had spaced floral designs that were imported from India. But also during the time he was in Cambodia, the Cambodians were also raising silkworms and weaving fabrics. So we know that during the Angkor period of time, Cambodia was raising silkworms, spinning yarns, dyeing the yarns and weaving fabrics.

Screen showing Cambodian daily life, Angkor Wat
Carved relief from the Angkor Wat Temple complexes showing ancient daily life in Cambodia.

Zhou Daguan further observed that all the traders In Cambodia at the time were women and not men. Women played an important role in the Cambodian society for not only weaving the fabrics but also the trading of the fabrics and other goods.

This quote from Zhou Daguan explains the role the Angkor women played in the ancient society of Cambodia.

“The local people who know how to trade are all women. So when a Chinese goes to this country, the first thing he must do is take in a woman, partly with a view to profiting from her trading abilities.”

Zhou Daguan

So during this time in Cambodia, the women would not only handle all the trade but they also would also spin the yarns, weave the fabric and sell it. It is said that mothers would usually pass on their knowledge of dyeing, spinning and weaving the fabrics to their daughters.

War, genocide, and effect on the Cambodian textile industry

The Cambodian or Khmer lifestyle, including the hand-weaving industry, were all highly disrupted from 1970 to 1979 and on into 1993. Handweaving was one of the traditional handicrafts that were considered to be highly affected by not only the change of government, the Khmer Rouge genocide and the invasion of the Vietnamese in Cambodia.

One of the problems is that due to the wars, genocide and other things that Cambodia went through in this period of time. Some research has shown that for present-day Cambodia the population of people ages 69 to 79 is in proportion with those under 33 years old, but there is a large chunk of the population missing between the ages of 34 and 69. This also means Cambodian has a highly imbalanced demography that continues to affect it today.

In other words, when many women should have been home learning to weave from their mothers, but they were not able to do so or they were killed. Many of them lost these skills or never learned them.

Many groups in Cambodia have understood the loss of this very important traditional skill due to Cambodia’s chequered past. So over the last 20 years, many organizations have come forward to help revitalize Cambodia’s hand-woven fabric industry.

Helping Cambodian keep their skill of weaving alive

We work with several organizations whose main purpose is to help keep the weaving of Cambodia textiles alive in Cambodia. This is because they understand that hand-weaving is not only a rich skill that could be lost but also a skill of great economic importance.

After Myanmar, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Over the years Cambodia has made great strides to try to lift its population out of poverty, but still, there is a lot of poverty in Cambodia, especially in the countryside.

One of the reasons Cambodia has been able to help many of the people get out of poverty is due to the now thriving textile and tourism industry. But there are still many areas of Cambodia where much of the population lives at or way below the world poverty level.

Mother and daughter Cambodia
A Cambodian mother weaver working with her daughter nearby.

The World Bank still estimates that despite all these strives that Cambodia has made in the recent years to alleviate poverty , that a child born in Cambodia today will still have a 49% less productive life when compared to other children, due to the fact many children still do not have access to good quality education, health care, and other basic needs. in fact, 29% of Cambodia’s population still does not have access to proper water and over 49% do not have access to proper sanitation.

Indirectly the purchasing of textiles woven by Cambodia women helps to alleviate this poverty cycle. The extra income these women are earning can, in turn, help their families including their children.

We work with an organization that has over 280 weavers in the Banteay Meanchey Province in North-Western Cambodia. These weavers are mainly women who need to help supplement their family’s farming income. Without the weaving, these families would have a very hard time to economically survive. Weaving also allows many of these women to be able to weave at home or near their homes so they can still tend to the needs of their families.

Types of traditional Cambodian fabrics

Most Cambodian fabrics use a lot of silks or are 100% silk. Today Cambodia must still import a lot of their silk threads from China, Vietnam or Thailand. These imported silk yarns are usually white in color as traditional Cambodian silkworms are usually a yellow color. The yellow cocoons are considered to be a more natural kind of silk as the white silk is a hybrid kind of silk cocoon that does not do well in the hot temperature and heat of Cambodia. Because of this, the silk threads from the Cambodian yellow cocoons are usually more expensive than many of the imported silk threads.

Traditionally Cambodian silk was dyed using only natural dyes. Though today some producers may still use natural dyes, most of them do not use natural dyes due to issues with color-fastness or the color itself. Many of the better suppliers will use a German vs a Chinese fabric dye as the German dyes are usually considered to be better quality.

