A chance to go back to a Tai Lue weaving village

It was serendipity that led me to the weaving village of Ban Nayang Tai in Laos last year. I cherished my experience there and didn't think I'd ever be able to go back. But that didn’t end up being true. I did go back.


Feasting on traditional Laos cuisine for lunch that was prepared by some of the village women. Mae Sam is seated left, a master dyer; then me enjoying every moment of it; then Emi Weir of the artisan enterprise Ma Té Sai; and Sengmany, who has become a natural leader among the weavers.

Feasting on traditional Laos cuisine for lunch that was prepared by some of the village women. Mae Sam is seated left, a master dyer; then me enjoying every moment of it; then Emi Weir of the artisan enterprise Ma Té Sai; and Sengmany, who has become a natural leader among the weavers.

I first met Emi Weir, founder of Ma Te Sai, an artisan enterprise in Luang Prabang, last year and sourced the Tai Lue home accents and Tai Lao accessories for Indigo Lion’s Laos Collection. She shared with me that the napkins I ordered were made by Sengmany and her young ten-year old daughter, Somaly, who was getting quite good at weaving.

Upon my return to Laos in February, I reached out to Emi and requested to meet some of the weavers, particularly Sengmany and Somaly. I didn’t know then that they were indeed from in the same weaving village of Ban Nayang Tai.

Savong's traditional wooden frame home is typical of the Tai Lue ethnic group. Women do their spinning and weaving underneath their homes, creating a wide range of hand-spun, hand-dyed, and handwoven indigenous cotton accessories and accents.

We walked around the village and met En, who showed us spinning cotton into thread for weaving.

Check out this brief video of shibori indigo dyeing with Mae Sam and go behind the scenes with her showing me how to create a particular shibori design using folding and binding between two bamboo sticks. After plunging several times in indigo vats, and several rounds of pounding, off to the stream we went to swoosh it around in the water. The final design and rich indigo color was quite lovely. 

We met many weavers, who all learned from an early age how to spin and weave. On the left is Silivong, making tassels on her indigo scarf; Savong in the middle in front her display of scarves; and Kon on the right, holding her copper-rose colored scarf.

Silivong's indigo scarf on the left: Natural, indigenous plant-based indigo dye in solid color with subtle variations Savong and Kon's scarves on the right: Natural, indigenous plant-based dyes of indigo and “mak bao” create the colors: natural, gray indigo, indigo + copper rose, and copper rose Click on the bold purple links above to purchase one of their scarves!

Silivong's indigo scarf on the left: Natural, indigenous plant-based indigo dye in solid color with subtle variations

Savong and Kon's scarves on the right: Natural, indigenous plant-based dyes of indigo and “mak bao” create the colors: natural, gray indigo, indigo + copper rose, and copper rose

Click on the bold purple links above to purchase one of their scarves!

I had the fortune of spending time with Emi on several occasions—learning more about her story as an Australian expat and businesswoman, seeing the difference she’s making in the lives of empowering women, and understanding more the current context of weaving traditions in Laos.

She’s a vivacious, savvy, and determined woman and I really like this about her. 

In the interview above, Emi shared how she got her start, her experience working collaboratively with Tai Lue village weavers, and her perspective on the changes, uncertainty, and opportunities for Lao traditional textiles in a globalized world.

When I asked her what still keeps her here in Laos, she said it was the Lao women. I saw that so beautifully in Ban Nayang Tai. Fluent in Lao, her interactions with the women had a notable ease and playfulness. A mutual respect and friendship was palpable among them.

Sengmany, who has emerged as a natural leader among the village weavers

Sengmany, who has emerged as a natural leader among the village weavers

And I met Sengmany and her daughter Somaly! When I gave her the hangtag for the napkins, which had a photo of her designs and her at the loom (and a writing by one of the participants, Alexandra Boycheck, in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions inspired by her napkins), the expression on her face immediately lit up.

While we couldn’t communicate in words, her facial expressions and intonations said everything. The simple recognition of highlighting her in this little printed piece from some faraway place let her know that she’s important, that what she does is valued, and that it means something to others halfway across the globe. And in that recognition, if only for a moment, I felt that we—weavers, partners, me, and writers—were all connected around the one thing that brought us together: her handmade textiles.

Cambodia’s hol pidan weaving tradition — nearly lost, now revived

The skill, patience, and focus needed in this intense technique is significant, and I think of the many dedicated women throughout history and the women who continue to create extraordinary textiles all over the world.


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Sinoeun Men had indefatigable energy, like many non-profit executive directors must, and forthcoming to share more than I knew what to ask about handmade textiles in Cambodia.

He has led and grown Artists Association of Cambodia (AAC) since 2003, a membership organization that supports its artisan producers with training, technical assistance, compliance of fair trade principles, and connecting to domestic and international buyers. When I reached out to him, two days were soon planned to meet several artisan producers and a road trip to a visit weavers and dyers.

From left: Sinoeum Men of AAC, Harumi Sekiguchi of Pidan Khmer / CYK, weaver and his family, Kong Chim, staff, and Sam Oeurn Ouk from Ta Prohm Souvenier

From left: Sinoeum Men of AAC, Harumi Sekiguchi of Pidan Khmer / CYK, weaver and his family, Kong Chim, staff, and Sam Oeurn Ouk from Ta Prohm Souvenier

PIDAN KHMER / Caring for Young Khmer (CYK) is a Japanese NGO that originally started in 1980 to support Cambodian women and children in refugee camps in Thailand, then evolved in 1991 in Cambodia to provide for the healthy development of women and children in impoverished villages.

The weaving program was initiated to provide skills training to women and reintroduce the hol pidan (pictoral ikat) weaving and natural dyeing traditions which the elderly women once knew.  Hol pidan had typically been created as ceremonial wall hangings for temples. Harumi Sekiguchi, director of the Pidan Khmer/CYK in Phnom Penh, has been with the organization for nearly two decades. She has seen tremendous growth in the country in that time and has seen the continuing evolution of Cambodia’s weaving traditions.  

Harumi Sekiguchi in front of the Pidan Khmer / CYK shop in Phnom Penh

Harumi Sekiguchi in front of the Pidan Khmer / CYK shop in Phnom Penh

Our first stop was to Pidan Khmer/CYK's weaving and dyeing workshop in Trapeang Krasang village, an hour and a half south of Phnom Penh.  Pidan Khmer is best know for its revitalization and development of Cambodia's traditional hol pidan. Last year they exhibited 11 new silk textiles at the National Museum of Cambodia, its historical significance presented in the scholarly journal, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia.

Top left: Khmer golden silk; Top right: naturally cultivated indigo dye; Bottom left: bound hol threads creating a pattern; Bottom right: finished indigo hol pidan, one that was exhibited at the National Musuem of Cambodia.

Top left: Khmer golden silk; Top right: naturally cultivated indigo dye; Bottom left: bound hol threads creating a pattern; Bottom right: finished indigo hol pidan, one that was exhibited at the National Musuem of Cambodia.

Master dyer Sao Chanthorn, left, with two weavers of Pidan Khmer

Master dyer Sao Chanthorn, left, with two weavers of Pidan Khmer

Our next stop was to Kamchan Village, near Chisor Mountain Temple in Somraong District, where we met the hol pidan weavers.

A traditional Cambodian wooden stilt home, where weavers work at looms underneath their house.

A traditional Cambodian wooden stilt home, where weavers work at looms underneath their house.

