Golden Silk Pheach
Golden Silk Pheach’s stand at the Maison d’Exceptions at Première Vision is dotted with black-and-white ‘Please Do Not Touch’ signs, stark against luminous swathes of silk. As we get closer, the impulse to reach out and caress these sumptuous pieces is overwhelming.
Mrs Oum Sophea Pheach comes forward to greet us, smiling, with a warmth at odds with the warnings. Formerly the Director of the National Center of Cambodian Silk, Mrs Oum Pheach founded Golden Silk Pheach in 2002 in the Siem Reap region of Cambodia, close to the Angkor Wat Temples. Her mission is to revive and preserve the ancestral Khmer savoir-faire of hand-woven golden silk, and also to provide an artistic formation to some of Cambodia’s young generation orphaned by war.
At one time there were 10,000 skilled silk weavers in Cambodia. Today, they number 200.
Each piece of silk is produced from the yellow silkworm, a species indigenous to southeast Asia, specifically to northwest Cambodia. This rare and fragile breed yields 15 times less silk than its white counterpart, and requires 24/7 care in feeding, cleaning and handling. The yellow silkworms are nourished exclusively with fresh, washed and cooled mulberry leaves which are replenished three times a day. It is no coincidence that the center is located in the heart of a mulberry forest. Their breeding space is cleaned daily. Their health is monitored, contact with chemical fertilizers or insecticides would be fatal. The silk thread eventually produced is so fine that it can only be spun and twisted by hand.
“Care and patience are vital when it comes to unravelling the cocoons to get the silk. We have to remove the outer layer by hand, because that’s the coarse thread. What we need are truly soft and pliable layers underneath,” says Mrs Oum Pheach.
Then, strands are hand-knotted in 3D patterns before being dyed using natural indigo, bark and leaves from the lychee tree, Prohut bark, and Lak insect eggs, all sourced locally from the area around Angkor Wat Temples. The intensity of the indigo varies depending on the exact location and soil of the growing plant.
The process is natural and ecological from A to Z. The dyes are fixed using lime juice. The center generates its own electricity, gas and ventilation – essential as the temperature reached 40°, 36° in the shade, in February.
“We produce beauty from suffering,” she smiles.
Even the presentation box is made from rice husks.
Only 300 grams of silk can be dyed at one time to ensure the correct penetration of the colour. The resulting colours are delicate and subtle, enhanced by the pearly lustre of the naturally golden hand-made silk, which is (we are reliably informed) velvety soft to the touch.
The silk is then woven, or sculpted, in one of two traditional Khmer technics, raised Brocatelle and recessed Ikat brocade, inspired by an ancient fabric in the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. Traditionally, the length of the detailing on the hem relates to the social status of the wearer.
Forming a silkweaver takes at least 10 years. To become a fully accomplished artist, 17 years.
Clients who order a customized piece have to be patient, luxury on this scale cannot be rushed. Some customized pieces can take up to two-and-a-half years to complete.
“The pattern is traced onto to graph paper, then the silk is knotted following the pattern, millimetre by millimetre, line by line. The silk advances at the rate of one centimetre per day, it is very labour intensive,” says Mrs Oum Pheach. “Each piece is entirely unique. It can take a whole year to produce a metre of fabric. This is the first time in our history that a luxury product has been handmade in Cambodia.”
The Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum of Cologne has just purchased a kakemono for its entrance. Angela Missoni approached her to ask her to participate in a Missoni award.
And, if worn, how are these untouchable works of art laundered?
“Very simply. In cold water with a dab of shampoo.”