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Ikat Mystic

When I arrived at my site over a year ago, I was invited to the blessing ceremony for the weaver’s new building. The structure was so new it still had that fresh-cut wood smell. Village weavers work at the Hope for Happiness Homestay, where I teach a weekly art class. The weavers, traditionally women, have been practicing their art here for generations, but their skills were nearly forgotten during the war. A few years ago a smart chap named Paul, with the help of his NGO, instigated a renewed interest amongst village weavers by helping them start a co-op. The owner of the Homestay, Siphen, and her family, provided the place and inspiration for the business to steadily grow.

By mutual agreement, the weavers are paid by project, so if they need to care for their families they can manage their weaving work accordingly. The atmosphere at the open-air studio is tranquil, yet lively. As I ride my bike up to the schoolhouse on Wednesday afternoons for art class, I hear the clack of the wooden looms. I ring my bike bell and the women call out, “Susiadai, Tree!” It’s a welcoming place.

Paul was born in India, grew up in Canada, and was educated in England. He majored in economics, so even before the first weaver’s hut was built he was scouting out places to sell the goods. That’s the noticeable difference between artists and businesspeople. The artists are interested in creation—business people are interested in distribution. We need each other. The village weavers work with a variety of materials: silk, cotton, and recycled garment factory scraps, mostly. From these they weave scarves, rugs, and tablecloths, which in turn are made into fashionable accessories. Our village weavers are featured at the Cambodia Cultural Village in Siem Reap, which showcases traditional Khmer arts. Never satisfied with status quo, Happiness Homestay likes to explore new venues and products for their weavers. Paul, and Linda—number-one daughter and general manager of the weavers and Homestay—decided to bring ikat weaving to the loom.

Ikat is a mind-boggling technique in which warp or weft threads (or both) are tie-dyed before it is woven, so the characteristically blurry design appears within the weaving. I have seen it done and can report it’s as mystifying as mapping the stars. The weaver must conceive the design and assess the length of colored-blocked thread to be used, and then lay it in the weave with multiple passes. The result might be a repeat pattern or randomly placed motifs. How that actually happens is one of the world’s great mysteries.

Paul and Linda found a talented ikat weaver in a neighboring province. They basically kidnapped her, and brought her to the Homestay as an artist-in-residence to teach the other weavers. Nary is a lovely, happy woman, deaf since birth, which makes for delightful conversations. She is my only Khmer friend who isn’t baffled by my bad Khmer accent. We talk through gesture and smiles and the pictures I take. Her own language of pips and squeaks and lots of laughter communicates the general idea. Nary wove a demonstration panel with a parade of elephants, palm trees, faces, and Angkor Wat. All executed upside down.

Ikat weaving is a math problem, a mapping challenge, and artistic leap of faith. It is also an art with ancient roots in India, Central Asia, Japan, Africa, and South America. Which makes one wonder how something so complex could have been conceived and perfected through such a simple, ancient means as the loom. Weaving is by turns logical and predictable, but ikat weaving layers in something like song, a visual melody that plays throughout the fabric. My new friend Nary is a skilled Ikat Mystic who sings such a song. The fact that she is deaf makes it even more of a marvel.

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