Pidan Khmer hol pidan weavers, Pech Ly Kim and Pech Ly Phally, aunt and niece.

Pidan Khmer hol pidan weavers, Pech Ly Kim and Pech Ly Phally, aunt and niece.

My respect for hol pidan grew when I met and saw the work of Pech Ly Kim and Pech Ly Phally, two master artisans who bring the pictorial images to life in golden silk textiles. The skill, patience, and focus needed in this intense technique is significant, and I think of the many dedicated women throughout history and the women who continue to create extraordinary textiles all over the world.

My friend Sushmita Mazumdar once told me, “Knowing the story of one person can change the perception of a whole people, of an entire place, its culture and history, and even a war. Knowing the story of one person tells us more than we might not have ever known.”

It was on this trip that I could see the once dying art of hol pidan revived.  It reminded me, once again, why global artisans matter so much. They are the keepers of their cultural heritage, preserving ancient craft traditions, passing their knowledge and talent through generations, and carrying it into the future.

Sokhom's scarves, connecting me to understanding Cambodia

In learning about the context of handmade textiles in Cambodia, by tugging on one thread leading to another thread and the unraveling of a whole tapestry, reveals a resilient people, a rich culture, and so much more.


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Naihoang and her niece Gueckhour picked me up at my hotel and off we went, driving out of Phnom Penh and towards somewhere. I didn’t know a road trip was our plan (that detail not clarified in our email), but we were on our way to visit one of Craft Village’s master weavers two hours south. I was elated of course and getting to know Naihoang and Gueckhour there and back made it even more fun.

I had met Naihoang's sister, Naiseng, at NYNOW a year prior and was lured by Craft Village’s handwoven silk scarves, determined to visit them on my return trip to Cambodia.   

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Sokhom welcomed us to her home in Ta Non village, Takeo Province. She showed us the beautiful silk scarves she designed, having learned weaving as a girl from her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother before that.

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Sokhom is known for combining rough and smooth silk, using subtle, subdued colors that evoke presence. Additional training in textile design and color dyes through community development grants, as well as working with Naiseng, helped refine her talents that evolved into creating her own style.

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One of my intentions for this trip was to know more about the materials, processes, and context of handmade textiles in Cambodia. I came to know that traditional Cambodian silk, or Khmer golden silk, dates back many centuries. The knowledge of sericulture, or the raising of silkworms for the production of raw silk, had also nearly died out. There's been a modest revival over the decades, but it remains a luxury. To meet the current demands of silk textile production in Cambodia, white silk from Vietnam is imported.

Sokhom admits that she prefers working with Khmer golden silk for its high quality and ease in weaving, but it’s not readily available for her to buy locally. So she buys the white silk imported from Vietnam, both fine and raw bundled silk thread. She then dyes the threads using both natural and low-impact dyes, finally spinning the thread to prepare it for weaving on her loom.

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While we were there, she was preparing silk threads with a pattern for hol (ikat) dying, but admitted that she doesn’t really want to do hol weaving. It takes too long and it doesn't earn her as much money. 

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Sokhom’s gratitude from working with Craft Village over the years was palpable, and Naiheang shared that both families had come to know each other well, creating a trust that was special. She has been able to support her family with weaving, and that’s been very important for her.

Left to right: A family relative, Gueckhour, Sokhom, Sokhom’s husband, and Naihoang

Left to right: A family relative, Gueckhour, Sokhom, Sokhom’s husband, and Naihoang

I felt grateful to meet Sokhom and to learn how weaving has given her a better life and broader opportunities. While her three grown children were all taught how to weave, none are pursuing weaving as a livelihood for income. Sokhom struggles to get enough orders as she once did. 

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The  current socio-economic changes in Cambodia challenge the sustainability of its skilled weaving traditions. It is set against the increasing presence of garment factories that employ many young women to urban places, confronting gender norms in the process. My friend Yennie Tse of Fourth Sector Collective wrote an insightful piece, Daughters of Cambodia: Past and Future, that says it all so well.

Yennie also wrote, "It isn’t until we get a deeper understanding of a society and its people that we can truly appreciate or be effective partners."

In learning about the context of handmade textiles in Cambodia, by tugging on one thread leading to another thread and the unraveling of a whole tapestry, reveals a resilient people, a rich culture, a brutal recent history, and forces in regional economics and government positions that continue to alter the warp and weft of Cambodia.

A selection of Sokhom's scarves came home with me, acquired for Indigo Lion's Cambodia Collection. They are that much more meaningful. I met her. Her scarves are woven with her energy, her story, her worry, her hopes. They connect me to a better understanding of Cambodia. The story of Sokhom's scarves continues, from her hands to mine, from mine to yours.

People watching, rituals, and reconciliation

Last time I was in Phnom Penh I didn’t really like it, I will admit. But it had more to do with where we were in the arch of our overseas sabbatical last year than with the place itself. We stopped there to meet a new business contact and I returned again to meet business contacts. But on this trip I was determined to reconcile that first feeling of a place that had just started off bumpy. I knew there was more to Phnom Penh than that first impression. 


One afternoon I went to Wat Phnom, or “Mountain Pagoda”, the central Buddhist temple of the city. Following are a some of my journal writings and images of that afternoon.

“The traveling spirit in me wanting to see and experience differently, to gain perspective and take in the history, culture, and beauty of people unlike myself.”

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“People watching — people offering homages to the buddha, prayers to the gods, sacrifices to the spirits. Not sure. Can never be sure just by looking."

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"Palms together holding bundles of burning incense sticks to their forehead, chanting melodic prayers before plunging it in a big caldron of ash, plumes of smoke tangling with all the others, swirling wayward to reach wherever, all over, everywhere that it may be heard."

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"Shoes off, hearts open."

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"Paper boats of acid yellow filled with offered fruit, beacons of red candles, their waxy warm drippings ready to hold the next candle."

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"Closed lotus flowers, their petals nudged awake." 

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"Laughing buddhas, lucky figurines and fake paper money placed in shiny bowls."

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Here I found a place of people's hopes, witnessed their collective aspirations, and found solace being among them. Indeed, a reconciliation.

In between a business trip, a solo traveler

My overseas trip to Laos and Cambodia for three and a half weeks in February was essentially a business trip, but it was also a solo journey, one that I had to welcome along the way. Looking back on my many previous travels abroad — whether I was a tourist for a few weeks, a traveler for a few months, or an expat living abroad for a few years — they all seemed underlined by a seeking, adventuring, or escaping. But not so with this trip.  


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My focus for Indigo Lion was to meet with current and new artisan producers and weavers; to scout for new handmade products; and to learn more about the handmade sector, the various weaving techniques and natural dye processes. 

And in between, when I wasn't engaged in business,  I observed, reflected, and was open to the emerging creative ideas that were stirring.

Notes from my journal

“I wonder about this trip. What inner and outer explorations will there be. A world away. Drawn to Laos especially and I don’t know why, but I can just learn and lean into that curiosity, let ideas come, and be open to serendipity.”  

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“Grateful that I have the health and resilience to do this at 48, the lifestyle and support to make it so, and to feel safe and at ease. Feeling more comfortable in my own skin as the days pass, and being more forgiving and accepting of myself along the way. That helps.”

“Been at this place for dinner for a third time. Tried to wander about and find another place but not very adventuresome. I can travel halfway across the globe for adventure, but wandering around to hunt for food is just too much to handle.”

