The Modern Silk Road
There has always been an affinity for textiles in my family. My great aunt worked in a textile factory making men’s shirts; my grandmother’s cousin was a seamstress for the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. From birth I was wrapped in crafts made by grandmother: from sewn and tatted dresses to knitted blankets and toys. As for me, I learned how to sew when I was 5, knit when I was in my teens, and weave after college. The fiber crafts rooted in my bloodline never really seemed significant to me. I guess I just saw it as a convenience that I did not have to go far to learn about textiles.
I never would have imagined these facets of my life coming to mind while trying to escape the heat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. After spending the morning walking through the temples in raw amazement, I was seeking out rest and ice cream. Siem Reap has been built up due to the tourism going to Angkor Wat. With the increased tourism comes many shops and boutiques selling NGO goods, items from recycled materials, and touristy appropriated trinkets. While walking by one shop in particular, a necklace caught my eye in the window. Unlike other stores in the area, this store had a feeling of being purposefully curated. I went in.
The owner of the store, a Thai woman named Chantreemas, was young and vibrant. She noticed my curiosity that transferred from the necklace in the window to the delicate textiles and began explaining to me that the pieces are vintage and made near where she grew up. She shared with me her background in fashion and her desire to learn some of the ancient weaving techniques that have been lost due to industrialization. After pulling out a silk piece over 100 years old that was delicately wrapped in tissue paper, she explained that the pictorial motifs were specific to a certain region in Thailand capturing a celebration of a deity. It was news to me that every village had their own style of making textiles and that the fabric’s origin could be traced back to its region through the depicted symbolism.
Chantreemas had discovered that her interest in studying fashion stemmed not from the desire to design something new, but to preserve and cherish her roots. Her store was filled with ceremonial trinkets that she remade into one of a kind jewelry. Garments were sewn out of silks and cottons that she traveled to villages and flea markets to find. The simple shapes of her long tunics were harmoniously showcasing the found fabrics. It was refreshing that her store wasn’t selling knick knacks made out of recycled industrial materials. Instead, she was selling history in cloth and objects that define a people, a group, a village, a culture, a belief, a family.
I hesitate to name it as a life changing moment, but it certainly was a renewal of creative purpose. Recently I asked my aunts if they had any thoughts about why our family has such a history with textiles. Was it because at one time, fiber arts were a part of the domestic role of all western women? Or did our family just have a knack for it? We concluded that the answer was both, but what set me apart today was the genuine interest in the craft. I felt a connection to a greater history that afternoon as I talked and learned with Chantreemas. Threads do more than weave textiles - they tie cultures and generations together.