Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles
“My work is to create the environment in which such women develop the determination to weave good cloth”
The founder of the IKTT, Kikuo Morimoto, passed away in 1948 - 2017 however the village continues to pursue his dream of creating the finest Khmer silks. Here you can read an introduction to his incredible endeavor, against all the odds, to revive the Khmer art of ikat weaving and natural dye.
Morimoto was a natural dye expert, originally from Kyoto, Japan, where he was a master in painting the Kimono. He worked in the industry for 15 years to the level of a Master Artisan before moving to Thailand to work in the refugee camps. During his time in Thailand Morimoto became experienced in the art of Khmer weaving. It was here that he set up his own company selling naturally dyed, hand spun silks.
On a trip out of the country to renew his visa, he passed by Cambodia and went to the museum, seeing Khmer silk in its full glory for the first time. On seeing the silk he knew the quality and skill they once had was magnificent and he wondered if this could ever be the same again.
Being a self-confessed silk fanatic, Morimoto decided to take a trip to Pay village, after hearing from UNESCO that silk weaving continued there. Morimoto stayed with an old weaver called Om Chiea. He could see from her work that she was using harsh chemical dyes, however, inspired by the beauty of colour he had seen in the silks at the museum he was curious to know if she still knew natural dye techniques.
It wasn’t an easy task considering the language gap, but persistence and patience paid off. In the roof, he found where she stored a small packet of chemical dye. He brought them down and held them up next to a handful of grass. Finally, she understood what he meant. She went out to the back and brought out the nest of the Lac insect, traditionally used for dying a red colour.
UNESCO was incredibly impressed by this research, as they'd previously found it very difficult to obtain, especially considering the situation in the country at the time. They commissioned him to start a research project documenting the current status of silk production in the country. It was a dangerous mission, as fighting had not yet ceased in parts of the country. In 1995 he traveled across war-torn Cambodia by foot, boat, and motorbike, without even a map, asking from village to village if silk weaving still occurred.
It was one of these villages that saved his life when at one point he came into contact with Khmer Rouge soldiers. Standing on the opposite bank of the river soldiers pointed at him with their guns, and it was not until the village surrounded him that they finally put them down. Morimoto’s passion for the silk and people of Cambodia was something he was prepared to risk his life for.
On finishing the research, he saw that silk weaving in Cambodia was in dire straights. During the war, the Khmer Rouge had put a stop to most of the silk weaving and had chopped down all the trees needed to produce the fabrics. Cheap silk yarn and chemical dyes where being imported into the country and the quality of the weaving had become extremely poor.
Weavers were struggling to keep in the profession as prices for raw materials were rising and middlemen were taking advantage of the weavers for their own profits. Young people were not interested in taking up the profession, and the knowledge of silk weaving would disappear when the last generation of grandmothers passed away, losing a sacred part of Khmer heritage.
Writing the report inspired Morimoto to create the IKTT, as he'd only found a few women across the country who had managed to retain their skills and knowledge. So he took it upon himself to bring these women together, to share their experience in every part of the ikat process. He had the idea that if the villagers could grow all their raw materials, not only would the quality improve but it also meant that they could cut out the middle man, bringing high-quality silks directly to the customer.
Morimoto’s plans were ambitious and complicated; however, he believed that by reviving the country's connection to their cultural identity, Cambodia could build a healthy and prosperous future. So far, his plans have proved successful however there is still much to be done, and since his passing, we continue towards this goal every day.