Skip to main content

With her growing arsenal of how-to videos, the multidisciplinary artist has become a social media cheerleader for old-school techniques

Becca Gilgan/The Globe and Mail

The work of textile maker Arounna Khounnoraj is a study in contrasts. Her pieces are made using the most analog of tools – a needle and thread­ – but her company, Bookhou, is a social media starlet, with over 360,000 followers on Instagram. Such enthusiasm captures how the online world has become an important space to explore old-world craft and design.

Since launching Bookhou in 2002 with her husband John Booth, an architect who creates fine wood objects, Khounnoraj has cultivated a distinct role as teacher and cheerleader to a new wave of creatives who otherwise might never try traditional techniques. Her 2017 video showing punch needling, which is akin to rug-hooking, went viral and led to her debut book, Punch Needle. “People love permission to delve into something they’re not familiar with,” says Khounnoraj, who has taught at the Art Gallery of Ontario, OCAD University and Sheridan College. “Certain techniques, I don’t want them to get lost.”

That’s why Khounnoraj posts so many how-to videos, which are nearly silent and feature experimentation and imperfection. “There’s no right way or certain path,” she says of her approach. “And I think that makes it more accessible.” Her forthcoming book, Embroidery: A Modern Guide to Botanical Embroidery, puts a fresh spin on an ancient practice, illustrating how to embellish everything from handbags to cushions with neatly stitched flowers and leaves.

Becca Gilgan/The Globe and Mail

Khounnoraj knows the value of passing these skills along. After her family emigrated to Canada from Laos, her father worked at a designer furniture company and built pieces for their home using discarded items. Her mother became a tailor and sewed and repaired their clothes; she now helps with Bookhou. “That was a huge influence on me,” says Khounnoraj, who also wrote a book about visible mending. Whereas mending used to be inconspicuous, Khounnoraj now considers it “a celebration and artistic expression.”

For Khounnoraj, who studied fine art and started out as a sculptor, living in Toronto has influenced her aesthetic. “The urban environment mixed with nature makes a difference,” Khounnoraj says, recalling summer days in Trinity Bellwoods Park with her two children and noticing the pattern of criss-crossing streetcar lines overhead. “I see beauty in that too.”

These days, Khounnoraj is also spending time in Montreal with an eye on relocating when she and Booth become empty nesters. The big idea: to go back to the beginning of their practices, painting and sculpting. Still, Khounnoraj doesn’t plan on giving up her needle and thread. Bookhou has five licensing deals under way with companies as far away as Japan to use its hand-drawn designs on fabric and other goods. “It’s extending our artistry,” she says.

That Khounnoraj would consider deviating from what’s become such an auspicious path speaks to her allegiance to the creative process rather than a fixation on a particular outcome. “The pandemic has taught us that life is too short. You should just do whatever it is you desire to do,” she says, echoing her open-minded design ethos: “It’ll work out some way in the end.”