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Sorta getting used to being solo, the simple routines, life slowing down, leaving much to chance. Can’t plan too much. It’s worked out alright.”

“On days with nothing planned, it’s really slow - no push pull, no expectations, no demands, nothing. Just meandering, following my own rhythm and energy. Deeply quieting. Freeing.”  

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“Aware of my micro behaviors, my morning and evening routines - simple, organized, tidy, slow, the same. Why is that?”

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“Can I be alone? Perhaps this time I can take refuge in the aloneness. Remembering that melancholy girl of my early 20s, searching, searching elsewhere, always abroad. But this time it’s different. There is no searching. There is only trying to see more clearly, to be present fully.

“Perhaps it’s when we are most alone, lonely even, at loose ends and in-between that we are in contact with ourselves most. It’s quieting, humbling, awkward.”

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We paused for inspired writing around handmade

We discovered our inner prose and glimpsed into another part of the globe. We were moved by each other’s writings that evoked memory, that inspired story, that recalled people and place and unique insight.


Some of the amazing friends and supporters who participated in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions! Top: Florence, Aida, Sush, Ann Marie, Kate, Andrea, Alex, Sharmila, Louise, Kara, Mary, Sarah. Bottom: Florence, Kate, Mary, Kim, Sush

Some of the amazing friends and supporters who participated in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions! Top: Florence, Aida, Sush, Ann Marie, Kate, Andrea, Alex, Sharmila, Louise, Kara, Mary, Sarah. Bottom: Florence, Kate, Mary, Kim, Sush

What happens when you hold handmade craft in your hands? What will it inspire you to write? This is what we discovered together in three Indigo Lion Pause sessions this fall.

We paused together to hold handmade craft in our hands and write from the heart. We discovered our inner prose and glimpsed into another part of the globe. We were moved by each other’s writings that evoked memory, that inspired story, that recalled people and place and unique insight. We created beautiful conversations and it was magical.

Michelle, Rini, Evan

Michelle, Rini, Evan

The idea of Indigo Lion Pause coming to life

It started in my travels and living abroad over the years. I’ve long been fascinated by beautifully crafted objects and their stories. I would hold them in my hands, see them up close, let my imagination wander and wonder, and try to get a sense of the person who made it. 

Then a couple of years ago, I would get together with Sushmita Mazumdar, an artist, writer, and educator at her studio, Studio Pause for monthly “Mary Pauses”. These were wonderfully creative sessions. One of things I proposed was conversations with objects. I selected a few handcrafted items I had acquired in Mexico and Morocco and wrote freely what came to mind. I was surprised at what was revealed in my conversations. They were full of interesting associations, current emotions, and meaningful insights.

I had conversations with these two handcrafted objects: a ceramic container from Fez, Morocco and an Oaxacan rabbit figurine that was a gift from a dear friend in Mexico

I had conversations with these two handcrafted objects: a ceramic container from Fez, Morocco and an Oaxacan rabbit figurine that was a gift from a dear friend in Mexico

Then this past summer I started attending Sush’s “writing pauses, as she calls them, where we would use the monthly community art on her studio wall as prompts. In ten minutes we would write whatever came to mind — whether associations from past, or present thoughts, weaving in fiction, poetry, prose, whatever. With current issues being what they’ve been this year, we had conversations about race and religion, language and ethnicity, love and social justice.

Kara, Sush, and Tannia inspired by Susan Sterner’s photographic posters of women day laborers in Guatemala at one of Studio Pause’s writing pauses.

Kara, Sush, and Tannia inspired by Susan Sterner’s photographic posters of women day laborers in Guatemala at one of Studio Pause’s writing pauses.

It was also around this time that Sush proposed the idea of doing a series of writing pauses with a twist: focusing on the handmade crafts I was bringing in from Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia as prompts for writing. It all came together and Indigo Lion Pause was born.

Here I am at the launch of the first Indigo Lion Pause in October, focusing on Laos textiles and accessories

Here I am at the launch of the first Indigo Lion Pause in October, focusing on Laos textiles and accessories

The magical happenings of inspired writing

The instructions were simple. We could choose whatever handmade item on the display that spoke to us, bring it on our laps, feel it in our hands, and then in ten minutes write whatever thoughts came. There wasn’t any right or wrong way, or any particular way to do it. Just lean in and let our imagination be free to discover what might appear in writing. We were often surprised at what we wrote. But it was all from the heart, unfiltered, and on the spot. In that sense, it was magical.

Andrea, Alex, Victoria, and Susan

Andrea, Alex, Victoria, and Susan

LAOS

In October we touched the gentle indigo-dyed textiles from the Tai Leu, the ink-black woven bamboo from the Tai Lao, and the inlay woven beading from the Katu in Laos. Feelings of warmth and peace, memories of one’s grandmother and mother, of faraway cafes and imagined stories all came alive in our writing.  

Details from cushion covers, napkins, table runners, hand cloths, and purses — all accessories and home accents from the Tai Leu, Katu, and Tao Lao ethnic groups. Traditional and adapted designs, hand spun, hand dyed and handwoven natural cotton using natural dyes. LAOS

Details from cushion covers, napkins, table runners, hand cloths, and purses — all accessories and home accents from the Tai Leu, Katu, and Tao Lao ethnic groups. Traditional and adapted designs, hand spun, hand dyed and handwoven natural cotton using natural dyes. LAOS

Starting upper left, clockwise: Padee of the Tai Dam ethnic group; women weavers of the Katu ethnic group; Chaban and Noy (mother and daughter) and Sengmany  of the Tai Leu ethnic group (photo credit: MaTeSai for Katu weavers and Sengmany). LAOS

Starting upper left, clockwise: Padee of the Tai Dam ethnic group; women weavers of the Katu ethnic group; Chaban and Noy (mother and daughter) and Sengmany  of the Tai Leu ethnic group (photo credit: MaTeSai for Katu weavers and Sengmany). LAOS

MYANMAR

In November we wrapped ourselves in uniquely designed blankets by the Tiddim Chin weavers of Myanmar. We got close to the intricate patterns, coiling tassels, and embroidered motifs. We traveled along railroads and went to villages at night, we felt textures and decided on designs, and told stories about reindeers and drums.

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Phyu Win and Sui Te (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Phyu Win and Sui Te (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Vung Pi and Oo Man (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Vung Pi and Oo Man (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

CAMBODIA

In December we swooned over gorgeous rough-spun silk accessories made by Cambodian weavers and sewists. We let the colors take us to sky and fields, to subtle moods and wonder, to savor ice cream and remember home and childhood.

Weavers from a women’s cooperative in Krang Thong Village, Cambodia; Bottom right on left: Vibol Sath, founder of Colors of Life Social Enterprise; details of multi-colored designs of hand spun and handwoven rough silk accessories. CAMBODIA

Weavers from a women’s cooperative in Krang Thong Village, Cambodia; Bottom right on left: Vibol Sath, founder of Colors of Life Social Enterprise; details of multi-colored designs of hand spun and handwoven rough silk accessories. CAMBODIA

Multi-design and multi-color rough silk hand spun and handwoven accessories: Starting upper left, clockwise: Coin purses sewn by N. Hang; shoulder bags sewn by Vandy; scarves woven by Sok Khim. CAMBODIA

Multi-design and multi-color rough silk hand spun and handwoven accessories: Starting upper left, clockwise: Coin purses sewn by N. Hang; shoulder bags sewn by Vandy; scarves woven by Sok Khim. CAMBODIA

And of course all of the items were available for purchase so participants could take home the ones they fell in love with.

