Rob Howard

Arounna Khounnoraj talks making crafts in an immigrant family, and the importance of loving process

July 04, 2019 6:50 am

A creation by Arounna Khounnoraj is unmistakable. Whether it’s a patchwork bag, a hand-painted fabric, an embroidered pin, or a fuzzy, punch-needle cushion, each piece comes from the same language of cloud-filtered sunlight, organic shapes, and a color palette favoring grayscale, spring greens, tomato oranges.

Khounnoraj and her husband, John Booth, make up the shop Bookhou (a cute combination of their last names). Bookhou’s brick-and-mortar space is in Toronto, but it also has a popular online shop. A batch of one-of-a-kind patchwork bags or painted leather pouches sells out in minutes (believe me, I’ve tried and failed to buy one).

Most recently, Khounnoraj has become the biggest name in punch-needle, an embroidery technique that uses a hollow, thick-handled needle. Instead of using a traditional needle to pierce fabric front-to-back, then back-to-front again, with punch needle, you stay on one side of the fabric, punching down in a simple motion that makes rendering an image much faster, especially when you use thick yarn like Khounnoraj does in most of her projects. Her first book, Punch Needle (Quadrille), walks beginners through the process of punch needling and includes patterns for everything from cushions and rugs to bags and pins.

Catherine Frawley

For Khounnoraj, making is inseparable from her culture and upbringing. Her mom works in the Bookhou studio, and her two kids often spend time making crafts there, too. When she was four, her family immigrated to Canada from Laos via Thailand. Watching her parents make necessities like clothes by hand, she began learning art and craft techniques early. Eventually, she went to art school, where she made copper wire sculptures that she brushed with table salt until they formed crystals. From there, she learned how to screen-print, which led to making bags, and then to Bookhou, which still specializes in bags and pouches made with Khounnoraj’s distinctive nature-inspired prints.

“I think everything I do is process-oriented,” she told me. “I love the hand work, the slow work. There’s something about the process when you make things. I try to explain to people, it’s about the journey that you take as much as the end result. Making things is about repetition, and that repetition has a calmness to it.” I spoke with Khounnoraj about her process, how punch-needle has influenced the rest of her work, and what it was like visiting Laos for the first time as an adult.

HelloGiggles: How did you develop your style?

Arounna Khounnoraj: I have always wanted to create works that I felt were timeless. Like what you see in Japanese and Scandinavian work, where you could buy something 30 years ago and it’s still relevant today. Living in Canada, I’m exposed to a very muted palette. And then I’m a big fan of nature, so it’s always like this muted palette with pops of color, and the colors are based on natural dye colors—they’re not acid or strong colors.

And I was always really interested in expressing the materiality of things. Whatever material I’m using, I like to keep it true to what it is. If it’s wood, I wouldn’t paint it. If it’s natural linen, I keep it the way it is, just to really let those elements shine through.

I was never after making work that was following trends or what was popular. I just went with my own interests and my own instincts, and I guess that, in turn, developed into a specific style. When I look back at some of my old work, I can still see the essence of what I’m doing today, even though it wasn’t as refined.

HG: I didn’t really know anything about punch needle until I saw your work, other than some rug-hooking I did with my mom when I was really young. I didn’t realize until you mentioned it in one of your tutorials that the textured side you show is traditionally the back side of a punch needle piece.

AK: It was funny, I kind of fell into doing that by accident. Sometimes I would show the front side, but it was mostly the back side. It gave it this embroidered look, and made it look more modern. What it did, I think, was bring a new generation to appreciate that technique. Because a lot of the people who are doing it now are really young people, in their 20s, who are just starting out, finding their own voice and experimenting. It’s interesting to see that because rug-hooking is very much attributed to grandmas.

HG: Do you remember the first thing you made by hand?

AK: Probably the first time I remember making was a pouch, when I was six or seven. I don’t think I used a sewing machine, because I was scared to mess with my mom’s machine. So I sewed it by hand, and it was crudely made. When I was around 12, my mom got me my first sewing machine.

Catherine Frawley

HG: You’ve talked about growing up in an immigrant family where your parents made things that were useful. What kinds of things did your parents make?

AK: Back then, they made things because we were poor. They were crafters not by choice, not like me choosing to craft to run a business. A lot of the times, my mother made our clothes. She crocheted little sweaters for us and things like that. And my father would make furniture pieces. Around the house, it was really DIY everything. That influenced how I thought and how I did things. Because now, with my own children, they see that it’s more meaningful to make something, because it’s a part of who you are. When I was little, I probably didn’t appreciate the time and hours that my mother would have spent making a dress, rather than just going to the store and buying something that’s been mass-produced, and the love that came through from that.

That’s what I’m trying to share with my children, too. Especially with my daughter, Piper, because she loves to make. She’s been making since before she could walk. I joke that she gets more likes than I do on Instagram. People just love what she does. She doesn’t overthink it. That’s what’s great about kids. They don’t sit there stressing about things. She’s just, “Yeah, here’s the drawing. Here’s the yarn—I’m going to do this.” And I learn from that to not obsess over things so much. When the kids were really little we used to make their costumes. It wasn’t like, “Let’s go to the store and buy the ridiculous princess outfit.” It was, “This is what I want to do. Let’s make it.” They had a hand in it.

HG: Did your kids take to crafting right away?

AK: The thing with the kids, with them making and being around, is just that we couldn’t afford daycare. Being self-employed, you see daycare for one kid costs like $1,200 a month, and you’re like, “That’s a lot of money. The kid can hang out with me in the studio and I’ll just work around the nap.” And then they end up being around you and they see what you’re doing and want to take part in it. My kids are both really self-sufficient. I used to joke that it’s because they were ignored, because we weren’t helicopter parents. If I gave Piper a pair of scissors and a piece of paper, she would entertain herself for an hour.

