In the tiny country of Laos, women spin silk into stories. Here in Indochina’s crossroads, silk looms weave a collective history of the complex culture. The threads are shaded by tales of bordering Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Golden Triangle tribal regions of China and Myanmar.
Nations’ borders have come and gone with alarming frequency, but for women, weaving hand-spun silk has been a reassuring constant. Geometric tribal patterns emerge from the blank canvas of a talented weaver, painting mythology and history into one fabric. If you can settle in to the languid pace of Laos, you’ll be captivated by the tiny country’s story and the fabled silk it produces.
The country’s forty-seven ethnic groups contribute voices to the song conducting Lao women to their deserved place in the textile world.
Long, hand-woven silk skirts are worn daily by most Lao women. These skirts, called sinh, are a striking element of the visual landscape—women wear them pedaling on bicycles, working in rice paddies, kneeling in temples, and walking the streets of towns and villages. Most sinh are hand-woven and bordered by designs that reflect the animistic spirituality of the country. A skilled weaver is a cherished woman who bespeaks a family wealthy enough to allow her a lifetime to learn the perfection of weaving skills. These skills are emerging into the world of décor and art worldwide.
Laos has always been the geographical center of Indochina—and the epicenter of much of its turbulent history. During just the past one hundred years, Laos has been invaded and separately occupied by both the Japanese and the Vietnamese, ruled by Thailand, and colonized by the French. It was extensively bombed by the US’s war in Indochina. Its 600-year-old royal family briefly yielded to become a constitutional monarchy, and then in 1975, Laos saw the abdication of its beloved king. Since 1975, it has been governed by the Communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic, called Lao PDR. And through all of this, women wove.
Today, the small country struggles to recreate its culture, and to rebuild its economy in the haunting presence of the American Wars’ residue. The aching poverty of the nation is demonstrated by UN and World Bank statistics, which show Laos to have a lower GNP than countries like Bangladesh or Haiti. The average annual income is $300. The resurgence of weaving as a small industry signals the region’s improving health. Women are returning to weaving as respected and proud artisans, and learning business skills to market their wares.
Old ways are giving way to new in Laos; things are changing—slowly—the way everything moves in this unhurried place. Young, orange-robed, novice monks are spotted doing email in Internet Cafes, across a road from a grandmother carrying poles suspending baskets of sticky rice or vegetables. Infrastructure problems may make much of the country uninhabitable, but always, women weave.
Lao women have always made fabrics for significant events in their lives. They make their own wedding garments and burial cloths, cloths to wrap newborn babies; young girls weave skirts or handkerchiefs to give to a boy they admire. To the uninitiated it may seem just an outdated way of producing cloth, a task better left to the whirs of precision machinery. But to a woman at a loom, it is a world in itself, capturing culture, history, dreams, and art in one soft draping of silk.
The traditional art had been in danger of disappearing, vaporized in the struggles of the century. Heirloom pieces were packed away in stone jars in remote villages and refugee camps, and the more intricate silk designs were no longer being made. Devastated by years of warfare, women still carried the complex cultural memory of the unique, ancient tribal patterns, and their own weaving methods. Girls in Laos traditionally have little access to education, and learning to weave was a way to achieve status, to demonstrate marriageablity.
Women keep looms under the stilts of their bamboo houses. Unraveling silkworms’ cocoons, they soak and unravel the gossamer fibers by hand, and spin it into thread as fine as spider webs. These weavers read threads the way one might read the page of a book, or a musician could hear a pattern in a melody. Their patience and attention to the rhythms of nature are almost unimaginable to the one-click Western world.
“It can’t be taught. It simply exists,” says American Carol Cassidy, who created the thriving Lao Textiles workshop in Vientiane. Cassidy’s earlier work with the UN and other NGO’s around the world led her to Laos, where she received the first business license ever issued to a foreigner. Hers was the first business ever to offer health insurance and retirement plans.
