I first met Rosa through a series of temperamental Skype calls, plagued with awkward freeze frames and bitsy polite conversation. Not the way you hope to begin - groaningly imperfect in fact - but after deciding to pick up the phone, and one more greeting, we were away. Passion is as they say of joy, doubled when shared, and as such 45 minutes passed in an instant. Conversing with Trade Aid’s Product Developer was never going to be boring. And true to the sentiment, it was in this short conversation that I came to hear of the Cambodian Handicraft Association - a business that challenges the modern archetype, where profit as we know it is flipped on it’s head.
“Compassionate people are geniuses in the art of living, more necessary to the dignity, security, and joy of humanity than the discoverers of knowledge”- Albert Einstein.
The Cambodian Handicraft Association (CHA) produce a beautiful range of silk accessories including earrings, cuff bracelets and clutches. They have been partnering with Trade Aid since 1997 and have slowly grown to into a business that provides meaningful employment to over 20 handicapped employees. A business founded on compassion and the desire to offer the opportunity of training and employment to those traditionally excluded from industry.
Kim Tha is the brains behind CHA, with a background in social development he has created a training centre that provides the opportunity to develop sewing and craft skills. And for some, the opportunity to gain business skills and to foster the development of small businesses. Alongside Kim Tha, Thaily teaches and provides counsel to trainees. In a setting where vocational options are limited and finding work can be difficult, it is especially so for those who are disabled and bear the stigma of their handicap. This combination of opportunity and guidance provides work and encouragement where it would otherwise be impossible.
Few businesses can demonstrate the same generosity of spirit, not just towards their people but in the keeping of their traditional craft. This same care extends to the places that the CHA source their materials, even the exquisite silk fabric used to make each item is meticulously hand loomed in a nearby village. The silk is so intricate that in order to create four metres of fabric one month of loom work is required. The patterns are fine and delicate, with strikingly beautiful colours. The combination of time, various colours and the traditional loom method creates a fabric that is entirely unique with an irreplicable weave. Once the fabric is received it undertakes one of many transformations to become the beautiful items we recognise. A single bracelet cuff (pictured above - enter to WIN on our Facebook page) will take 1.5 hours to complete, passing through three pairs of working hands: one will cut and shape the fine silk, one will stiffen the silk and attach the bead and another will form the delicate tassel that hangs from the cuff. Yes, even the small tassel is crafted by hand.
The fine bead work is the favourite of each of the possible tasks, the slow creation of each delicate item is as skilful as it is beautiful. And as you can imagine, it is the slow nature of this work that is one of the challenges to it’s success. Pairing hand-worked traditional crafts, a western market, pricing demands, local industry limitations with disabled workers, a combination that seems to pose too great a risk, for Trade Aid provides the uplifting, community focussed business that they seek in each of their partners. A long term, slowly developing relationship is the key interest of Trade Aid and Rosa (and her team) helps to ensure that our two worlds collide in such way that the business needs of both sides are met without compromising people; an all too familiar fate of the fast paced fashion industry.
When I consider this small business, I am inspired as I realise the magnitude of its impact. Business has no purpose if not to provide wealth for the makers and growers. True wealth has a great breadth that we often miss; it stretches far beyond our financial ideals. The wealth of skills learned, social uplift, and the consideration of one’s meaning, usefulness and joy cannot be ignored, not to mention the wealth of opportunity that comes with developing new skills and establishing networks. I am inspired by the ethos of this courageous organisation, whose standards alone speak of exceptional beauty, even before we see the exquisite finished products.