Where Feather Dusters Are Born

Man threading feathers to make a feather duster

I’m always intrigued by finding out how things are made. And because labor is so cheap in SE Asia, an incredible array of things are made by hand that you would never expect.

For instance, ever wonder where feather dusters are born?

Well, I found out one morning when I came across a tiny old woman cradling a big bowl of duck feathers which had been washed and dried. She painstakingly selected similar sized feathers and using a long needle, strung them onto a sturdy thread. When she had a string of about 2 feet, she wound it around a wooden handle. Selling price for this labor-intensive effort? 1,500 riels or about 40 cents. Her gnarled fingers were able to make about 2-3 per day. What I found amazing, though, was her attitude. She was happy to be able to work from home, earning a tiny bit to help out her family, and thankful to live in Cambodia which seldom experiences natural disasters like she’s seen on television.

Back in the West, whenever I heard the term “handmade shoes”, I thought of some aproned cobbler in Milan lovingly crafting a pair of shoes made from some exotic animal skin like ostrich or alligator – either way, a luxury few can afford. Tell that to the woman who earns just under 25 cents for sewing together the front and sides of a pair of shoes, passed on to her by a middleman, who takes a huge cut before passing them on to the factory. She sits in her tiny wooden shack shared with her husband and teenaged daughter, and under the glow of a single neon bulb, stitching these shoes all day long. The middlemen have found a glut of people in this poor neighborhood (about to be razed by the government to make way for more profitable housing in the city center), desperate to have any kind of work and resigned to tedious work for a pittance. A full day’s work (when there is work) will yield just over a dollar.

Or ever wonder how sequins and embroidery get onto a dress? I’ve actually seen people painstakingly cut out machine-embroidered flowers from a larger piece of fabric using a soldering iron and then carefully sew them on a finished dress. Sequins are likewise sewn on by hand. And Cambodians LOVE their sequins…

The other day, I stumbled across a house with a huge pile of sawdust outside. Upon closer inspection, the house was jam packed with these little bags of sawdust, spawning the most beautifully white mushrooms. Who knew?

Another strange profession is dentistry. Oral hygiene is low on the priority list for many due to lack of education, meaning a significant proportion of adults have teeth missing. So small mom and pop “dentist” offices are everywhere. I’ve even seen them make a full set of false teeth by hand. Some of the work is so good that Asians living abroad come back for dental work here! A family I know run a tiny dental clinic in the front room of their home and thoughtfully sterilize their equipment using a toaster oven…

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