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Woolly issue: tropical knits

5 sakura-ngly

It's  11 o’clock and the sun is hard at work inflicting its rays on the hectic Street 271 traffic, sending drink vendors to shade and tuk tuk drivers to mopping brows.

In an air-conditioned office nearby, heat is no distraction for Sokola Hang, 28, who busily knits a wooly scarf, and her friend Sakura Engly, 30, who has in front of her a spread of cosy scarves, beanies, ponchos - and an aqua-and-white knitted bikini, yet to be worn in the water.

“When I see knitting I really like the feel of it. I feel that it’s made from the heart,” says Hang, who prefers to go by the name Lauren.  

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sales consultant Lauren knits a basket-weave scarf. Photograph: Scott Howes/Phnom Penh Post

“This one I saw the pattern for on Google. It’s called basket weave: pull, knit, pull, knit and it becomes a basket pattern like this.”

With a notable absence of sheep, goats and chilly winds, a growing appreciation for material goods and a distaste for time-consuming traditions of old, knitting might seem an unlikely hobby for young Cambodian professionals to take up.

But the craft has a small and active following – evidenced by Sakura’s 800-member knitting Facebook page - that is a far cry from the hipster, retro-flavoured revival in the West.

And for the self-taught knitter, online craft communities and YouTube tutorials are now available online.

“Some people think you have to spend a lot of time [on knitting] but the most important thing is patience,” says Lauren.

“You have to spend a lot of time paying attention. For me it’s the skills my mother gave me, though she didn’t teach me the skills herself, she passed away a long time ago.”

The mother-of-two has been knitting since she was a child and whips up complicated-looking baby hats with woolen flowers and teddy bear mittens in little more than a week, clicking needles around the demands of work and children. The rewards of knitting are therapeutic and that it is quick to fruition, she says, with simple scarves and headbands taking less than a day to make.

An avid knitter for ten years, her friend Sakura started her knitting Facebook page as a way to show her prolific output. Soon she began communicating with Lauren, and then about 30 other women who were keen on the craft. As well as knitting hats and beanies for family in the US, and lots of baby presents, she also sells her wares at a niche handmade market in Siem Reap and likes reproducing factory-made knits and designs from overseas.

“I might see [a design] on a website and I can make it,” she says. Some of her clever copies include a violet crocheted cape and black one-piece bathers, “too sexy” to be photographed, she says shyly.

On the second floor of the O’Russey market, 19-year-old Ban Mouy Heng heads up to one of two shops that sell, among other things, synthetic yarn and knitting needles, and picks out two skeins of mauve and white wool.  

The teenager learned knitting from her mother and then from an older teacher at Sisowath High School.

“It used to be more popular,” she says. “It was common to knit jumpers, scarves and anything for babies…But I like to do it because I like the feeling of making things myself. I buy materials from O’Russey but sometimes I go to Central Market – if they have the colours I need.”

Good materials are an obstacle, admits Monika Nowaczyk, founder of social enterprise Cambodia Knits. She now imports bamboo knitting needles from China and cotton yarn.

But new guidance online means “there’s no getting stuck anymore,” she says.

The social enterprise employs around 15 knitters from the K-7 community to knit colourful stuffed toys to sell mostly overseas. Nowaczyk, 38, is from Poland and grew up in a family of knitters.

Eight years ago Nowaczyk put out a radio ad calling for women who could knit to get involved in the project. She met Cham women who were knitting baby booties and selling them for as little as 100 riel a piece.

Now some of them knit for her; Nowaczyk also runs the Phnom Penh chapter of Stitch n’ Bitch, and will soon be holding a free short knitting class for beginners. The Internet has opened knitting up to a new generation, but Cambodian knitters would still need to understand a little English to understand patterns.

“More women crochet – and then cross-stitch has become a major fad here. Last week at the market I swear the whole market was doing it!”

When market vendor Sok Kuhn began knitting, the long needles were too expensive – so she made do with chopsticks instead. She sells her gaily coloured baby booties and floppy hats on a portable stall at O’Russey and agrees she is the only one selling hand-knitted items at the market. A neighbor taught her the basics, and the rest was mastered on her own, without magazine articles or YouTube.

“I practiced for years, sometimes I stayed up until 12 or 1am at night, teaching myself. Sometimes I sell two pairs a day, sometimes five. I can knit two or three booties a day,” she says.

But knitters also face derision for their handiwork, Lauren says. After showing male friends a finished project, the comment “you did yourself?” is often offered not with admiration, but bafflement.

“Guys say it’s a waste of time,” Sakura agrees. “I’m a modern girl, but when I started up knitting most people thought I was being an old lady.”

Despite the grandmotherly tag, glamorous Sakura is intent on spreading the Word about knitting, and envisions starting up a not-for-profit that helps women make money from knitting. For her next project, she has picked out a knitted floral wreath, dotted with delicate flowers.

“Sometimes it’s not for you or for business - it’s for art, you know?”



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