hand weave

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.

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."

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.