HG: You were also making when you were really young. Did you always think it was something that you wanted to pursue as a career?

AK: Oh, for sure. When I was even younger than Piper I knew. I didn’t know how it was supposed to happen. I went to art school and just absorbed everything like a sponge. That’s why I’m good at doing a lot of different things now. I could pick things up easily, because I got so used to working with my hands.

Also, when John and I built our business, we started out doing everything on our own. We had no financial support. There weren’t sites like Etsy or Shopify, so I was designing the website and doing all my own coding. Same with the photography. I had done photography in high school, and I learned to take all my own photographs for our website and Instagram. All those things we did in the beginning, because we couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it. Kind of like my parents.

So when people say to me, “How did you get to this point?” I say, “I don’t know. There’s no formula. I can’t tell you. I worked my butt off every single day.” People expect this magic formula and you’re just like, “I don’t know how to explain it to you. Just work really hard.”

HG: I guess that probably goes along with the idea of your kids having to learn to occupy themselves versus having things structured. Some people feel that there must be some kind of formula, because there is a formula and a structure to everything.

AK: Yeah, I’m all about unstructure. I always tell people when they’re working on something, if things don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. Move onto something else. People today are fearful of making mistakes, but we learn from our mistakes. There are things I’ve done that didn’t work out the first time, but then I’ll leave it on the back burner and bring it back five or six years later and it’s really successful. It’s because if you’re not staring at it and overthinking it, you give it a chance to breathe. You go back with fresh eyes, and you approach it differently. Like a particular pattern, I might put it on a different product or use different colors. I tell people, never abandon anything. You can always revive it somehow.

Catherine Frawley

What was great about the punch needle work was that it came into my life and breathed a little bit of fresh air into my work and began to influence the rest of the things I was making. For example, the blankets I designed were based off one of my punch needle pillows. I think that’s what people are attracted to in my work, because I try to change it up, but I also try to maintain the core elements of what my work is about.

I try not to gauge what I’m interested in on what the public wants. Some of my posts that get the most likes are the punch needle ones, but I’m not going to post all punch needle work, because that’s not all I’m about. I always find that people worry too much about other people. I always say that I work with blinders on, because there’s just so much out there. You don’t want to compare yourself with someone else. You have to enjoy it and do what you do and impress yourself. Nowadays, because of our business, I’m on Instagram so much, I don’t follow a lot of people because I don’t want to see things on my feed that will bother me. I don’t follow a lot of people in my field. I follow food people and plant people. And then my close friends. But that’s it.

HG: Do you remember feeling like a minority growing up in Canada?

AK: Coming to Canada at such a young age, I had this real sense of displacement. Things like, we didn’t celebrate Christmas, and then all of a sudden we did. And that push and pull, where you want to keep your roots in terms of the food that you eat, and your customs, while adapting to another culture.

A couple of years ago, I went to Laos with my mother, my first time there since I moved to Canada, and I thought, “This is fantastic. I’m going back to my home country.” I thought I was going to fit in, and I completely stuck out like a sore thumb. It was probably more of an awful feeling than growing up in Canada, because you want to belong so badly. Everybody looks like you, you speak the same language, but you realize how different you are, and that growing up in Canada has changed the way you think and the way you do things. And that makes you so different. I felt so out of place. I think I felt more out of place than I ever did in Toronto, because Toronto is such a multicultural city, whereas in Laos, they’re all the same people mostly, so you don’t have that balance of being around different cultures. You’re in limbo in a way.

HG: Yeah, I wasn’t even born in Japan, but the first time I went when I was really old enough to remember things, it was in college. I had a similar feeling of being like, this is something I’ve craved for my whole life, and now I’m here and in some ways it meets my expectations, but in other ways I’ll never belong no matter how long I’m here.

AK: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly how I felt. One of the things that comes up a lot nowadays is this idea of inclusivity in fiber arts, and how the field is very white-woman dominated, and there aren’t a lot of minorities. I’ve been asked a lot by people, “How does it make you feel?”

Catherine Frawley

And it’s interesting. You get used to it, but I never really felt like I had to push down walls or try to make myself stand out. I just worked really hard to build my business, almost with blinders on. Now the conversation has become so loud. People see me as an influence in that we’re successful and I’m a woman of color, and it shows younger makers who are Asian or people of color that someone has done it and they can too. Someone sent me an email recently because he was writing an article about women of color fiber artists. And I told him, you know, I’m pretty well established. You should choose a maker who’s not as well known. This is a good opportunity for them to get press. I don’t even want press. I think you should give this opportunity to someone else.

It’s the same with teaching punch needle. If someone asks me to come teach at their shop or studio and someone else has already been teaching punch needle there, I don’t go. Because I want people who aren’t as popular to get the business. I don’t want to walk in there and be the one who’s popular with this specific technique and then just take work from another maker. I wouldn’t feel right about that. It’s a big market. There’s enough room for everybody.

When I was starting out, I had a lot of great mentors who really helped open the doors for me by giving me equipment or advice, and I feel that when you get to a certain point in your career, you have to pay it forward. I always answer questions when people DM me because I don’t want them to feel like they’re alone, I guess. Because it’s such a hard business being under the microscope every single day, feeling self-conscious about what you’re doing, and if someone who’s done it gives you advice, it helps you go forward. I think that’s what you do when you’re a working artist. You don’t live in a bubble. You’re part of a community. I don’t know if that comes from my Asian upbringing, but it’s like karma: you get what you give.