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Rough Cut: Cambodia: The Silk Grandmothers
Interview With Kikuo Morimoto

Morimoto talks about reviving a tradition almost lost in the legacy of war and about his own drive for artistic perfection and social change.

Interview With Kikuo Morimoto, Director of the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles

Emily Taguchi: How did you become involved in Cambodian silk making?

Kikuo Morimoto: It started in 1980. When Cambodians began fleeing to refugee camps on the Thai border, I began volunteering at the weaving school at the camps. I used to work dyeing and hand painting kimonos in Kyoto. In 1994, I came to Cambodia for a UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] mission. During the 20 or so years following the 1970 civil war in Cambodia, no one knew who was weaving what fabrics in what villages. No one -- including the Cambodian culture ministry, arts colleges and nongovernmental organizations -- had any information about the tradition. So UNESCO commissioned me to do a study to find out whether or not this craft, which had been in Cambodia for thousands of years, still existed.

Kikuo Morimoto.

Kikuo Morimoto

How did you begin the study?

I went to Cambodian villages. The first one I visited was in September 1994; it was 50 kilometers, about an hour's drive, from the capital Phnom Penh. I asked the receptionist at my hotel for a driver, but nobody wanted to go. Nobody knew when the guerillas would appear, so even though I wanted to go just 50 kilometers south, I couldn't. Finally, a taxi driver said he would take me. He was an older man; he couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Khmer. The UNESCO office in Phnom Penh gave me a simple hand-drawn map that showed the names of a weaver and a village. So we set off based on the map.

At the time, a third of the country was still fighting. So there were many areas called the pink zone, which were passable one day but not the next. I had a sense that we were heading into the pink zone, but when we arrived the whole village was weaving.

A third of the country was still fighting. So there were many areas called the pink zone, which were passable one day but not the next. I had a sense that we were heading into the pink zone, but when we arrived the whole village was weaving.

What happened next?

After interviewing the weavers, my assistant went to look for a boat. A group of soldiers arrived on their motorcycles. I had seen soldiers before, but normally the local people knew them and the soldiers would lower their guns. This time, they didn't lower their guns, and they weren't wearing the national army armband. Plus, they weren't saying anything to the villagers. I was sitting on the banks of the Mekong; about four or five villagers came and sat with me to protect me. If the soldiers knew I was a foreigner, I'm sure I would have been arrested.

What made you leave your country to dedicate your life to silk revival in Cambodia?

I saw these grandmothers who possessed magnificent skills. Middlemen would come to the villages to buy their work -- for nothing. Although these women were highly skilled, they could only do low-paying work. I found that there were no opportunities for their skills to flourish. As a craftsman, I thought if they had those great skills, they should be paid decently for them.

How did you first change things for these women?

I brought these old pieces of silk fabric and asked the grandmothers if they could make something similar. I told them I would pay three or four times what the middleman paid and to please do the best work they could. This is basically how I went around looking for the skilled grandmothers, and then I would hand them the cloth to see if they could create something similar. My first task was trying to restore or recreate the traditional work of the villages.

I will never forget the faces of the grandmothers when I delivered the [silkworm] eggs or the way they drew the thread so efficiently, just how they used to -- their fingers knew exactly what to do.


What reaction did you get from the villagers?

In conversations with weavers, there was excitement about bringing their work back. But there were no [silkworm] eggs, which was key. But I had also worked with Khmer weaving villages in Thailand on the Cambodian border. I went to the villages in Thailand and bought eggs, traveled to Bangkok by car, flew to Phnom Penh and returned to the Cambodian village -- in all, it took three days. But during the journey, the eggs began hatching, and they died a week later. So I tried again. I will never forget the faces of the grandmothers when I delivered the eggs [or] the way they drew the thread so efficiently, just how they used to -- their fingers knew exactly what to do. When I saw this, I wanted to deliver more. The next time I carried not eggs but cocoons. Those survived, and continue today, 10 years later.

The studio has grown rapidly. What contributed to its success?

I tell them very clearly not to make fabrics that won't sell. Our fabrics, each of them, carry the name of the person who weaved it, who designed it. Each one is an original, and each one has been created by hand from start to finish. Some fabrics sell the same day they have been finished. I tell [the weavers] that these fabrics are attracting the customers and to make products like these. When sales are low, sometimes salaries are delayed. And when there is a delay, it's because they're not making good fabrics and customers aren't buying them.

Making Fabric

Women are involved in all aspects of the silk-weaving process.

How do you decide who works at the studio?

I try to prioritize, hiring the poor from surrounding villages, [based on] whether they have a disability or they have lost their parents. Recently, the Siem Reap has become a tourist destination [for people coming to visit the ancient ruins of the Angkor temples] and people's lives are beginning to change. A few years ago, when I told people [looking for work] that we were at full capacity and to return in two or three months, some crumbled on the spot. They wouldn't leave.

There are still many people who live on the borderline of whether or not they will have something to eat that day. I try to choose people so that they will be able to eat. I would love this work to be used to that end. If people who live in poverty can use the wisdom, experience and skills of this tradition to survive, then it is one way the tradition will be passed down. Like with everything, it's important for people to have a clear motivation that they can make a living and create a better environment for themselves. I believe that directly relates to them creating a quality fabric.

I have seen old, splendid pieces of Khmer fabric. People have digressed since then. To bring back those skills is not going to be easy.

What is the motivation behind expanding into the forest?

I found that all of the materials needed to make a piece of cloth once existed inside the Cambodian villages. They used to have indigo dyeing, but that no longer exists. They used to grow cotton, but that disappeared. They used to have this insect called the lac, which was used to create a beautiful red dye, but those bugs are also now gone. To bring them back requires growing the trees that they can live in, so we are recreating the forest in which these insects can survive. In the end, without bringing back the environment that supported these things, we can't weave the magnificent fabrics that Cambodians used to weave.

We are bringing back the wisdom and experience of using natural dyes that people possessed over hundreds and thousands of years. There were many skills and techniques once considered secret recipes, but they are disappearing. I have no doubt that bringing back the experience of the past will have meaning for our future.

Teaching

Kikuo Morimoto teaching at his studio outside Phnom Penh.

You now have more than 400 people employed at the studio -- all earning much more than the average income in the country. What is your goal for the next 10 years?

To make the highest quality silk in the world. I have seen old, splendid pieces of Khmer fabric. People have digressed since then. To bring back those skills is not going to be easy. A hundred years ago, Cambodians used to make magnificent fabrics. Cambodian ikat [fabric made from yarns that have been tie-dyed before weaving] is collected in famous museums around the world; they are in the hands of famous collectors. I have seen [the fabrics]. If we can restore and recreate a world that has been decimated by civil war, there are people who would most certainly want these fabrics. And this will allow people to put food on the table. Our first mission is to make the best ikat in the world. For this, there is no compromise.