It is 7:00AM in Phnom Penh and I am excited and ready to go when Thida arrives at the hotel.  I have hired a car for the day which will take us to Saly’s village,  northwest of the city. Although it is just 50 kilometers away (30 miles), it will take us more than two hours to get there.  I remember how wonderful my first visit to Tramung Chrum was last May and I am expecting more of the same.  As it turns out, this day is even more amazing than my initial experience!

Around 30 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, past huge garment factories set back from the street, past the ever-present road-side markets, we turn west on a dirt road.  Rice fields, now dry and dormant and interspersed with copse of brush and trees stretch out on either side of the brown rural lane.

Woah! A cow darts out of the brush and nearly hits our car before making an abrupt u-turn back into the brush. Close call.  For the most part, we are alone on the bumpy road but occasionally we have to pull over for traffic.

After another 10 kilometers, we turn south onto a road that is rutted, and our driver, San, must be careful to avoid the frequent pot holes.  Despite the bumpy ride, it is a pleasant and peaceful trip. My mind drifts into low gear and I feel relaxed and calm.

As we approach the village, a small mosque built with support from the Lightman family comes into view where this road ends.  We turn right and head down the  narrow and sandy main road of the village for about 100 yards, to a cluster of homes belonging Saly’s family.   Saly is in front of her house, waiting for us to arrive.  I have a long list of items to cover related to the sewing business, but this is not America. We do not get down to work for at least another hour. After all, what is the rush? We have all day.

Saly’s father and mother welcome us and Thida interprets what they say. Saly’s father expresses his hope that what we are doing will result in jobs for his daughter and the other daughters in the village. He is reserved, yet I feel his sincerity. Saly’s mother gives me a brief hug and smile.  Saly decides we must eat breakfast and begins to prepare noodles and boiled beef.  She cooks in an iron pot over an open fire as we stand around and chat with family members and neighbors who wander over.  The mood is relaxed and unhurried.

Cooking fire used to prepare our breakfast

The women in Saly’s family are busy making a very special bread for the village’s traditional “Charity Celebration” to be held in two days.  Children hang out on the steps of Saly’s grandmother’s house and I recognize their faces from my visit in May. There is a beauty about these kids which is unforgettable.  Like their parents, they appear very reserved and somber-faced when meeting new people. I have noticed that it takes a long time for them to smile at a stranger. Showing them how to use a digital camera turns out to be a good ice breaker.

After our meal, I ask Thida to take a picture of a special occassion: Saly receiving the first actual profit from the business, $134.  This money represents what is left over from revenues after paying back loans to Harpswell for wages of $3/day for Saly and her assistants, and for materials. It is a start!

Saly receiving first profit from the business: $134!

Now it is time to get down to business.  I have samples of purses I took from my closet at home to show Saly the quality of construction she must be able to deliver if we are to grow the business.  No seams showing, high quality lining materials, no cardboard used in assembly. I agree to leave these purses with her for reference.

I also have some Cambodian-made silk purses with me, purchased at a boutique targeted at expats near my hotel.  The owner told me she made these purses herself.  We deconstruct the purses to find out what materials were used by the seamstress-owner.  Saly uses her seam-ripper to open up the handle of one of the items, a gray rough-silk rather large bag.  We are surprised to see that handle has been cleverly constructed of clear rubber tubing, similar to the tubing I used to attach to the air pump on my childhood aquariums. The tubing is wrapped in a thin layer of high-density foam.  Saly says that she can get the tubing at the market, but she has never seen the foam anywhere.  Thida begins making a list of the items we will search for at the markets in Phnom Penh tomorrow.

Another purse from the boutique has a flat, thick handle.  When Saly opens the seams, we find the foam again, this time a double thickness. The purse uses metal rivets as both decor and as part of its structure.  Thida translates that Saly used to apply rivets using a machine when she worked in the garment factory, but she has no way to secure a rivet in her home shop.  Will will ask about this at the market, and rivets goes onto Thida’s list.

On my “to-do” list is to understand what Saly’s trundle sewing machines are capable of. Yes, she can sew through thick interfacing, no problem. She shows me how she uses an iron, filled with hot coals, to fuse the interfacing to the fabric.