Cambodian Silk patterns
Some traditional Cambodian silk patterns in an array of colors.

There are three basic types of Cambodian hand-woven fabrics. The fabrics are divided into three main groups according to how the fabrics are to be used and also the way the yarn is dyed and the fabric itself is woven.

The three main types of Cambodia fabric weaves are:

  • IKAT – There are various kinds of IKAT but IKAT fabric is considered one of the main Cambodian fabric weaves. IKAT involves the tying section of the weft yarn that will resist a dye. Those sections that are not dyed or dyed in another color will then form a pattern on the weft and eventually on the fabric itself.
  • Twill like textures – The handlooms in Cambodia will weave a lot of twill like textures. They are able to put these twill designs into a variety of patterns.
  • Basic weave – The other weave would be considered a basic weave like a plain colored fabric or a striped fabric. They will weave a lot of fabrics where the weft may be a different color than the warp threads ensuring that when looking at the fabric different colors will show with different light.
Cambodian weaves
Hand-woven Cambodian blankets in an array of colors and with blended fabrics.

Cambodian textiles fabric blends

Today besides just weaving 100% silk fabric, Cambodia has also started to weave quite a few fabrics that are blended. Many of these blends are very nice, especially those that have some silk. Here is one of the fabrics that we really like as we feel like the hand-feel of the fabric is very nice due to the fabric having some silk in it.

  • Natural Yarns – The yarns are processed from the pulp of plants such as bamboo, sugar cane, eucalyptus, and etch.
  • Wool and Silk – The yarns are also then mixed with macromolecule natural proteins as wool and silk. There are about 11% silk yarns in the fabric.
  • Quality AZO Free Dyes – Dyes that are used are AZO free dyes. In many places AZO dyes are banned as they are considered harmful, so we are using only dyes that are considered AZO free.
  • Colorfastness certified – Fabric yarns are also certified and tested to have passed the requirements for light colorfastness.
Cambodian yellow silk cocoons
Cambodian yellow silk cocoons.

Cambodian artisans are weaving fabrics that will help them use modern yarns and designs with their traditional handlooms. This allows these artisans to be able to continue to pass the skills they are learning on to their children while ensuring that Cambodia continues to have a rich history of textile weaving.

Working with Mondoro to design, develop and manufacture these hand-loomed fabrics, not only helps to keep this hand-weaving tradition alive, but it also helps Cambodia and in particular these Cambodian women to earn a fair wage and get out of the poverty cycle.

What is the difference between Thai silk vs Cambodian silk?

Thai silk and Cambodian silk are very similar. Thailand has a very strong Thai silk industry that has been designing, weaving and manufacturing Thai silk for export for many years. For these reasons the Thai silk manufacturers really understand a lot about weaving, quality, and colors for the western consumption of silk. It can be said that many Cambodian silks have the same feels as the Thai silks but they may not have the array of colors and designs that many Thai silk suppliers offer.

One of the most famous and premier Thai brands of silk is silk designed and manufactured by Jim Thompson. You can find out more about the Jim Thompson brand by clicking here. There is little doubt that a designer of the quality of Jim Thompson and his legacy has helped drive the Thai silk industry and also helped to give the Thai silk industry an advantage over the Cambodian industry in regards to designs and colors that will sell well in the western markets.

Is there an advantage to using handlooms vs a machine loom to weave silk?

When you weave by hand or you weave by machine the two fabrics will look very different when viewed closely. For a fabric that is handlooms, you may see some slight variations to the warp whereas a fabric that is machined normally the warp or how it is woven will be almost perfect. With handlooms every piece can be just a bit different as different weavers may have different strengths when they run the yarn through the warp.

One of the main advantages of using handlooms is that it is usually not as costly to set up the loom for a new color and new fabric design. Setting up the weft on a machine to weave design can be very costly and this is also one reason why many machine suppliers may ask for a very high minimum for each design. The reason is they need these high minimums to justify setting up the warp on the loom. Normally for handlooms, they can accept much lower minimums to set up the weft on the loom. This means you can do a lot more unique designs, colors and finished fabrics than you could do on a machine loom.

Anita Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Hummel. I am the President of Mondoro. I am passionate about helping you CREATE, DEVELOP, and MANUFACTURE home decor and home furnishing products. I am also an avid blogger with a love of travel and riding my motorcycle around the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.

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