Traditionally, Cambodian craftspeople dyed their silk and cotton threads with natural dyestuff. Unfortunately, this valuable tradition is already disappearing in some places, with craftspeople tending to rely more on chemical dyes for their silk and cotton thread colors.
KHMER ARTISANRY is conscious and very concerned about this. It is therefore founded to revive this tradition.
WHAT ARE THE PROCESSES OF NATURAL DYEING?
Our natural and traditional dyeing incorporates specific techniques to produce colors from natural materials or dyestuff, without using chemicals. All the elements involved in this process are available in the country. Of course, these natural colors are suitable for Khmer silk due to the longevity of its liveliness and endurance.
In fact, it is a labour-intensive task. It requires a lot of hard work and effort to weave Hol, Phamuong, Sarong Sotr, Chora-Bab and produce one skirt or one kbin for clothing or Khmer-style decorations using techniques of natural dye and ikat patterns. However hard it is, it won’t stop our weavers from putting their all into the work they do with diligence and pride.
For example, to dye a red color, our dyers need to use a red dye called “Leak Kramor”. Trees that give high color output include Trang (Ficus Altissima Blume), Sangke (Combretam Quadrangulare Kurz), Kakoh (Sindora Siamensis Teijsmex), Chankiri (Albizia Saman), etc.
Leak Kramor needs to be broken into small pieces then decocted for two hours in order to obtain the color for red dye. It will then need to be decanted, when only the red liquid is retained, and mixed with water from decocted tamarind leaves. For example, to produce a Hol for one Kbin (4 meters long and 1 meter wide), our dyers need one or one and a half kilograms of red dye (if it is wet) and one kilogram of tamarind leaves. These materials will produce two liters of liquid dye each. Traditionally, sour liquid abstracted from tamarind leaves is of better quality than that of liquid abstracted from tamarind fruits.
(Stick Lac Natural Dye)
Wet silk is dyed in red liquid by beating and boiling it in the liquid for ten minutes. Dyers have to beat it at least eight times to allow each thread of the silk to absorb the color. Each stage requires one hundred and twenty beats. At this stage, the color they get is light red or pink. The red color will show clearly after we put it in a yellow-colored dye.
(Soaking and Beating Silk)
To dye a yellow color, we rely on a tree called Prahout (Gareinia Vilersiana Pierre) as it is the main raw material to produce a yellow color. This tree can be found in the highlands of Cambodia. Its bark is chopped into small pieces and decocted for half an hour. Then, only the yellow liquid will be decanted and mixed with powdered alum (100 grams), which converts the liquid to a light yellow.
Potash water is produced from banana skin ash, which is better than from Sangke tree ash or from other plants. One kilogram of banana ash can produce six liters of potash water (after decanting). We divide this volume into three parts and two of them are kept for washing silk while the rest for soaking with annatto grain. Potash water can be produced from Phti (Amaranthus Spinosus L.) or other plants, but it is of lower quality.
Traditionally, for blue color, Trom tree (Indigofera Tinetoria) is used. Trom can be found in the villages or planted. Trom’s leaves are pounded and wrung out and green liquid is obtained through soaking the fresh leaves for two nights, then it is used to dye the silk. The quality of this color is not very good because it will quickly fade; so dyers need to produce Dhleah. The Trom tree is soaked for one night then taken when only the residue and bad-smelling water are kept. After that, shell limestone and palm sugar are added every day for one week. This liquid is called Dhleah and can be used to dye silk or cotton.
Hence, in urgent cases, they have to produce Mor, which is a part of thick Dhleah. This thick liquid can be kept for a long time to mix with new Dhleah and is a quick material for dyeing.
For black color, Ampil Toek, (Tamarind Water tree) and Chatra tree are used. Two kilograms of the barks from each of the two trees are stripped, and then boiled for two hours. Only the water is decanted and kept until it lowers to a normal temperature. Next, the silk can then be dyed. The silk is boiled again with this water. Then, it is washed with Smin water and dried in shade and wind, so it can become black for weaving.
Smin water is the result of a reaction between one kilogram of rusty iron, one kilogram of sugar palm, thirty lemons and thirty liters of water. We need to slice the lemon before using it. Every day we have to add a small piece of a lemon in order to improve the quality of the water. We keep these materials in a big jar and leave them in the sunlight for five days to one week. In some cases, Litchi tree (Litchi Chinensis Sonn) can be boiled and sliced with iron for two hours before the silk can be dyed for black color.
Besides the plants used above, we also use some other plants to create abstract colors. These include:
- Nornaung (Luffa Acutangula)
- Po and Sdao (Aglaia-Leptantha Mig)
- Other fruits, vegetables and plants.
* Consulting Document: “Technique of Natural Dyeing & Traditional Pattern of Silk Production in Cambodia, December 2007, by the Buddhist Institute.”