The thirty Lao weavers she has trained now produce designs for high-end markets in Hong Kong, London, Paris, New York, and Singapore. She presents museum shows in New York and San Francisco. Lao Textile’s showroom and workshop is in an ancient French Colonial mansion, surrounded by gardens dripping with bougainvillea and anchored by ancient, mossy trees. In the open-air workshop, shuttles move rhythmically back and forth across the looms, a backbeat for the bare feet and flip-flop sandals whispering across the floor.
“Weavers come to me with skills in their hands that have been cultivated over centuries of grandmothers teaching granddaughters.”
As the tide of tourism begins to rise in Laos, visitors wandering the streets of Lao cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang are drawn to the well-merchandised shops, and to the cubbyhole vendors. Windblown silk weavings ripple in outdoor town markets all over Laos.
To appreciate the art, focus on one piece, perhaps drawn by a certain color or pattern. Absorb it and feel the story the weaver is telling, ask for an explanation of the design. The skirts that are the mainstay of a Lao woman’s wardrobe are woven in one piece, sometimes with weaving applied on top of the fabric in raised horizontal bands, or others with bands of tapestry worked into the fabric. Items made for a dowry, for special household use, or for special occasions are given particular care. A newborn baby is given a specially woven pillow to use as a bed.
Protective animals such as elephants and dragons are repeated elements. Temple profiles, mountain peaks and rivers course their way through the silk designs. Traditional motifs vary widely, with archetypes incorporating nature, myth, geography, and spirituality, along with auspicious and protective elements. Serpent designs are woven with the identifying diamond shaped patterns that characterize Lao textiles. The Buddhist and Animist spiritual beliefs of the Lao people work their way through the threads.
A Western eye gazes at the long narrow pieces produced by the region’s looms and wonders: an exquisite piece of silk sixteen to twenty inches wide and eight or ten feet long? What will I do with this when I get home? Consider long skirts, or bedspreads made with panels of hand weaving, alternating with panels of solid colored silk; or headboard coverings and table runners. Pillow coverings, and skirt or jacket appliqués are all fine adaptations of the style. Wool, silk, or cotton skirts with woven borders can be inexpensively hand tailored here, in Bangkok, or in Hong Kong.
Equally impressive is the Phaeng Mai Gallery and workshop, a collective of 105 weaving families in Vientiane. Phaeng Mai was founded by a mother and two daughters, who came to Vientiane in 1964 horrific refuge camps in the province of Sam Neua, an area renowned for high quality weaving.
In 1996, after years of study under the careful hand of their mother, sisters Viengkham and Komgthong Nanthavongdouangsy opened their studio in Vientiane. Today, they boast a large open-air workshop where they have created an extended family of weavers who are part of the planning and color choices. The sound of pop music blares paradoxically in the workshop to inspire their traditional designs. Many of Phaeng Mae’s weavers have looms in their own homes off of the dusty lanes near the workshop offices. They can weave and care for their children as they work, and are paid by the piece.
At Phaeng Mai, pots of indigo brew deep blue dye over an open fire in a steaming iron pot; baskets of “lacq” lining the shelves will be used to create brilliant red threads, the betel nut will brew a rich brown. The workshop uses only handspun silk and natural dyes. Among the looms and spinning wheels, several wooden cabinets with screened doors hold silkworms in large flat baskets.
A few mulberry trees outside the studio grow food for the worms as they weave the cocoons that are the source of fine silk fiber. The leaves are fed to the worms several times daily, and the worms make a sound like rain as they consume the layer of leaves—gone in five minutes. Phaeng Mai is perhaps the only weaving workshop that includes young boys in its training program. In 1998 they received funding from the government’s Lao Textile Festival to bring weavers from other provinces to teach weaving and marketing. Tiny Laos is emerging into the world economy, blinking, and slowly shaking off its long nightmare. The dream weavers may lead the way, mothers and grandmothers guiding the hands of the younger generation. Starting any business here is challenging and rewarding, fraught with glitches and red tape that would defeat the faint of heart, but weavers have navigated the complexities and adapted to the terrain. Capitalism is creeping into Laos on the shuttles and threads of its women’s looms, merging not quite seamlessly with the communist government. But it all works out in a way that is distinctively Laos, timeless and timely.