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Textile Decor at Angkor

By Ms. Gill Green, Author and independent scholar, Australia

These presentation surveys textiles used for purposes other than costume in the Angkorian period. So far no actual textiles, fragments or threads dating to this period or earlier have been excavated in Cambodia. Neither have other indicators such as impressions on clay, or pseudomorphs (chemical impressions of silk wrappers on bronze artifacts) as have been found on objects excavated from ancient Chinese tombs. So what we have to go on are detailed representations of textiles carved in bas relief most clearly in evidence on gallery walls at Angkor Wat and the Bayon.

Cambodian Traditional Textiles

The intricately patterned ikat silks (silks that whose threads are tie-dyed before being woven) created by the Khmer and Cham ethnic groups may come to mind when thinking of Cambodian textiles, but the peoples of Cambodia have produced many other cotton and silk textiles. Cambodians traditionally considered both domestic and imported textiles to be markers of identity, prestige, and wealth, and quantity and quality of textiles possessed by an individual or family contributed to their status within society.

Traditional dress in Cambodia is similar to traditional dress in neighboring Laos and Thailand. Sampot is the lower garment worn by either sex. The sampot for urban lower class and peasant women is a tube-skirt (sarong) approximately one and a half meters in length with both ends sewn together and is worn wrapped around the waist and secured with a cloth belt. Women of the middle and upper classes preferred to wear the sampot chang kben on a daily basis until the beginning of the twentieth century. This rectangular piece of cloth is approximately three meters long and one meter wide and is worn by first wrapping the cloth around the waist and stretching the ends away from the body. The outstretched ends are then twisted together and pulled between the legs and toward the back. The ends are tucked into the waist at the back, and the sampot chang kben is lastly fastened with a cloth or metal belt. Women of all social strata wear the sampot chang kben on special occasions such as religious ceremonies and weddings. Men also wear the sampot chang kben, but the traditional textile patterns worn by males differ from those worn by females. Traditionally, neither women nor men wore an upper garment. However, when the French colonial presence grew in Cambodia in the late nineteenth century, both men and women began to wear upper garments.

Textiles In Cambodia

There are three important silk textiles in Cambodia. They include the ikat silks (chong kiet in Khmer), or hol, the twill-patterned silks and the weft ikat textiles. Patterns are made by tying natural and synthetic fibers on the weft threads and then it is dyed. It is repeated for different colors until the patterns firm and cloth is woven. Traditionally, five colors are used. Red, yellow, green, blue and black are the most used. The Sampot Hol is used as a lower garment and as the sampot chang kben. The Pidan Hol is used as a ceremonial hanging used for religious purposes.

Sot silk weaving has been an important part of Cambodia's cultural past. It has been documented that people from Takéo Province have woven silk since the Funan era and records, bas-relief and Zhou Daguan's report have shown that looms were used to weave sampots since ancient times. Since ancient times, women have learned highly complex methods and intricate patterns, one of which is the hol method. It involves dying patterns on silk before weaving. What remains unique to Cambodian weavers is the uneven twill technique, the reason remains unclear why they adopted such an unusual method. The ancient bas-reliefs however provides a complete look at how fabrics were like, down to patterns and pleats. Silk woven pieces are used as heirlooms, in weddings and funerals, and as decoration in temples.

Cambodian Textile Quality

1. Tightness of weaving Expert weaving always comes through in the tightness of the weaving according to the type of cloth. Usually, tight weaving will produce a very soft cloth that is at the same time durable and strong.

2. Weight or density of the fabric This also relates to the tightness of the weaving, but also to the thickness of the cloth. In each category or type of cloth, whether it is 2-ply or 3-ply or 11-ply (such as a blanket weave), the heaviness and density indicates the tightness of the weave and the amount of silk used to per square inch or other surface measurements.

Types of Cambodian Silk Textiles

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The vestiges of the Angkor Empire at Angkor Wat or Bayon offers clues to trace the origin of Cambodian silk fabrics. On the bas-reliefs depicting the daily life of the people during that time or Apsaras(celestial maidens) with mysterious smiles, We have noticed that there are costumes with floral motifs or geometrical border patterns that very much resemble the Indian Ikat called Patola(Double Ikat) of the same period. According to the book "The Customs of Cambodia" written by one Chinese, Chou Ta-Kuan who visited Angkor Empire in 13 century and described its people's life in his book, textiles with spaced floral design have been imported from India and dealt with as the very finest cloths. Moreover, Angkor people have begun raising silkworms and weaving.

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