First posted January 2015
As a vendor at the Portland Handweavers Guild (PHG) Winter Sale held at the Multnomah Art Center in November of 2014, I was delighted to discover that Karen refugee women from Burma and Thailand were participants. The Guild had provided a great space to display the handwoven bags, scarves, and other items woven by the Karen women. I had recently rejoined PHG after an absence of about 25 years and was very happy to learn about the organization’s gesture of kinship with this group of weavers who are new to the United States.
On one day of the sale, the Karen women set up their backstrap looms to demonstrate the methods that they use to weave their plain weave cloth as well as their floral and geometric designs. Representatives from Multicultural Community Services (the organization that works with many refugees to get settled well in the Northwest) came with the weavers to help facilitate the their interactions with the public.
Through a little research, I learned that the people referred to as “Karen” inhabit the hills and plains on both sides of the Thailand-Burma border. According to Yoko Hayami and Susan M. Darlington, who wrote a chapter in the book Endangered Peoples of Southeast & East Asia: Struggles to Survive and Thrive, “In Burma (officially called Myanmar), most Karen face a struggle for human rights, democracy, and self-determination.”
The Karen refugee program coordinators at the PHG sale provided information about an upcoming event where more of the Karen’s work would be displayed. Held later in November at the Lutheran Community Services offices in Portland (the home base for the refugee program), the sale provided a steady stream of Portlanders with a wide selection of blouses, pillow tops, and other items handwoven by the Karen women.
Signage provided name of the Karen women’s program: “Weaving Together.” The purchaser of each item received a card with a photograph and the weaver’s name on one side and the following statement on the other: “The goal of Weaving Together is to strengthen women’s empowerment, healing, cultural adjustment, economic vitality, and the advancement of indigenous knowledge through the traditional practice of weaving.”
Those of us who came to the Karen show were treated to Thai food and to demonstrations of traditional Karen music and dance. The singers (composed mostly of the older Karen women weavers) and the dancers (younger Karen men and women) all wore examples of Karen handwoven clothing.
One of the dancers suggested that I attend the Karen New Year’s Celebration, held on December 27, 2014, at Ron Russell Middle School in Portland. Pati Bingham (who took some of these photographs) and I arrived at that event late in the afternoon, at a time when some of the older Karen people were already leaving. However, at least 250 people were still there enjoying the food and entertainment.
Luckily, we arrived just in time to see young Karen men and women performing the bamboo dance that I had read about. All the women dancers wore long or short traditional handwoven dresses—in one of several colors and patterns. Some of the men were dressed traditionally from head to toe, some wore Western clothing, and some wore a striped handwoven top with jeans.
Mixing Karen and Western dress proved to be common for the young men who served as MC and performers for the contemporary entertainment that followed. When a performer began singing a particularly popular song, the crowd cheered and several other young people piled leis around his or her neck.
There is so much to learn about the weaving patterns and methods and what meanings they hold for different people. Luckily, the Karen people I met have seemed very eager to share their knowledge with their new neighbors.
One more thing for Portland area residents—please put PHG’s Handweavings Plus show on your calendar. It’s a part of the Gathering of the Guilds, held April 24-26, 2015, at the Oregon Convention Center. The Karen weavers will be there!
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- Tags: backstrap weaving, Karen New Year, Karen Weavers, Portland Handweavers Guild, refugee artists, traditional Karen clothing