What’s next? The curating beautiful conversations booklet!

Handmade craft has an energy and an unfolding story - from the artisan who made it, to liaisons working with those artisans, to me sharing it with others, and finally enthusiasts of handmade. We all contribute to the story of handmade.

With that in mind, I’m compiling a booklet of the Indigo Lion Pause sessions to share our beautiful conversations with others. I’ve invited all the participants to contribute their writings with the intent to share it with the artisans and liaisons in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

It’s a way to complete the circle and to show how we’re all connected, how what they do matters and how their handmade craft inspires us.

Kara and Alex

Kara and Alex

And this, what I wrote in an earlier post, “The beautiful conversations held in my hands”:

Most importantly, I want to tell her how much I genuinely love what she’s made. I want to tell her that holding it in my hands is a delight, as if I can feel its energy knowing that she’s held it before me. I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers.

I want to thank her for sharing it with me and tell her to keep making more because there are many others who would enjoy experiencing this too. This is my conversation, held in my hands, what I want to tell her. And in that moment we are connected, if only in my mind, around the one thing we do have in common, that we both held in our hands her beautiful handmade craft.

Aida and Florence

Aida and Florence

A final reception will be held where we’ll showcase the finished booklet, share our collective experiences, and a chance to buy a copy! Stay tuned for upcoming details.

Thank you! 

A huge thank you to Sushmita Mazumdar for this awesome and fun collaboration, for opening your studio to us, and for conceiving of these wonderful writing pauses. Your constant enthusiasm, creativity, and tremendous support made the Indigo Lion Pauses spectacular.

Sush!

Sush!

Thank you to all the participants (many of whom are dear friends and supporters) who paused from busy days and crazy lives to experience something new — writing about textiles from Southeast Asia, delving into memory and association and story, and sharing together a range of perspectives and emotions. I learned something from each of you and have tremendous appreciation for your writings.

Sarah, Ann Marie, Sharmila, Brittany, and Su

Sarah, Ann Marie, Sharmila, Brittany, and Su

Finally, a big shout out to John Chapin, Alexandra Boycheck, Sharmila Karamchandani, and Brittany Noetzel for your enduring belief in me, good counsel along the way, and support beyond words. Thank you Alex Treble, Sushmita Mazumdar, and John Chapin for taking and sharing photos.

Michelle, John, Evan, Sush, Alex, Rini, and Susan

Michelle, John, Evan, Sush, Alex, Rini, and Susan

It really was a lot of fun.

It really was a lot of fun.

My own interaction and creativity with handmade

What happens when you hold global handmade in your hands? What do you see, feel, or wonder about?


As an artist I can't help but be curious about what's around me — what I see in nature, in textures, in other people's creativity and culture. Curating beautiful conversations is so much an extension of that, a space for connection and discovery around global artisans and their handmade craft. It's in that space as an artist that I wonder, see differently, and express creatively.

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles with her husband, our guide and translator Sin, and me looking on (Thabou, Laos, January 2016).

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles with her husband, our guide and translator Sin, and me looking on (Thabou, Laos, January 2016).

I begin by holding one of the traditional textiles I had acquired in Laos earlier this year from Padee, a weaver from the village of Thabou in northern Laos.

And let thoughts begin to express in words...

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i remember so clearly that day
in the village

meeting weavers and i know
nothing about weaving

or spinning or textiles or dying
 
or traditional ways
or lao culture

but it didn't matter really
when what i saw was handmade beauty
and what i know was felt
and the textiles she showed me
communicated all we needed

and now, months later holding it again seeing it up close
its threads, color, pattern
touching rough natural cotton
appreciating the dark indigo
and soft mahogany red

the smell of another place
of outside, of dye, of earth
of another's hands and home
all together
lingering here, now in my home

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i notice the looping threads
the vertical weft
vulnerable and exposed

isn't this not like life?
we come to the edge
of so many journeys
we linger unsure and uncertain
before finding our way again
in the comforting warp of life

Curating beautiful conversations...

What happens when you hold global handmade in your hands? What do you see, feel, or wonder about? What interaction, expression, or creativity begins to emerges for you?

Read more about my time with Padee and other village weavers in my blog, "Letting serendipity lead to a weaving village in Laos."

What happens when we choose artisans and their beauty

An elder woman of the Hong Phoi village in Nagaland, India, sharing her traditional crafted adornments typically worn for the annual Hornbill Festival.

An elder woman of the Hong Phoi village in Nagaland, India, sharing her traditional crafted adornments typically worn for the annual Hornbill Festival.

When I’ve traveled abroad and met artisans directly, even when no common language enables us to understand each other (or even when a willing translator doesn’t have much patience), a subtle kind of conversation begins to emerge.

It’s a kind of conversation where gestures speak, expressions are felt, body language conveys and nuanced intonations are understood. There is little spoken between us, if any. What brings us together is a connection over one thing - her beautifully handmade craft. It’s in that moment that I know more intimately her talented gifts. And perhaps she knows something about me, that I genuinely love what she’s made and appreciate a glimpse into her world.

I believe in this kind of beauty that delights the senses and inspires the heart. The beauty of the handmade object connects us with others, and them with us, through these subtle conversations and exchanges. Global handmade brings people, culture, place, and creativity together.

Far Left and Right: cotton scarf and throw with Naga designs by Chin ethnic weavers from Myanmar; Second left: cotton shaman shawl from the Apatani tribe, Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India; Second right: silk and lotus thread scarf from Paw Khone Village, Myanmar.

Far Left and Right: cotton scarf and throw with Naga designs by Chin ethnic weavers from Myanmar; Second left: cotton shaman shawl from the Apatani tribe, Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India; Second right: silk and lotus thread scarf from Paw Khone Village, Myanmar.

We can positively influence the sustainability of the diverse global aesthetic and cultural heritage of our world. Our relationship with global artisans and their handmade craft matters a great deal. We do have a role in this; it affects change.

When we choose artisans and the beauty of handmade, we make a statement to the world:

As conscious consumers we seek transparency and expect fairness to artisans. As global citizens we advocate for equality and advance opportunity to artisans. As human beings we respect diversity and celebrate the creativity of artisans.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

This kind of beauty that delights the senses and inspires the heart is needed in our world. Without global artisans and their handmade craft, the world would be a much duller and narrower place, indeed.

Let’s choose artisans and their beauty.

How we empower positive change for global artisans

Our relationship with global artisans and their handmade craft matters a great deal. We do have a role in this; it affects change.

When we choose artisans and the beauty of handmade, we make a statement to the world.


The sophisticated detail and symbolic motifs of handwoven silk textiles from the Tai Daeng and Tai Phouan ethnic groups in Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The sophisticated detail and symbolic motifs of handwoven silk textiles from the Tai Daeng and Tai Phouan ethnic groups in Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

They are the women and men around the globe who make, innovate and create handcrafted objects that are a delight for the eyes, rich to the touch, and accent uniquely in our homes and on our bodies. Their work is exceptionally fine crafted and designed, blending their cultural aesthetics with our modern lifestyles.

Global artisans are the keepers of their cultural heritage, preserving ancient craft traditions, passing their knowledge and talent down through generations.

But as the effects of colonization, war, displacement, and globalization have challenged their lives over the past centuries, so too have their livelihoods and cultures been threatened.

