The knitted and crocheted stuffed animals and toys made by the women at Cambodia Knits (CK) each have their own name and back story that imbues them with a dash of individual personality and whimsy.
Sovann – a black and grey sleepy doll – looks as gentle as its Khmer name suggests. He’s an ideal companion for babies and he is knitted and crocheted with love and care by local Cambodian women.
“All of our sleepy dolls are given a name that starts with ‘S’ and most of these are Khmer names,” said Monika Nowaczyk, founder of CK.
“One reason is because I noticed that many children in Khmer families are given names that start with the same sound. I wanted to honour this,” she says.
The Polish-Canadian Nowaczyk came to work in Cambodia for the first time in 2000, returning in 2006 to make the Kingdom her second home.
Nowaczyk works in Cambodia as an education consultant, trying to help create economic opportunities for women.
Nowaczyk founded CK – a social enterprise working with communities in and near Phnom Penh and in rural areas – in 2009, believing that women played important roles in helping families rise out of poverty.
She told The Post that “Our goal is to produce beautiful, high quality and unique hand-made products while providing fair and flexible employment opportunities.”
Being a mother, Nowaczyk knows that many parents find getting their child to go to bed a challenge some nights, so she created Sleepy Snoogus dolls to help her newborn feel calm and fall asleep.
“We also look for names with gentle and lovely meanings, related to sleep or sleeping where possible. Each animal also has its own sleep profile,” she said.
For example, Sophea the sleepy bunny has trouble falling asleep, Sovanny the sleepy sheep needs to sleep with someone else, never alone. And Samaki the sleepy dog often wakes up to play in the middle of the night.
“This is because all parents, around the world, no matter their culture or background, share similar struggles when it comes to sleep with their babies or children,” she says.
CK was started as a passion project with five women knitters and then gradually grew into being a fully registered business that has now trained over 300 women (and some men) in knitting and crochet.
One of the communities CK has been working with is families at Trapeang Anh Chan, a relocation site for families who lost the land they were staying on because they didn’t hold title to it.
It is situated about 20km from the city and that makes it difficult to travel to work. The community became the first to be trained in crocheting CK’s new line of toys.
“We pay a fair price to the women who make our products. We also provide free eye care testing and education stipends for their children,” said Nowaczyk.
There are several lines of CK products ranging from the Sleepy Animals for infants to toys for older children.
“We also have a line of educational toys which help support play-based learning and give children opportunities to develop skills such as fine and gross motor skills, practicing counting, sorting, stacking and colours as well using these toys in imaginative play.
“We have a line of hats and we also create bespoke, white label products for local and international brands. For example, we have worked with Wildlife Alliance, Free The Bears and Kungfu Kitchen.”
The pandemic has affected everyone in Cambodia from all walks of life and transportation issues for some have been especially challenging.
This has meant not being able to get materials to the knitters or get the finished products back from them, causing delays in production.
“Now as things are opening back up again … we are slowly getting back to normal. But otherwise, they have been able to continue working from home,” said Nowaczyk.
She said most of the knitters are women who are home-based producers. CK gives them training and all the materials – imported yarn that has been safety tested and is up to standard for the US, Canada and Australia – to meet their high quality standards.
All of the dolls are made from 100 per cent natural organic fibres and are either knitted or crocheted. Some are available in cotton and some made from acrylic yarn.
With more than 100 women knitting now, the producers have had less to do since they had to slow down their production due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Among all of the different types of dolls, Apsara dolls are the most popular as they can be designed by the customer and they represent the beautiful demi-goddesses of Angkor Wat.
There are five different skin tones available so that all children can feel represented and have an Apsara doll that looks like them.
“We also ask the customer to choose the colour of the skirt so they have a hand in designing what it will look like,” she says.
For local customers, they can find the sleepy dolls at outlets like Amazing Cambodia at Aeon Mall – or on Facebook and Instagram – as well as at the CK website.
“We are currently aiming to scale up our business and we are looking for more knitters and crocheters. We also have a Youtube channel where we teach crochet in Khmer-language lessons so anyone can learn the basics from us for free,” Nowczyk says.
For more details, visit Facebook page: @CambodiaKnits or website: https://cambodiaknits.com/.