Cambodia’s ancient handwoven silk industry, once among the world’s finest, was fading into oblivion before Japanese textiles expert Kikuo Morimoto came along.
In a country racked by poverty and the lingering ravages of civil war, few Cambodians were involved in silk production, and the art of silk weaving was fading.
Commissioned by UNESCO to survey the status of traditional Cambodian silk making in 1994, Morimoto came upon a rural village, where he saw elderly women selling silk weavings to middlemen for nearly nothing. By purchasing their products for higher prices, Morimoto set about restoring and re-creating traditional silk production—and a way of life.
It was an experience that would indelibly change the Japanese textile expert’s life, as well as those of scores of Cambodians.
Within a year, Morimoto founded the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles in Siem Reap, a community 20 miles from Phnom Penh, and started a project to raise silkworms and grow mulberry trees.
"In the beginning, it was like a wasteland,” he says. “But I planted trees, built a house, dug a well, and made a road and a farm—everything. People thought I was crazy. I guess most people would worry about not knowing how to build a community. To me, it seemed like a reality, something possible to realize."
Using funds from his Rolex Award for Enterprise, Morimoto set up workshops for silk production, enabling older artisans steeped in traditional production to pass their dyeing and weaving techniques to younger generations. "This is probably the only place left in the world where silk weaving is completely carried out by hand with traditional looms and natural dyes, and they're made from plants and trees we planted ourselves,'' says Morimoto, 68.
The richly colored fabrics produced by his workshops have since attracted interest worldwide. "We actually do things in the same way as hundreds of years ago,'' he says. "The big difference of the textiles we make here from the silk that is in every common market is the texture, smoothness, and quality. When you touch our textiles, you can feel it."
IKTT, also called Wisdom of the Forest, includes a settlement of 50 homes, 150 residents, and a school for 50 children.
“Rolex was the push-up that made it possible for me to expand the village, make it almost entirely self-sufficient, and make silk weavings that people fly in from overseas to buy,’’ Morimoto says.
National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.