Living in remote mountain villages in Northern Laos, the Lanten ethnic group make and wear distinctive black indigo-dyed cotton clothing. Here women are meticulously preparing the threads of a handloom for weaving.

Living in remote mountain villages in Northern Laos, the Lanten ethnic group make and wear distinctive black indigo-dyed cotton clothing. Here women are meticulously preparing the threads of a handloom for weaving.

Movements by international organizations began to address the needs of artisans around the world, working with them as income-generating initiatives to revitalize their crafts and create market access. The social and economic movement we now refer to as fair trade had its beginnings nearly seven decades ago.

Fair trade organizations positioned a more equitable international trading partnership for marginalized small scale producers, assuring them fair wages, better working conditions, equal access, and economic empowerment. US and European buyers, increasingly concerned with exploitive practices of artisans and farmers, helped raise awareness and advocate the benefits of fair trade to their customers. Today, there are thousands of organizations and social enterprises around the world that advance fair trade practices.

Hemp textile weave with applied batik designs of the Hmong ethnic group in Northern Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Hemp textile weave with applied batik designs of the Hmong ethnic group in Northern Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The global artisan sector shows impressive numbers. According to Alliance for Artisan Enterprise Impact Report 2014, it’s the second largest employer in the developing world after agriculture; 65% of artisan activity takes place in developing economies; and it’s a $34 million dollar market.

The social and economic impact to the artisans themselves when fair trade principles are practiced is impressive. There are countless real stories of artisans’ lives transformed when given the opportunity to earn an income for themselves and provide for their families. When given access, training, and resources, they can thrive and inspire others, often becoming agents of change in their own communities. This is the power of women's empowerment in action.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

When we choose fair trade handmade, we are choosing to impact local economies in very real and direct ways.

When we choose fair trade handmade, we empower positive change for global artisans. And ourselves.

Why do we care about a person halfway across the globe?

One person halfway across the world, an artisan, has brought me the simple joy from experiencing her created beauty. I may not know her story, but I want to tell her that she has impacted mine.


Women weavers and leaders from Rengam, an artisan cooperative in Majuli Island, Assam, India, which has supported over 80 women affected by floods and erosion by harnessing the unique weaving traditions of the Mising ethnic group.

Women weavers and leaders from Rengam, an artisan cooperative in Majuli Island, Assam, India, which has supported over 80 women affected by floods and erosion by harnessing the unique weaving traditions of the Mising ethnic group.

“Knowing the story of one person can change the perception of a whole people, of an entire place, its culture and history, and even a war. Knowing the story of one person tells us more than we might not have ever known.”

This is what my friend Sushmita Mazumdar tells me when I ask her the question which has been on my mind lately, why do we care about a person halfway across the globe? Through her StudioPause, Sush’s creative and community work often confronts stereotypes and invites new perspectives through art, writing, and stories.

As if led to more insight, I come across this:

“…how interconnected we are, how our action and our inaction can impact people we might never know, and never meet, every day of our lives, all around the world”.

This is from Jacqueline Novogratz, innovative founder of Acumen, a nonprofit venture fund, sharing the story of the blue sweater (she had donated it to charity as a girl, only to find it a decade later on a boy in Rwanda, confirmed by seeing her name written on the tag).

I love what both of these women are saying. They both speak of a genuine truth born out of their own experience.

Not only has the artisan cooperative become a source of skills training and income for the women, it has provided a platform for emerging women leaders and collective action. Weaver Jan Moni, second from left, draping the handwoven and hand dyed stole she made from Assamese Eri raw silk.

Not only has the artisan cooperative become a source of skills training and income for the women, it has provided a platform for emerging women leaders and collective action. Weaver Jan Moni, second from left, draping the handwoven and hand dyed stole she made from Assamese Eri raw silk.

When I ask myself that question, why do I care about a person halfway across the globe, my first leaning is towards artisans. It is because they bring a rich beauty into the world that is unlike my own.

For as long as I can remember, I have gravitated towards the beauty in other cultures as if to fill a void experienced in my own American culture. The beauty of other cultures has always allured and illuminated my senses, and in particular handcrafted objects that offer a glimpse into another’s ritual and daily life. By my engaged curiosity, I can feel a connection to the object, to the person who made it, and to the energy that is expressed from the creator’s hands.

Detail of the handwoven stole that I lovingly acquired. Eri silk, from silkworms only found in Assam, India, is considered a ‘peace silk’. The caterpillars live a full life cycle in the silk spinning process.

Detail of the handwoven stole that I lovingly acquired. Eri silk, from silkworms only found in Assam, India, is considered a ‘peace silk’. The caterpillars live a full life cycle in the silk spinning process.

As an artist, I wish I could do what they do. I am in awe. I have such respect and admiration it’s almost embarrassing. I fall in love. One person halfway across the world, an artisan, has brought me the simple joy from experiencing her created beauty. I may not know her story, but I want to tell her that she has impacted mine.

Throughout 20 villages, women typically work on hand looms found under their homes. Women also have access to the Rengam workshop for looms and raw materials.

Throughout 20 villages, women typically work on hand looms found under their homes. Women also have access to the Rengam workshop for looms and raw materials.

I want to do whatever I can to create sustainable opportunities for her and other artisans to continue to do what they do and to honor their unique cultural identity and heritage.

And with that, share a glimpse of their cultural beauty with other people halfway across the globe.

Read more about how Rengam began here.  Discover more about the rare Eri silk here

Wanting to know and leaning towards that

I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form. The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away.


[Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by Ma Te Sai, a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

[Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by Ma Te Sai, a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

When we can't have that direct connection with artisans, nor them with us, whether because of geographic, cultural, or technical barriers, there are other ways that a conversation can begin, I've found. If by letting our imaginations free, we can still share our stories around their handmade craft. What happens when we have their handmade craft in our hands? Doesn’t our curiosity get sparked? Mine does. I may be able to find out a little from a tag, or a website, or social media post. Or ask a salesperson at the store, if they know anything more. Or from the friend who travelled and gave me that beautiful gift. It’s just often never enough to satisfy my curiosity. I just want to know more.

So a different kind of conversation starts to happen. All my questions rise to ask the handmade craft itself, as if it knows. Surely it knows, it’s a messenger of sorts, a carrier from its creator to me, the enthusiastic admirer. Won’t it tell me anything? The silence, the unknowing, is obvious. And powerfully revealing.

[Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by Ma Te Sai.

[Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by Ma Te Sai.

I begin to see. I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form.The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away. I am too momentarily away—drawing associations, what it reminds me of, memories of past, imaginations of future. I am momentarily away, imagining the life of the artisan—the questions of livelihood, of culture, her story.

[Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by Ma Te Sai.]

[Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by Ma Te Sai.]

But there is only silence, of course, and no answers. Even so, this time it’s okay. Wanting to know and leaning towards that, allows me to see, touch, and sense in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Curiosity often doesn’t seek answers, it finds all the questions.

 

Our mutual curiosity can find each other

What if instead of only us hearing the stories about artisans, we share our stories with them too? Why not share our stories with them about our enthusiasm and love for their handmade craft.


Like a field of flowers before blooming in full color, ceramic beads in the making at the Clay Cult studio workshop, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Like a field of flowers before blooming in full color, ceramic beads in the making at the Clay Cult studio workshop, Siem Reap, Cambodia

What would happen if she, the artisan, knew of my conversation with her? Is she having similar conversations to some anonymous me, the “American customer”? Is she thinking, who will appreciate this, or who is that person who will eventually buy this, or does that person care who made this?

