I am going to write 2 bogs for February. One will be on weaving in the studio (Part 2) while this will be the start of more to come.
I have just returned from an amazing textile research trip to Laos and Cambodia. Some was self- directed but there was also an organised textile tour. Over the next few months, I will be assimilating and reporting on aspects of this trip. There is a lot to take in and I have barely unpacked, so only a very brief taster will be shared here. It will be the start of things to come.
First up let me say that it has been just 2 years since I was in the north of Laos at Luang Prabang and 1 year since I was in Vientiane. There have been big changes connected with “progress”. One of note was the number of brand new fuel station along the roads. It felt like every kilometre there was one. Is this a sign of investment and even a raise in living standards? How has this impacted in particular on textiles? What has happened in the time that I was last here? These are some of the issues I will be considering later in addition to where I found textiles and the mechanics of various aspects of weaving.
The pink line outlines this trip. The orange on in 2015
First a brief overview of where I went. I started off in Ponsovan, then drove to Luang Prabang. Trood Newman joined me on this leg. At Luang Prabang we joined the Textile Tour, organised in a fashion by Intentionally Different. The two experts who absolutely made this trip were Valerie Kirk who has been travelling here for many years and has a wealth of textile knowledge to share and Jit, our local tour guide. From Luang Prabang we flew to Pakse. Using Pakse as a base we explored the area working our way down to Kong Island at the most southern part of Laos. Driving north we passed through Savannakhet to Vientiane where the tour finished. From there Trood and another friend, Libby Hepburn, and I explored the area around Siem Reap.
I am going to structure my report based on the areas that we visited before looking at in-depth aspects of weaving. Well that’s the plan.
Weaving in Ponsovan.
This area was heavily bombed in the Vietnam War and is often referred to as the “Secret War” as often the world didn’t recognise that Laos was a casualty in that conflict. Even now there are many unexploded ordinances (UXO). This has had the impact of much of the buildings needing to be rebuilt. Farming has been restricted because of the uncertainty when it comes to expanding farms and even digging in existing ones. There is a sense of ‘newness’ overlying tradition while at the same time progress being held in check because of the uxo’s and the community being kept poor. UNESCO is involved in clearing uxo. Land that was cleared needs to be re-cleared as more uxo become exposed. Tourism centres around the Plain of Jars. In a cultural sense, the actual jars are amazing. They are large stone jars. Why are they here? What were they used for? What significance in the development of culture did they have? They are awe inspiring. The shapes and forms and how they sit in the landscape are certainly a focus for contemplation. Even the fact that they survived the extensive bombing that happened in this area is a amazing.
I was keen to visit Mulberries after my previous trip in 2015 where I came across the organisation in Luang Prabang. Mulberries was set up by Mrs Kommaly Chanthavong is a centre that focuses on the development of a sericulture industry. In 2015, I was aware that she developed this industry that involved the whole community and wanted to follow up on this project. Mrs Kommaly Chanthavong had because of her involvement in strengthening the position of women in the community been presented as an applicant for the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is what I saw.
We drove to the centre on the outskirts of Xiengkhouang and met by a guide. This is the place where obviously the focus is on growing the mulberry trees and the raising of silk worms. We were shown all stages of silk production: reeling, skein winding, dyeing and weaving. It was disappointing that there were not many people working there when we visited. There were a couple of workers using skeining equipment while the dyers were off at a wedding and there were only 4 weavers at work. I wondered if some of the work that could be done off site (winding the silk from cocoon to skein, weaving and finishing) was being done off site and whether this centre apart from the silk worm/silk growing aspect was more of a collection/distribution centre. The weaving produced is sold in the gallery on site and in Vientiane. The retail outlet in Luang Prabang is now closed. In Vientiane, we visited the gallery and met with Mrs Kommaly Chanthavong. An interesting comment that she made was that the organisation was diversifying into soya production to support their community. I must admit that after the visit to the Centre, I felt that the strength of the textile production as to what I had remembered was not as great. More will be noted of Mulberries when we get to Vientiane.
Mulberries grows 5 varieties of silk worms with several of these being cross breeds.
Silk being reeled from cocoons.
This equipment allows for many skeins to be prepared.
One of the four weavers. She is using a vertical storage system with sticks. There was a loom set up with string looms to store pattern but it had a few cobwebs and was obviously not currently being used. I understand that bamboo sticks are preferred though when the space becomes too cramped to use these, they move to the loops instead. All four weavers were using sticks. The weavers are from the Black Tai, Red Tai and Lao Phuan ethnic groups.
A close up look at what is being woven.
The gallery at Mulberries (Ponsovan)
Next: Luang Prabang.