The intricately patterned ikat silks (silks that whose threads are tie-dyed before being woven) created by the Khmer and Cham ethnic groups may come to mind when thinking of Cambodian textiles, but the peoples of Cambodia have produced many other cotton and silk textiles. Cambodians traditionally considered both domestic and imported textiles to be markers of identity, prestige, and wealth, and quantity and quality of textiles possessed by an individual or family contributed to their status within society.
Traditional dress in Cambodia is similar to traditional dress in neighboring Laos and Thailand. Sampot is the lower garment worn by either sex. The sampot for urban lower class and peasant women is a tube-skirt (sarong) approximately one and a half meters in length with both ends sewn together and is worn wrapped around the waist and secured with a cloth belt. Women of the middle and upper classes preferred to wear the sampot chang kben on a daily basis until the beginning of the twentieth century. This rectangular piece of cloth is approximately three meters long and one meter wide and is worn by first wrapping the cloth around the waist and stretching the ends away from the body. The outstretched ends are then twisted together and pulled between the legs and toward the back. The ends are tucked into the waist at the back, and the sampot chang kben is lastly fastened with a cloth or metal belt. Women of all social strata wear the sampot chang kben on special occasions such as religious ceremonies and weddings. Men also wear the sampot chang kben, but the traditional textile patterns worn by males differ from those worn by females. Traditionally, neither women nor men wore an upper garment. However, when the French colonial presence grew in Cambodia in the late nineteenth century, both men and women began to wear upper garments.
Even after the French presence in Cambodia from the 1860s onwards, Cambodians continued to wear traditional clothing. The Cambodian royalty and government officials combined the shot silk sampot chang kben (in the appropriate color for the day of the week) with a formal jacket. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Cambodians adopted forms of western style clothing such as a blouse or shirt. Men more readily adopted trousers as the lower garment for daily use, and both sexes continue to wear the sampot chang kben for formal occasions. Lower class and particularly rural women still wear a tube-skirt, but the material may be printed batik-patterned cloth bought at the market rather than hand-woven silk or cotton.
The most important silk textiles of Cambodia are the ikat silks (hol), twill-patterned, weft ikat textiles. The pattern is made by tying vegetable or synthetic fibers on sections of the weft threads before the threads are dyed. This process is repeated for different colored dye baths until the patterns are formed and the cloth is woven. The two types of hol textiles have five traditional colors: red, yellow, green, blue, and black. The sampot hol is the lower garment mentioned earlier, made from hol cloth (hol cloth can also be used for sampot chang kben). The pidan hol is a ceremonial hanging reserved for religious or sacred purposes.
The pidan hol is an example of excellent craftsmanship. It may be presented to a Buddhist temple or hung it in homes to create sacred space around the family's personal shrine. In a temple this textile is hung behind, above, or around the base of, a Buddha image. The narrative motifs of a pidan hol often depict tales of the previous lives of the Buddha.
The various ethnic groups of Cambodia also produce cotton material for religious clothing and other purposes, such as for bedding and for various householdtextiles. The royal courts also imported Indian chintz with patterns especially for the Southeast Asian market.
The kroma is the all-purpose utility cotton cloth used by either men or women throughout the country as a head or neck scarf, belt, or towel. It is also used as a bag to carry things. This rectangular textile has a checkered pattern, usually blue and white or red and white, with striped ends. Political groups such as the Khmer Rouge have used the kroma to symbolize membership.
The Cham, an Austronesian group, are highly skilled silk weavers who produce cotton tube-skirts or sarongs for both men and women. Three or four hundred years ago, the Cham reportedly used to produce batiks (wax resist-dyed fabrics) in cotton similar to that of their kin in insular Southeast Asia. Cham women weave a checked or plaid cottonsarong for men. Natural or white cotton is important in Cham religious activities; it is worn by Cham priests and used as a sacred object during religious ceremonies.
Other Mon-Khmer and Austronesian minorities living in the northeastern region of Cambodia weave cotton cloth on back strap looms for clothing and domestic use. The groups of both of these linguistic families weave similartextiles by attaching the warp beam of the back strap loom to a tree or part of a house in order the achieve the lengths of woven material needed for their loincloths.
The male loincloth is approximately 20 to 25 centimeters wide and 3 to 7 meters long. It is indigo blue or black with large red warp stripes and smaller yellow and white warp stripes. Supplementary patterns also decorate the stripes. The ends of the loincloth are patterned with red bands with supplementary patterns of animal or plant motifs. Red tassels and lead, glass, or plastic beading sometimes decorate the edges and ends of the loincloth. Men of the various Mon-Khmer linguistic groups sometimes wear a blanket over a shoulder during rituals, but otherwise do not wear an upper garment. Occasionally, men wear a simple tunic made from plant fibers such as bark cloth or banana leaves. These plant-fiber tunics are reported to have been more common when the technology to weave cotton was not familiar to these groups. It is now rare to find clothing made from these fibers. Men of the Jarai and Ede Austronesian minorities wear a collarless shirt of indigo or black cotton adorned with red yarn or metal beads on special occasions.
Women of the different ethnic minorities wear tube skirts. The long tube-skirt is worn tucked in around the breasts and is made from two pieces of material sewn together to form a tube. The shorter version is made from one piece of cloth sewn into a tube and is worn tucked in at the waist. The color scheme of the women's tube-skirts is similar to that of the men's loincloth. Women either do not wear an upper garment or wear a simple tunic made from a single piece of cloth with a hole cut in the middle of the textile for the head and the sides sewn together leaving open spaces for the arms. Ede women add sleeves to the tunic and decorate them with red yarn and metalbeading.
As with other Khmer and Cham ethnicities, the minority groups of northeast Cambodia presently reserve traditional dress for special occasions. Textile production in Cambodia has experienced disruption because of political conflict, particularly during the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s. Textile production increased in the calmer conditions at the beginning of the twenty-first century, encouraged by renewed local and foreign interest in hand-woventextiles, particularly in mastering the dyeing and weaving of the pidan hol produced prior to the twentieth century.