I care. And I believe there are are others too, like me, like her, who actually care very much. Shouldn’t we then find a way to connect with each other? To let our mutual curiosity about the other and the handmade craft that binds us have a beautiful conversation?

A string bouquet of one of a kind beads - big bulbous bespeckled - adorning each other to speak boldly in this statement necklace from Clay Cult, Siem Reap, Cambodia

A string bouquet of one of a kind beads - big bulbous bespeckled - adorning each other to speak boldly in this statement necklace from Clay Cult, Siem Reap, Cambodia

It does seem possible. So why isn’t it happening? In the global artisan sector some things are happening but not enough of a happening. Meaning, I’m able to find out much more about the stories of artisans if I choose, but I don’t have access to sharing my admiration and curiosity with them and they doubtful have access to sharing their thoughts or curiosity with me if they choose.

We’re ready. Let's go. We’re ready as a kind of gathering tribe wishing to connect, discover, and create. We can do it, technically, globally, and communally. We can take on that challenge and create a kind of social change around this. It then leaves us to find each other and make great conversations about something we all care about, don’t you think?

What if instead of only us hearing the stories about artisans, we share our stories with them too? Why not share our stories with them about our enthusiasm and love for their handmade craft?

Letting someone know you love their work, sharing our story of why we are drawn to their handmade craft, or even why we bought it, can be a real lift and motivator. I want artisans to feel this, to know they are valued.

Some of the talented and dedicated artisans at the Clay Cult studio workshop, along with Savat the gentleman who showed me around with great enthusiasm. Its worth finding out more about Clay Cult, their work in nurturing the talents and providing long-term opportunities for women.

Some of the talented and dedicated artisans at the Clay Cult studio workshop, along with Savat the gentleman who showed me around with great enthusiasm. Its worth finding out more about Clay Cult, their work in nurturing the talents and providing long-term opportunities for women.

What would you say?

The beautiful conversations held in my hands

I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers.


Striped colors of ruby magenta, sky blue and inchworm green among the inviting handcrafted silk scarves of Colors of Life, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Striped colors of ruby magenta, sky blue and inchworm green among the inviting handcrafted silk scarves of Colors of Life, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Global artisans around the world make exceptional handmade craft. They infuse it with their cultural heritage and it connects them with their livelihoods and stories. Beautiful handmade crafts brings out a delight in me for the unique and meaningful and a curiosity about who made it and why.

Where can we go to find global handmade crafts? Perhaps in a fair trade shop in our region. Or on our travels when we go to a bazaar or a shop. Maybe it was a gift from a friend on one of their travels. We might know where it’s from and something about its materials. If we’re lucky, we might know more about the artisans or the mission of an artisan enterprise they’re associated with.

But this only spikes my curiosity to know more about the artisan, her life, her culture, who she is. I want to know more about her handmade craft, about its cultural significance and traditions, or techniques or materials.

Adjusting the threads of her loom with an eye for perfection, the lead weaver at the Colors for Life workshop in Krang Phnong village, Cambodia

Adjusting the threads of her loom with an eye for perfection, the lead weaver at the Colors for Life workshop in Krang Phnong village, Cambodia

Most importantly, I want to tell her how much I genuinely love what she’s made. I want to tell her that holding it in my hands is a delight, as if I can feel its energy knowing that she’s held it before me. I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers. I want to thank her for sharing it with me and tell her to keep making more because there are many others who would enjoy experiencing this too. This is my conversation, held in my hands, what I want to tell her. And in that moment we are connected, if only in my mind, around the one thing we do have in common, that we both held in our hands her beautiful handmade craft.

 

Artisan Profile: Bua Bhat "Learned Weaving by Ear"

Her showroom was a delight in color, creativity, and calm. The moment I met Wilai she put me at ease with her twinkling eyes and warmth.


I recently came back from an extraordinary three month overseas journey in Southeast Asia and Northeast India.  Part of the adventure was connecting with artisan groups, learning about their work, and beginning to source an initial collection for my social business, Indigo Lion Global Handmade. In the coming weeks I will be sharing a series of reflections, experiences, and beautiful conversations from my trip. This is the first one. 

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We were just getting our bearings in Chiang Mai, Thailand when I reach out by email to thefounder and creative force behind Bua Bhat, Wilai Pichitkanjanakul, a small manufacturing workshop which makes handcrafted contemporary hook weaving home decor.  I introduced myself, Indigo Lion Artisan Boutique, and requested a visit. She replied immediately and a date and time was set. I was nervous.

I had to recognize that my nervousness about the whole meeting had much to do about me following through on the thing I’d been saying I was going to do on this trip: meeting artisan groups. This was the first one but what was at stake felt bigger: “I’m Actually Doing This.” The flurry in my stomach let me know that I’m actually launching my business. This is it. This is the real tangible beginning of it, right here.

To calm my nerves I prepared for the meeting. I reread material that I had written about Indigo Lion for this trip, so I could somehow memorize all those well-crafted words… you know, just in case I forgot how to speak or something. I searched everything online about Bua Bhat and Wilai. I reached out to my business coach. Brittany reminded me to “just have tea”, a way of saying to slow down, just get to know someone first, and learn from the experience.

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Glancing around when we arrived, her showroom was a delight in color, creativity, and calm. The moment I met Wilai she put me at ease with by her twinkling eyes and warmth. She invited us to sit down and our conversation began as she shared the story of her family, her life in textiles and the vision of Bua Bhat.

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Her father, originally from China, was invited by the Thai government many years ago to teach weaving techniques to the Thai people to work in textiles. In Lumphun Province, where Bua Bhat is located, there are many groups of the Thai Yong tribe.

This tribe was originally from China and weaving was essential to their culture. It was said a young woman can’t marry until she proves she can weave. Although they don’t practice this much anymore, she says they are good with their hands and learn her techniques quickly and well working at Bua Bhat.

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Wilai says she “learned weaving by ear”. Since she was the sixth child, by the time she was old enough to learn weaving, her father has by then stopped teaching. She heard his stories about how to weave but was never formally trained. She thinks this has freed her to be more creative in her technique, being largely self-taught and learned by doing.

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Her textile creations take the form of pillows, cushions, rugs, and bedspreads and a few smaller products such as pouches and handbags. It was an American weaving company who invited her to see their workshop because they wanted her to produce for them. They introduced her to the Swedish technique of weaving with the fabric scraps, which has now become part of her signature. The hardest part when she was getting started was how to get the scraps from big garment manufacturing companies. It’s now her golden secret, also creating and inventing her own tools to work with her techniques for her designs.

I asked her what inspired her designs. “What fabrics can do and what dyes can do,” was her reply. While nature seems to play strongly in her work - pebbles, rivers, and waterfalls are apparent, for example, it is not a defining influence.

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The pebble pillow is a great story. An American customer had asked if she could make pebbles out of the fabric scraps. She said yes, without knowing how. Yet. An experimenter and entrepreneur at heart, she collected a handful of river stones and really started to look at the color of the pebbles at first, because the color is the easiest thing we can see, she said. Then she placed them in a bowl of water near her bed. She left them there for a month to take in the colors, the shapes. Then she began to experiment with the fabrics and shapes they could make, and the dyes and the range of colors they could produce. It took her a year of trial and error for her to master it. It’s now one of her biggest hits.

