women's empowerment

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. 

How those beads get woven into Katu textiles

There was something mysterious about how those beads got into textiles made by Katu weavers. Returning to Laos earlier this year was a chance for me to find out. I first had to meet Keo. 


I came across several workshops being held at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC) in Luang Prabang, including Katu backstrap weaving. That was it! I inquired more and soon found myself one morning in the company of Keo Jow. She led me to the side veranda, where we took off our shoes, and nestled down with a backstrap loom, threads, and beads. 

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The traditional textiles of the Katu ethnic group in Laos are commonly identified with the intricate bead patterns produced on foot-braced backstrap looms. Women cultivate the cotton, hand spin it into thread, dye the thread, and then weave the textiles for use in clothing, ceremonial cloth, and trading. While the beads were traditionally glass and lead, these days imported plastic white beads are more readily available. Colorful pre-dyed cotton threads have also been introduced. The beaded motifs and patterns are reflective of their animist beliefs, as well as likely influenced by other Laos textile designs. 

Last fall when I launched the Laos Collection including the Katu Textile Table Runners at an Indigo Lion Pause event, they were an immediate hit. Kara Billings expressed it well in one of her writings: 

I brush my fingers over pale beads. They are bumpier than I expect and offer a joyful contrast to the soft woven fabric underneath. These beads are clouds in a pink and purple sunset. They form the triangles that sit in the corners of eyes that have seen many smiles. They create a pattern that gives way to tumbling tassels. Always trying to break free. Always trying to instill order.

And we all wanted to know, "how did those beads get in there? Keo showed me, revealing the mystery in this video: 

I finally got my turn on the backstrap loom, too. Keo strapped me in and gave gentle and patient instructions to weaving, calling out next steps and long encouragements of "yeeees" when I finally started getting it. In contrast to Keo's deft and ease in weaving and incorporating those beads, I lost count and kept forgetting steps.

I had previously learned weaving on a floor loom, but this was a different; a much more physical sensation. The tension needed in my feet and toes really mattered, always having to keep it taut but not too tight.

I marveled at how thread could be arranged so simply and ingeniously around bamboo poles, carefully laced to create woven textiles. And that they didn't tangle. The first time she showed me how the beads got in there, I laughed with glee, honestly, as if momentarily being on the inside of some best kept secret. 

When I showed the video of Keo weaving in the beads at another Indigo Lion Pause event this summer, everyone had the same reaction as me, wowing and expressing relief with knowing! That was fun.

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I'm appreciative of Keo and the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center for this opportunity — a glimpse into Katu handmade textiles, both traditional and contemporary.


Katu Textile Table Runner  — Pattern and detail lead the way on an unforgettable journey.

Katu Textile Table Runner — Pattern and detail lead the way on an unforgettable journey.

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.