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Traditional Silk Industry Struggles to Keep its Shine

Sok Chan / Khmer Times Share:
A member of Color Silk NGOs weave scarf, skirt made from silk fiber at show room in Maybank building in Phnom Penh.

To get high quality silk scarves or silk products ready to sell in shops or markets takes at least two or three days of hard work by weavers, most of whom work in small villages.
The weavers’ job is slow and painstaking and designs are carefully worked on, Sorn Dany, a 19-year-old silk scarf weaver from Takeo province told the Khmer Times while she was making a scarf. 
Ms. Dany, a member of the NGO Color Silk who had just finished a training course on how to weave silk scarfs and skirts, said she took classes for four to five months before she could make one nice scarf. She said that after leaving school, doing the course and finding a job she has now been able to enjoy a better standard of living. 
Now every day she produces two or three silk scarves or skirts and gets $4 for each scarf and more for skirts. 
“When I was in school, I was taught how to feed the worms, which make silk cocoons and then how to dye the silk and get it ready to weave. The silk yarn has to be degummed using natural components. When it was ready, the silk fiber is boiled and then the dyed yarns are finished and dried,” Ms. Dany said, adding that she could make a scarf and skirt to meet any customer’s needs.
Ngorn Vanntha, the president of the NGO that set up Color Silk, told Khmer Times that to boost silk production in Cambodia, Color Silk had created a center to train women how to weave, feed the silkworms, dye the silk and make scarves and skirts. The women are taught how to use German and Khmer dyes. She said 450 families are now members of Color Silk, which was founded in 2009.
“What we provide members with is training and equipment, both standard and high quality, in their community in order for them to make products for the international market. After doing a training course, the silk products they make is ready to be sold on the international market,” Ms. Vanntha said. She said that 80 percent of the products are exported and 20 percent sold locally. 
Ms. Vanntha said that one of the benefits of being a member of Color Silk it that the center will support them by finding markets for their goods, give them weaving material and buy the products at a reasonable price. “Since we have more members, we can meet demand from countries in the EU, Denmark and Japan. I want this silk sector to be stable and provide more jobs and income to people. We export about 70 percent of the total amount of products as local demand has fallen dramatically to less than 20 percent.” 
Ms. Vanntha said another problem she faced was that there is not enough local silk fiber to not meet demand, so her organization imports it from Vietnam and China. Men Sineoun, the director of the Artisan’s Association of Cambodia (AAC), said Cambodia’s silk production has seen a drop in prices and local consumption in the last five years, while weavers, worm feeders and sales outlets have all suffered from the widespread use of pesticides. Some people involved in the business had also migrated to other countries to look for work, resulting in more imports to meet demand. Businessmen who buy silk also complain about the shrinking market, he said. 
Since the National Silk Board (NSB) was founded in 2014, little has been done to help boost the industry, Mr. Sineoun said.  “I am also a member of a national silk board, we have strategy, but not yet implemented, it is just plan to push silk fiber and boost the silk yarn. It is in plan, there is no any step toward,” he said.
He added that Cambodia imports about 300 to 400 tons of silk fiber per year, while local silk producers make about 1 ton. Cambodia exports about $2 million worth of silk products every year. Mr. Sineoun said the NSB and AAC are also working to solve these problems and added that to get investments in silk fiber takes a lot of time and capital. 
“We have plans and a strategy now, but we need capital and technology to grow and feed silkworms,” he said. “We have skills and the members of our association have a lot of stores to boost and promote silk, but we can only do that with the end products of silk,” he added. 
Mr. Sineoun said that in 2015, both locally and internationally, Cambodia sold silk products worth about $ 2.6 million per year, not very different from 2014. He added that some members in the AAC still have foreign markets to export their silk products to. He said sales outside the country is not as strong as the previous year and there had been some decreases. The sales of silk products locally have been down due to a slowdown of tourists buying silk products from Cambodia. He added that in some seasons, silk sells well, while other seasons are not as good.
“From February to July is the low season, but from August to January is the high season, and our products sell well,” he said. “However in 2015, the low season lasted from February to early December and it was difficult to sell silk products.” He added that sales have been increasing since last December. 
Nhem Morokak, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the deputy of the NSB council in the commerce ministry, told Khmer Times that the NSB is setting out a policy and strategy to boost silk products. 
“Silk in Cambodia is called gold silk, but some people migrate to work in another country and leave silk production as they think there is no market, so we have to create a market for them,” Ms. Morokak said. “We are lacking the raw material and experts. Silk is a heritage job. We don’t know the price, so on the free market people import fiber from other countries. 
“In order to strengthen our market, we have to strengthen our silk.” She added that there were once about 20,000 silk producers, but now there are only about 5,000. “Our silk is high quality and a high price, but it cannot compete with imported silk,” she said. 
Tan Sri Dato, chairman of Maybank, said the bank was working to assist silk weavers. “The Maybank Women Eco Weaves program, one of the Maybank Foundation’s flagship programs, is essentially designed to promote commonalities in ASEAN in supporting the traditional weaving practice. They will build the Maybank Silk Weaving Training Center in Takeo with Maybank’s financial support to boost silk production in Cambodia. The training center will select about 50 women to train in weaving free of charge per year,” he said. 
“In Cambodia, silk weaving is an ancient Khmer art and also a significant contributor to GDP. The majority of the silk production in Cambodia takes place in Takeo province,” he said. “We hope our efforts will help to enrich the lives of the women in the community in becoming economically independent as we work with Color Silk.”

A member of Color Silk NGOs weave scarf, skirt made from silk fiber at show room in Maybank building in Phnom Penh. KTs/Chor Sokunthea

A member of Color Silk NGOs weave scarf, skirt made from silk fiber at show room in Maybank building in Phnom Penh. KTs/Chor Sokunthea

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