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She has continued the work of her father, but in her own way. Confident in her designs and the quality of her work, but confessing to not having any money and not knowing how to do it, she launched Bua Bhat in her late thirties. Her and her business has been quite successful since with international buyers, winning awards and being the beneficiary of several initiatives, including inclusion on the richly informative website, Handmade Chiang Mai sponsored by the British Council).

Wilai stressed that if she were to write her own story, she would focus on three things: the fabric, the dyes, and the people. “Without them, I cannot do anything.” Employing women of the Yong tribe, she encourages them to innovate on her designs and techniques and to teach each other what they know. This way the process continues and is sustained. Many are farmers who earn supplemental income working at Bua Bhat. Others take the work home so they can also care for their families.  

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And the meaning of Bua Bhat? Sunflower. Her mother’s name. Her father, whose name in Chinese means “light from far away", had once told her mother “I want to own a shop and name it after you because I love you.” And so Wilai has.

An hour and a half passed, my nerves long replaced by taking in all that she was sharing of her story and feeling such gratitude to Wilai. Elation followed when I had a chance to see more of her incredible designs!

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As I continue to meet other people and artisan groups in my travels in Southeast Asia, I am reminded of what brings us together - a connection to beautifully handcrafted work and the conversations that unfold.

Letting serendipity lead to a weaving village in Laos

I felt genuine excitement from seeing beautifully made textiles and meeting the women who were creating them, trying my hardest not to go crazy just admiring it all.


First posted on The Artesan Gateway February 8, 2016

It was the kind of day that I had dreamed about for many years — connecting with artisans abroad directly in a tangible way. Seeing each other face to face, glimpsing each other’s lives and livelihoods, and having a shared openness that engages us around beautifully handcrafted objects was always at the heart of it.

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles, with her husband, Sin, and me looking on

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles, with her husband, Sin, and me looking on

I met Sin at Ock Pop Tok, a well-established boutique shop in Luang Prabang, Laos, a social enterprise working in both ethnic and contemporary textile designs. When I first walked in the store, his approachable smile and inviting manner made our conversation easy. Sonnalee, the store manager, and Moonoy, the assistant manager, were equally engaging.

Moonoy and Sin from Oct Pop Tok

Moonoy and Sin from Oct Pop Tok

It was clear that they all cared about their work, were extremely knowledgeable about the various ethnic groups throughout Laos making the textiles and textile products, and passionate about the social mission of Ock Pop Tok. When I introduced myself and the idea of Indigo Lion Artisan Boutique, Sin invited me to his village to meet women who still weave traditional designs and have finished products, if I was interested to buy. Of course I said yes!

Our transport for the two hour trip to the village

Our transport for the two hour trip to the village

Two days later we met early morning at the bus station for the two hour trip in the back of a crowded, bumpy, open-sided, two-bench vehicle. Sin had also invited two of his expat colleagues at Ock Pop Tok – Marie from Greenland, their Production Coordinator, and Katie from DC (small world!), who had just started a couple of months prior as their Marketing Coordinator. Her husband Daniel had joined us, as did my husband John.

When we arrived in the remote village of Ban Thabou where Sin grew up, the first order of business was lunch. We walked a little ways where his family grows rice and vegetables, and picked up handfuls of fresh greens.

Sin boiling the leafy greens in lemongrass and garlic

Sin boiling the leafy greens in lemongrass and garlic

Kitchens are generally outside the homes we’d noticed (much like outdoor camping but more permanent here), so that’s where we headed in Sins’s home. It quickly became a group event. Marie washed the vegetables, Katie chopped them, Sin’s mother Lasoy went off to buy fresh fish, his sister chopped wood kindling, Sin and his niece got the fire started, Sin’s brother cleaned and skinned the fish, his mother grilled it, and Sin boiled the green vegetables in lemongrass and garlic. And me, well, I was the official photographer.

A family affair in preparing lunch

A family affair in preparing lunch

The sense of gratitude to Sin and his family, his mom especially for welcoming us into their home was palpable. Not often do travelers like ourselves get a chance to make the kind of serendipitous connection, where without planning and much fuss do we get a glimpse into the lives of others very much in their homes. Lunch was fantastic, to say the least, and we returned a small gift in kind of fruits and vegetables from the market we picked up later in the day.

Sin, Daniel, Marie, Katie, and John

Sin, Daniel, Marie, Katie, and John

Bellies and hearts full, we moved to the next order of business, which was all about textiles. From her wardrobe Sin’s mother began to pull out several plastic bags of her family’s collection of hand embroidered textiles and traditional clothing. She didn’t have a lot, most were family heirlooms, and they were all extraordinary.

Sin’s mother, Lasoy showing us her traditional handwoven textiles

Sin’s mother, Lasoy showing us her traditional handwoven textiles

The traditional headscarves caught my attention most – deep blue-black indigo with a refined yet simply detailed embroidery that I had never seen before. It had been handspun, hand dyed, handwoven, and hand embroidered by Sin’s mother many years ago.

Traditional Tai Dam headscarf handmade by Lasoy

Traditional Tai Dam headscarf handmade by Lasoy

She placed the headscarf on her head in the fashion of the Tai Dam ethnic group of which Sin and his family belong (and most of the other villagers). Something in her came alive, as we ooh-ed and ah-ed in delight. She rummaged back in the wardrobe and pulled out a traditional jacket and skirt and put it on, looking at herself in the cracked and dusty full-length mirror that didn’t matter; she looked beautiful. She and Sin both said they couldn’t remember the last time they took a look at these traditional clothes and textiles, but it had been a long time.

I wondered what memories came to her in that moment? What was she feeling then of the past, the present, of herself? She seemed pleased, then slightly embarrassed, but she knew we were all appreciative, a special recognition in that moment.

Next we walked down the road to a cluster of traditional wooden homes built on stilts to Lasoy’s sister’s house. Pavan and her husband welcomed us warmly and showed us her collection of cotton textiles she had also handspun, hand dyed, and hand woven. She had products ready to sell.

Pavan sharing her traditional textile designs

Pavan sharing her traditional textile designs

Inquiring more about the textiles, the cotton was grown from nearby farms, as was the raw silk (we visited the silkworms in various stages of production at another woman’s house).

The designs were traditional, referencing the diamond-shaped mahoy seed. The dyes are natural, produced in the village from the indigo plant and macbau, a small fruit plant used for the red.

Natural dyes of indigo and macbau

Natural dyes of indigo and macbau

A little negotiating and I bought two pieces that I could envision as table runners.  Pavan seemed most grateful for the sale, eyes watery and her palms pressed together, thumbs touching her forehead, saying khob chai to us, “thank you.” We learned after that her health was not good and the money would help her get treatment.

Padee was waiting for us at the house next door, with an even bigger collection of finished textiles, all beautifully crafted. I had to keep in mind that I was buying for my shop, and that a random assortment of this and that design wouldn’t work, so I leaned in on similar designs of what I just bought. Padee had a gorgeous piece, something Sin said could be a wall hanging in my shop to showcase the Lao Tai Dan style. Great idea, I thought! So I bought it.

Padee with her collection

Padee with her collection

What I was feeling at this point was mostly amazement that this was actually my life ,that after so many years of wishing for and wondering how I was to segue into the global artisan field, it was finally real and tangible. I also felt genuine excitement from seeing beautifully made textiles and meeting the women who were creating them, trying my hardest not to go crazy just admiring it all.