Iron used to fuse interfacing

The thick foam of the purse handle might be too much, so Saly does some testing.  I video her as she attempts to sew through the thickness of the foam and silk. She powers the machine using the trundle, and the machine runs smoothly as she pumps with her feet. The first try is disappointing but Saly devises a way to keep her finger on the pressure foot to exert a downward force, and….success!

Next on my list is to understand why some items in the order I received in January were very different that what I had described in my e-mail order and had carefully reviewed, over Skype, with the young man who was acting as our translator at the time. Saly simply says:  I thought that is what you said you wanted.

Some tenets of business are the same, no matter where you are in the world: communication is key!  Thida’s involvement is going to make a huge difference, as she understands the  subtilties  of the designs and the importance of fabric selection in terms of weight, drape and the overall “feeling” of the look. This is something that was impossible to describe to the male assistant, in English, over Skype!

Before leaving on this trip, my friend Nancy Barker introduced me to two women associated with Northwood University with expertise in textiles.  Mia Dvornic has a PhD in textiles and runs the Northwood Gallery in downtown Midland, and Jill Ouellette is associate professor and chair of the Fashion Marketing Program.  In the back room of Mia’s gallery, they showed me how to burn a fiber to tell if it is natural or synthetic, how to look for small hairs on cotton fibers, and pointed out the smooth mono-filament of a strand of silk.  After that meeting, I went home and burned fibers in the flame of a candle set on my kitchen counter for several hours. The house stunk, but I got the hang of it.  Mark and Kevin were happy when I was finished with THAT experiment!

I pull out the candle I brought with me and show Saly and Thida the technique. Natural fibers tend to self-extinguish and smell like burning hair, synthetic will sustain a flame as it melts.  We have some fun burning fibers as a few villagers and Saly’s mother and aunt look on.

We talk about the need to use high quality materials, even if they cost more, for one group of customers we refer to as the “sophisticated buyers.”  They will pay for quality and will not buy something if it looks like it will only last for a season.   But there is another group of customers who will buy interesting, unique items at lower prices, and don’t expect them to last a long time.  Thida translates and we make it simple on paper:  high ($$$ ), medium ($$), and low ($) customers.  Saly gets it. She is very perceptive and has a great memory, which helps to compensate for the fact that her reading skills are elementary and she never learned how to write. The school built by The Harpswell Foundation in the village was built in 2005 and Saly is 28 years old.  All her notes are in her head!

It is time for lunch, and we stand and stretch. We have been sitting on the floor for more than three hours and the time has flown by. Saly starts to cook over the fire again, this time we will have rice with pieces of boiled beef, carrots, and onions.   As we sit down to eat,  Saly’s mother appears with a section of a cow, slaughtered last night,  she has just purchased from a neighbor.  The hoof is still attached to the leg and and she sets it down on the platform used to prepare food.

Beef from cow slaughtered last evening

During the meal we compare ages of those in attendance. Saly’s mother is 53, I am 55, so I am her elder. We laugh. Although we cannot speak the same language, I feel a bond of trust developing between us.  After lunch we take time for some fun with the cow leg, and I video Saly’s mother making the cow jump.

We get back to business and for two more hours we work with the fabrics, discuss possible designs, and agree on some pieces Saly will make in the interim while I go back to the U.S. and gather forces to define the spring and summer product line.  We need  a designer but we won’t have one for this season, we are already very late in the fashion cycle.  The plan is for me to send designs and instructions within a month to Thida, who will work with Saly to understand the details of the plan and go to the markets with her to help choose the fabrics.  Laura Wolak, volunteer Apsara Creative Director: HELP!

It is time to depart for the two hour drive back to Phnom Penh.  Saly joins Thida and me in the car.  The three of us will go to the markets again tomorrow to look for items on the list Thida has been assembling. It has been a long day, but I feel good about what we have accomplished.  We are starting to feel like a team! We say our goodbyes and agree to come back to the village on Thursday to join in the  Cham “Charity Celebration,” which takes place once per year and apparently is a very special holiday.  It will no doubt be a very interesting experience!

Saly's grandmother's house where Saly sleeps

Saly's workshop at the front of her parent's home

Saly and her father

Marie with new friend, Saly's mother