July 27 2009
After a turbulent history, silk weaving has returned to the ethnic Khmer community in southwestern An Giang (Mout Chrouk) Province.
Silk products made by ethnic Khmer in southwestern An Giang Province are prized not only for their beauty but for their distinctive shapes and colours that reflect the centuries-old culture the region shares with nearby Cambodia.
Many of the traditional scarves, skirts and decorative cloths are made by women living in the province’s Van Giao Commune, where 80 per cent of the population is Khmer.
With an average per capita income of 15,000-25,000 dong (84 US cents-US$1.56) a day made from weaving, hundreds of women and their families in the last seven years have escaped poverty by working in local cooperatives or as independent producers.
The industry has been such a success that a new village is expected to be created soon to showcase the area’s products and promote its exports.
Silk weaving is not new to the area. Several hundred years ago, historians say, the Khmer wove cloth for local use, with activity reaching a peak during the early 20th century. Then the sound of hundreds of looms could be heard all day long.
In 1978, however, the industry came to a standstill during the country’s conflict with the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. At that time, local residents had to move to Soc Trang Province and neighbouring areas to scrape out a living.
It was not until 1992 that An Giang’s weaving community began to slowly revive, and in 1999 it started to flourish when the Australia-based Care organisation and the province’s Women’s Union set up a microcredit programme for 36 Khmer women in Sray Skoth hamlet in Tinh Bien District.
Each woman was given a loan of 1 million dong ($62) to 1.5 million dong ($94) to buy or make a loom of their own, and an Australian textile expert taught the women dyeing techniques that made the silk fibres glossier, more durable, and resistant to fading.
Sray Skoth hamlet, where weaving skills have been handed down from generation to generation, was chosen as the site of the Australian project because of its illustrious silk-making history.
Forty traditional designs, including patterns that depict the legend of the Buddha, Khmer folk tales, and images of flowers, fruits and animals, are still being used on the silk goods made today.
Particularly stunning, and popular with foreign buyers, is the Khmer sarong (known in Vietnamese as xa-rong), which is often used as collateral for a loan because of its value.“All of the traditional silk products have won favour, both locally and abroad, and have helped many families escape poverty.”
Woven in 30 different patterns, including squares, circles or polygons, the sarong is usually valued at between 600,000 dong ($37.5) to 1 million dong each.
Also popular are decorative cloths used in pagodas or houses and patterned with stories of the Buddha or religious or cultural events. Along with sarongs worn by women, these cloths are often displayed during festivals and religious ceremonies.
Though today the dyes are artificial, the types of weaving and the designs have remained the same.
Three kinds of weaving techniques are used: plain for scarves, jacquard for creating small flowers on products, and ikat for the most complicated designs.
Khmer cloth is special in that the designs are made on the weft yarns on the loom before the actual weaving begins, says Neang One, one of the oldest artisans in Sray Skoth.
The design is created by tying together certain yarns with a string, which helps create an outline for each area of colour. The time needed for dyeing the fibres sometimes lasts two or three months.
Artisans also use another special technique, weaving three layers of three-coloured silk fibres that make the cloths gleam with a rainbow of colours when looked at from different sides.
All of the traditional silk products have won favour, both locally and abroad, and have helped many families escape poverty.
Acknowledging the results that the Australian project brought to the community, Tinh Bien District authorities in late 2001 decided to set up a silk weaving cooperative in Van Giao Commune, where Sray Skoth is located.
The cooperative’s 84 members were given 60 looms and the best artisans were paid 1 million dong a month to teach weaving skills to young women.
Le Kim Kha, one of the cooperative’s founders and its current chair, said the cooperative now has 136 looms and 136 members, in addition to more than 100 assistants.
Each worker has an average income of 600,000 dong to 700,000 dong ($40-45) a month.
“The cooperative is a household-based model,” Kha said. “Looms are placed in the homes of the women so they can easily take care of their families. They can also teach their children the craft.”
Each new weaver who is trained receives a loom worth 1.5 million dong and a loan of 3 million dong, with monthly interest of 0.65 per cent, to buy weaving materials.
“We also help them sell their products,” Kha said. “Even though it’s a secondary job for many, the women now have a higher income, which has helped about 20 per cent of the cooperative’s members build new houses and allowed them to pay for health care and school tuition.”
Weaver Neang Sa Mi, 53, said she learned silk weaving from her mother when she was 18 years old.
“I can make three xa rong a month, which amounts to 1.5 million dong. With that money and my husband’s income from farming, we can raise our three children,” she said.
Neang Duong, also 53, who has two sons and seven daughters, makes her living completely from silk weaving.
“Each month my daughter makes three items worth over 1 million dong. With our income we were able to buy back our land that we had to sell years ago,” she said.
With demand for Khmer silk increasing, the An Giang People’s Committee has decided to transform Sray Skoth into a traditional craft village, a designation formally recognised by the state Government.
Cooperative chair Kha said a closed production chain similar to what existed hundreds of years ago in the region would be created – from growing mulberry trees, raising silkworms, spinning fibres and dyeing to loom weaving.
“Right now we still have to buy raw materials from other places, mostly from Lam Dong Province, and that contributes to high production costs,” Kha said.
“We’ll set up a workshop where the most experienced weavers will make high quality products for orders, particularly exports. Production will be standardised to create high quality,” Kha said, adding that many items are now exported to Cambodia, Germany, Australia and the US.
Over the last seven years, the co-operative has had a combined yearly turnover of 1.3 billion dong (over U$80,000), and of that amount, export value accounted for nearly 40 per cent.
Other objectives of the village project, she said, include promoting a “Khmer Silk” trademark, opening a room to display products, and most importantly, training young weavers so the tradition will continue for many more generations. (By THIEN LY/ The Viet Nam News/ ANN)