Me in front of Padee’s house

Me in front of Padee’s house

Finally, I had to keep my mind on my business when it came to buying, the reason why all of us were there, truthfully. For example: Would it sell. Does it convey a story. Will this evolve into a longer-term buying relationship. What is my budget for today. Are these good prices. Does it fit in my luggage. Can I ship it home. I couldn’t buy a lot, nor did I buy from everyone, being mindful not to buy out of pressure or obligation, which was insanely hard.

Sin’s friend with a van then drove us 20 minutes to the next weaving village of Nayang Tai, of the Tai Lue ethnic group. One of the traditional homes had a large open room where they received us. One woman, than another, and another started to arrive, then more, eager to show us what they made, and to sell. I guess they got the word out that we had arrived.

Received warmly by village weavers showing us their enticing designs

Received warmly by village weavers showing us their enticing designs

Bags upturned and textiles unfurled and displayed on the floor in front of us to see, all so wonderful I didn’t know where to begin. Most of what they showcased were cotton scarves, runners, and napkins in their Tai Leu style.

A beautiful display of Tai Leu style designs by village weavers

A beautiful display of Tai Leu style designs by village weavers

While the style was only slightly different to the Tai Dam, their resources and processes were similar. Cotton grown from their farm, hand spun and woven, using natural dyes – the indigo plant for the indigo blue, the macbau fruit for the red.

Vats of indigo!

Vats of indigo!

I bought five scarves of varying patterns from Chaban and her daughter, Noy and ten napkins from another woman, Panya, completing my collection.

Chaban and her daughter Noy with their rich indigo scarves

Chaban and her daughter Noy with their rich indigo scarves

Panya with her delicately handwoven napkins

Panya with her delicately handwoven napkins

Detail of Panya’s napkin designs

Detail of Panya’s napkin designs

As usual, I wondered more about the women I was meeting. Conversations translated through Sin were simple introductions that at least mattered to me. I wanted to know their names, a little about their textile designs, how long they’d been weaving, who taught them, what their products were made for. Most followed traditional designs and processes, all learned from their mothers who learned from their mothers, and many of the textiles they made were for their own home and for themselves.

Detail of Chaban and Noy’s woven scarves

Detail of Chaban and Noy’s woven scarves

For Sin, I can only imagine his motivation for bringing us to his village and that of a neighboring weaving village. It is clear he is proud of his ethnic heritage, and perhaps sees bringing people like me and other buyers in direct contact with the artisan producers as an economic advantage for everyone.

He’s a young kid, maybe 20, still in school, but already entrepreneurial. His honesty, generosity, and big heart won me over early. He shared that he hopes in the future he can do more of this kind of work, bring artisan producers to buyers and markets. With a nod towards encouraging him in his idea, and an expression of my gratitude for his generosity, I gave him a commission.

I’ve already promised myself that I will return to Laos, to Luang Prabang and other regions of this ethnically diverse and culturally rich country. In just two weeks in Laos I have learned much, but barely enough, to understand the full scope of traditional textiles and their place economically and culturally within Laos and wider markets, for which I am now an invested contributor. And understanding the value of time — time to get to know people, to build trust, to show sincerity — allows serendipity to happen.

The start of many beautiful conversations

A tiny glimpse into her world, and her into mine, and our exchange across her handmade paper etched in my memory.


First posted on The Artesan Gateway on January 20, 2016

In these past two weeks, still at the beginning of a three-month journey across Southeast Asia and Northeast India, I’ve discovered that the kinds of conversations I’m having must be redefined. It seems many of the conversations are with so few words, of each other’s language neither understands, picking up on intonations and simple gestures. What brings us together is a connection over one thing – beautifully handcrafted work.

Drying handmade bamboo paper dyed with indigo

Drying handmade bamboo paper dyed with indigo

As an artist and in my travels abroad over the decades, I’ve long been fascinated by beautifully crafted objects and their stories. The conversations we have with the people who create them to better appreciate their culture and understand their livelihood. Or the conversations to discover the meaning of the motifs or the techniques of their designs. What would the conversations be if we would convey our appreciation connected with our own story to the artisans when we encounter their creations?

As I embark on a long-held entrepreneurial dream of opening a global artisan boutique later this fall, part of this overseas trip is connecting with artisans, having conversations, and sourcing products. Indigo Lion Artisan Boutique will be a place to discover unique and meaningful global handmade gifts for home and lifestyle, with a vision of curating beautiful conversations.

Of the handful of conversations I’ve had with artisans so far, one in particular stands out –an old Lanten woman in Luang Namtha, Laos.

Cycling to Nam Dee Waterfall

Cycling to Nam Dee Waterfall

My husband and I rented mountain bikes and set a course for the the Nam Dee Waterfall, about 2 miles from the center of town, where we’d pass a pair of Tai Dam and Lanten ethnic villages. While confessing to know little about either, some prior reading about the Lanten at the Luang Namtha Tourist Information Center peaked my interest.

Like many of the 15 or so ethnic groups in Laos, the Lanten still live their traditional ways, follow ancient beliefs, and make much of what they need using natural resources from their immediate environment, including handcrafted objects mostly made by women for daily use. One of the things Lanten women make is bamboo paper, some of which is dyed with indigo.

Watching the rhythmic hand gestures of her work

Watching the rhythmic hand gestures of her work

It was completely serendipitous that we came into contact with her. At the end of the dirt road on the village’s edge there she was, making paper along the banks of a stream near the Nam Dee Waterfall.

My conversation with the old Lanten woman began with me gesturing if I might watch her. Not stopping her work and barely acknowledging me, she signaled with her wise eyes that it was alright. I felt privileged to get close, to crouch down, to just watch the gentle movement of her hand pouring a gooey mix onto the indigo dyed paper. I wondered what stories she held, what kind of life she’s had, who she was… I merely had to be content, as this beautiful conversation was showing me, to just be with her.

Pouring a gooey mix onto the indigo dyed paper

Pouring a gooey mix onto the indigo dyed paper

Taking the paper off the bamboo frame

Taking the paper off the bamboo frame

She warmed up a bit, hand gestures and foreign words between us. I can infer as best I can when clarity is not there, but when she put a big folded piece of handmade bamboo paper in my hand, then signaled down to her feet with her face showing a sign of pain, this I understood: please buy this paper from me. Her wrinkled wizened fingers held up two fingers (about $2.25) and I kept that paper close to my heart, feeling all of her energy from her to me.

Close up of paper fibers with deckle edge

Close up of paper fibers with deckle edge

She pointed to my camera, then to her, and I took her picture for her to see. She smiled wide, and I was on my way again, deeply grateful for the serendipitous moment. A tiny glimpse into her world, and her into mine, and our exchange across her handmade paper etched in my memory. It was a beautiful conversation.

Warming up to a smile

Warming up to a smile

I look forward to curating this beautiful conversation and many others like this, to enable others to discover the unique and meaningful stories behind the handmade gifts they purchase.

Embarking on a journey

Me, in Tuscon

Me, in Tuscon

A passion for art, global cultures, and women's empowerment continues to lead me on my journey. As an artist and in my travels abroad over the decades, I’ve long been fascinated by beautifully crafted objects and their stories. I’m embarking on a long-held entrepreneurial dream of opening a global artisan boutique to further engage in women’s economic empowerment and invite cultural understanding.

Indigo Lion Global Handmade is about curating beautiful conversations. It’s a place to discover unique and meaningful global handmade gifts for home and lifestyle. It’s a space for connection, creativity, and discovery.

I’d love to connect with you along the way!

Mary Louise Marino