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Em Bun

Jan. 1, 1916 - March 19, 2010

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Bun Em works in her home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where she settled after emigrating from Cambodia. She used leftover silk from a tie factory, anointing it with tapioca and coconut oil to give it the luster and sheen that distinguishes Cambodian silk. Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun and her daughter, Pech Yuos, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Jane Levine, courtesy Pennyslvania Heritage Affairs Commission and National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun prepares to beat the weft of the fabric into place. Weaving involves throwing the weft thread between the warp threads and beating each thread into place. This process creates a rhythm for the work
Skeins and cones of silk ready for weaving. A silk tie factory donated remnants of silk for Em Bun's use. Some of the silks Em Bun dyed herself. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun winds the silk from the skein to the cone in preparation for putting it on the warping frame. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1989, courtesy Em Bun
Close-up of Em Bun winding newly dyed silk from a skein onto the cones. Her son made the winding table. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun winds silk from the cones onto the bobbins that are used in the loom shuttles. She dips her fingers periodically into tapioca oil to coat the silk as it runs through her fingers. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Loom (detail) of Bun Em, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Joanna Roe, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bun Em at work, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Joanna Roe, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Loom set up in the home of Bun Em, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Joanna Roe, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Pech Yuos, daughter of Em Bun, helping at her mother's loom, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Joanna Roe, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun applies tapioca oil to the silk warp on the loom. There are approximately 3,000 strands of silk in the warp and fibers often break in the process of weaving. The tapioca oil strengthens the silk fibers. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun at her loom weaving. Her loom is set up in the basement of her home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In Cambodia, looms are traditionally placed under the living quarters and serve as a central gathering place for women and children. The photos on the wall behind Em Bun were given to her by a volunteer who wanted to encourage her to think about weaving silk for the fashion industry. Photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Close-up of Em Bun's hands as she repairs a bobbin. The striped fabric is one of three traditional Cambodian styles. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun's daughter, Pech Yuos, helps her advance the warp on the loom. This loom is 8 feet long and was made by a carpenter in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from drawings of a traditional Cambodian loom. In Cambodia, this kind of loom is usually twice as long. Photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
After the fabric is advanced, Em Bun replaces the temple which keeps the fabric taut. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Em Bun weaving. On the walls behind her are samples of her woven fabrics. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Blair Seitz, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Woven fabrics (detail) by Em Bun. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Amy Skillman, courtesy Institute for Cultural Partnerships
Traditional plaid fabric (detail) worn by men. This is the most complex pattern that Em Bun weaves. She wove this fabric with the help of her daughter, Pech Yuo, who was then working with her as an apprentice. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Amy Skillman, courtesy Institute for Cultural Partnerships
Lynn Yuos (Em Bun's daughter) models a formal Cambodian dress made for her by her mother
Traditional Cambodian formal dress for weddings and special occasions. The skirts are made in the style of Em Bun. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1984, courtesy Em Bun
A procession gathers outside Em Bun's house to celebrate the beginning of her daughter's wedding ceremony. The groom is at the front of the line under the umbrella. This procession brings the groom to the bride's house. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Amy Skillman, courtesy Institute for Cultural Partnerships
Em Bun's son, Hieng, on his wedding day. An older, close relative cuts a lock of his hair in the traditional Cambodian manner as part of the ceremony. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1985, courtesy Em Bun
Em Bun's son, Hieng, and his bride, Yat, say 'Thank You' for a blessing on their wedding day. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1985, courtesy Em Bun
The bride sits as a traditional wedding dresser wraps a skirt made from 9 feet of woven silk around the waist of one of her attendants. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Amy Skillman, courtesy Institute for Cultural Partnerships
Em Bun ties a thread around the groom's wrist in a traditional Cambodian manner as a blessing on the wedding day of one of her distant relatives. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1987, courtesy Em Bun
The bride and groom are showered with flower petals as a blessing on their marriage at the close of their wedding ceremony. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1987, courtesy Em Bun
Pech Yuos, daughter of Em Bun, prepares food for a traditional house blessing. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, photograph by Amy Skillman, courtesy Institute for Cultural Partnerships

Em Bun came from a small village in southern Cambodia. Her maternal ancestors had always been considered the village weavers. As a child, she watched her grandmother and mother weaving. Em Bun learned to weave from her mother when she was about 10 years old. She also learned to process the silk from cocoons raised on the family's farmland.

In 1979, Em Bun, along with her four daughters and two sons, fled Cambodia because of the Communist takeover. They escaped to refugee camps in Thailand and finally arrived in the United States on June 4, 1981. They settled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because one of her sons was already living there.

In the United States, it was difficult for Em Bun to continue her prestigious work as weaver, farmer and merchant. The language barrier inhibited her ability to make new friends, and she lapsed into isolation and depression. Then a group of Pennsylvania women provided her with a loom and weaving materials. Em Bun was truly happy for the first time in nine years, according to her children.

Subsequently, Em Bun was recognized as a master weaver by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Grants from the council encouraged her daughters to study their mother's art. Family members wore Em Bun's bright pure silk hand-woven sarong skirts to Cambodian weddings and celebrations. Cambodians up and down the East Coast placed their own orders for the 2-meter lengths of silk. Em Bun used leftover silk from a tie factory in central Pennsylvania, anointing the materials as she wove with tapioca and coconut oil to provide the unparalleled luster and sheen of true Cambodian silk.

The subtlety of a master Cambodian weaver is expressed in the basic decisions of which colors enhance others. Although Em Bun's work appears to be mostly solid colors, close examination reveals that the warp threads differ from the weft threads that cross, producing unusual and shimmering hues. Em Bun's exquisite and sensitive work helped her continue to serve as the village weaver, though her village became nationwide. In addition to her children, she taught others her art. She gave demonstrations at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and in her own community. She helped fellow Cambodian immigrants maintain contact with their heritage and served as a catalyst for the preservation of Cambodian traditional arts in the United States.

Bibliography
Krebs, Jeanette. "Woman Weaves Anew." Patriot News (Harrisburg, Pa.) (June 19, 1990) 149: 146.
Rosenthal, Janice G. "Cambodian Silk Weaver." Threads Magazine (December 1990/January 1991) 32: 22.
Tennesen, Michael. "Silk and Ceremony." Modern Maturity (October/November 1991): 17.

Watch

Em Bun, 1990 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts