artisans

Connecting with artisans in Egypt

Sometimes life sends you to places that you hadn’t quite planned, hadn’t even really considered, but says go do something interesting there. So I went to Egypt!

Women artisans celebrating their new bonds of friendships and their accomplishments together from the program.

Women artisans celebrating their new bonds of friendships and their accomplishments together from the program.

Together with my dear friend, soul sister, fellow creative, and empowering trainer Sharmila Karamchandani, this summer we were invited by the wonderful DC-based non-profit Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS) to design and deliver a customized four-day training on product innovation, quality, and marketing to artisans in Cairo. This was in partnership with CEOSS, an Egyptian-based development non-profit, with the support of the US Embassy’s Young Entrepreneurs Program Grant. 

Sharmila Karamchandani (co-trainer), Ivana Smucker (Director of Programs at HANDS), Amir Roshdy (Programs Supervisor at CEOSS), and me.

Sharmila Karamchandani (co-trainer), Ivana Smucker (Director of Programs at HANDS), Amir Roshdy (Programs Supervisor at CEOSS), and me.

Sharmila and I have known each other for six years, having worked together at Empowered Women International, a non-profit that provides entrepreneurship training and mentorship to immigrant, refugee and low-income women to turn their ideas into successful businesses. She’s a creative multipotentialite – a design educator at the college level, founder of Khush Designs specializing in customized projects, and an artist whose experimentation and command of multiple media is evident in her range of artwork. We were beyond excited for this dream opportunity.

To discover in more detail what the artisans’ particular needs and challenges were, their range of handcrafts, and the cultural context in which we would be working, we met several times with Ivana Smucker, Director of Programs at HANDS.

The program and activities we designed had to be engaging. Everything was to be translated. It had to meet them where they were as artisans and entrepreneurs. It was customized and unique to them. And here’s what happened:

What's your handmade craft telling you? An activity about seeing, feeling, and describing their handmade craft, and about story and connection. Then sharing with each other and they didn't want to stop.

What's your handmade craft telling you? An activity about seeing, feeling, and describing their handmade craft, and about story and connection. Then sharing with each other and they didn't want to stop.

Their potential as creatives was tapped for developing new and improving on their handmade products. 

Their own voice and unique story in connecting with their handmade products was validated. 

Woman artisans who sew, embroider, and crochet unique handmade clothing and accessories for their local market.

Woman artisans who sew, embroider, and crochet unique handmade clothing and accessories for their local market.

Their understanding of how creating a step-by-step checklist in producing their products was an ‘ah-ha’ moment – for improving on their time and efforts, their skills, and ensuring greater quality control. 

Coffee pod jewelry, can top purses, rolled paper jewelry and place mats, and recycled decorative paper, all innovative handmade products.

Coffee pod jewelry, can top purses, rolled paper jewelry and place mats, and recycled decorative paper, all innovative handmade products.

Their ingenuity for finding creative ways to recycle found materials, reuse leftover materials in their production process, and discovering creative ways to salvage imperfect products was a highlight.

And more – a daughter takes all the leftover items from her mother’s handcrafts and makes new, smaller handcrafts (below); a woman takes leftover fabric clothing from her community and remakes them into child and infant clothing; another doesn’t waste even the tiniest of threads from her embroidery, instead stuffing them inside small pillows. A few of them even started discussing how they could reuse each other’s leftover materials in their own products. That was powerful. 

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It was honestly a wild success, beyond anyone’s expectations. It was a combination of all the right elements that made it so. First, accolades go to the CEOSS staff for organizing everything on their end, especially Amir and Remon, and for the honest guidance and support of Ivana Smucker and Jennifer Cate, Executive Director of HANDS.

Then for our phenomenal interpreter Ragaa Ezat, our cultural bridge.

Ragaa (center), with two artisan participants, made all the difference in the world during the training. She conveyed our collective voices and intensions, our hearts and ideas across Arabic and English. We were all so grateful!

Ragaa (center), with two artisan participants, made all the difference in the world during the training. She conveyed our collective voices and intensions, our hearts and ideas across Arabic and English. We were all so grateful!

And most importantly, all the artisans who showed up. They felt heard. They were seen. They felt valued as artisans and women with ideas. They learned new things about their handmade craft and about themselves. 

Woodcrafter, candlemaker, and string artist – these phenomenal women were stars. Engy (center) said at the end that she had endless inspiration now.

Woodcrafter, candlemaker, and string artist – these phenomenal women were stars. Engy (center) said at the end that she had endless inspiration now.

Across language, culture, class, religion, and much that would seem to separate us, instead we all came together from the heart – as creatives, as change-makers, as peacemakers, as women can, as women do. 

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...

writing-thabou-laos-textile.jpg

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

thabou-laos-textile-padee-1.jpg

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.

 

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.