Just 20 minutes outside of the dusty town of Siem Reap in Cambodia, and away from bustling groups of tourists visiting the Angkor Wat complex, a small farm has quietly revitalized ancient techniques of silk weaving that date back to as early as 4000 BCE. Surrounded by lush rice fields and vast orchards of mulberry leaves, the Artisans Angkor farm is an oasis in this otherwise hot and arid region. The farm was established in the late 1990s when it began recruiting rural women in the surrounding area who lacked formal education and provided training in all facets of the silk-production process, from breeding worms all the way to weaving intricately designed pieces of art. Beginning with just a handful of employees at its inception, today nearly 800 artisans can be found at the farm and its satellite workshops scattered across rural Cambodia.
The farm is organized as the physical representation of the entire silk production process. As I walk onto the grounds, I first pass through endless lines of thick mulberry bushes that are grown year round as a food supply for the worms. This leads to a large warehouse filled with millions of silkworms that will feed on mulberry leaves until they are moved to wicker trays where they can begin spinning bright orange cocoons that will eventually encase their entire bodies. If you sit quietly and listen, you can even hear a chatter-like sound as the worms voraciously devour the leaves one bite at a time. The final section of the farm is three separate buildings where the cocoons are boiled, unwound, cleaned, dyed, and finally passed along to expert weavers who may spend several months carefully stitching the silk into intricately designed patterns using nothing more than a traditional wooden loom.
While the process of producing and weaving silk is nothing short of awe-inspiring, the sheer volume of raw materials required to make just a single piece of fabric is almost unfathomable. Each cocoon weighs a mere 70 grams and contains approximately 400 combined meters of raw and fine silk. One medium-sized scarf requires no less than 3,000 individual cocoons, while larger items require as many as 6,000 cocoons. The silk farm keeps 20% of the cocoons that will later transform into moths and ensure a steady reproduction rate of new silk worms, with female moths giving birth to upwards of 300 eggs each.
Savuth, one of the farm’s employees, explains to me that while Cambodia may not be a silk powerhouse like India or China, silk weaving is a tradition that runs deep in numerous rural Cambodian households. “My grandma, grandad, and mom also did silk weaving. Just the three of them, they planted the bushes, dyed the colors, and wove scarves. One scarf with just three people would take almost five months,” he says. As a child, Savuth was responsible for caring for the mulberry bushes and making sure the silkworms were well fed, which led to an affinity for worms one usually would associate with a pet dog or cat. “I still play with the worms every day. I like them very much,” Savuth tells me with a grin on his face.
The influx of foreign investment into Cambodia is resulting in a rapid transformation of societal values, where speed and efficiency are swiftly taking the place of craft and tradition. And while Cambodia’s large textile factories are bringing newfound economic gains, the small silk workshops in the country’s sprawling rural areas continue to preserve one of Cambodia’s oldest and most celebrated crafts.