“My first day in a market, I made $35 and I was the happiest I had ever been!” 

– Lhakpa Chodon

Lhakpa Chodon is a living, breathing example of the importance of programs like Migrant Women In Business (the enterprise behind Made By Many Hands) and today, we are delighted to tell her story. 

“I arrived in Australia with an 18-month-old son and a daughter on the way,” Lhakpa says. “My English was not very good, my husband had less English than me, and I had some serious health problems. We also found that there were not many Tibetan communities in Melbourne, so it was a very hard time.”

Born in Tibet, Lhakpa escaped to India as a 16 year old in search of a better life. Having never been to school, Lhakpa wasn’t able to read or write, but found herself in a local Indian factory, where she learned to sew, making traditional dresses and robes for monks. When Lhakpa, her husband and son arrived in Australia in 2009 on a refugee visa, she was blown away. “I thought it was heaven,” she says. “In Tibet and India, people wouldn’t care for me. If I fell on the street or if I was starving, people would walk straight by. Here in Australia, people care. All humans are looked after. With my many health problems, I will forever be grateful for this.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been an easy ride. Finding a job in Australia proved to be extremely challenging, but Lhakpa eventually found herself in a shop, admiring handmade pieces of clothing. “I thought, ‘I can make these!’ and went to speak to the owner of the shop,” she says. “She took a chance on me and gave me some fabric and patterns. I returned a few days later with my creations, and she was very happy.” 

The shopkeeper obviously spotted Lhakpa’s talents, as she soon showed her a picture of a toy, and asked her to replicate it. “I made it straight away and found that I loved to make these toys,” she says. 

The toys – hand-sewn pieces that use recycled materials and natural fibres – have formed Lhakpa’s brand, Tugu Designs. With the help of the Stepping Stones program run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Lhakpa took her craft to the next level, with the development of her own small business. It is something that Lhakpa has found incredibly challenging, particularly throughout lockdown with the closures of markets, where she prefers to sell her pieces. “My first day in a market, I made $35 and I was the happiest I had ever been!” 

With the help of Made By Many Hands, Lhakpa is now working on making her designs accessible and appealing online. “It is hard with limited technology and without professional photography to compete online, but I am trying,” she says.

With an expanding range into shawls and a growing collection of pieces, we think Lhakpa’s efforts are going to be rewarded.

Published by Amy Malpass-Hahn, Freelance writer