In January and early February I went on a textile trip to Laos. This is the continuing report on that trip from last month. For this report, I continue to discuss the textiles that we came across based on the areas that we visited. Last month I began with Phonsavan.
Textiles in the Luang Prabang area.
Luang Prabang, the northern capital of Laos is a hub for textiles. Local and more distant ethnic groups sell their wares here in markets, villages and galleries/shops. In addition both traditional cloth both new and old as well as more contemporary designs can be found.
The Hmong are known for their wonderful batik textiles in combination with applique and embroidery. We braved a local village where we saw women and young girls stitching. These are very high powered saleswomen.
Ock Pop Tok. They have both a gallery and a “Living Crafts Centre”. Both display contemporary textiles. The Living Craft Centre also has information on textile production including silk production and natural dyes. There are also weavers and batik dyers producing product for the gallery. The following images show yarn and batik drying, and some contemporary weaving.
In addition there are facilities for people to attend a workshop. I took advantage of weaving a supplementary weft recipe. I did not need to pick up the pattern nor thread the loom. Yes, all I had to do was decide what colour weft threads I wanted to use and weave for a couple of hours
Weavers use the long box loom with a vertical storage unit. String loops are used to store the patterns. The stored pattern is transferred to behind the shafts and put back on a sword to select the pattern for the supplementary weft designs. Many string loops can be used to store very complicated patterns. My pattern only used 40 loops. Several hundred loops can be used in a complicated pattern.
One doesn’t need language to communicate with weaving. That’s my completed weaving hot off the loom.
And a closer look.
In addition to the pattern being used as a single supplementary weft it may also be used as a discontinuous supplementary weft for brocade.
On my last trip to Laos and Thailand in 2015 I fully documented how these looms worked.
There are several places that sell textiles. There are local markets of course but here are some shops/galleries/organisations that impressed me.
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Museum have some great displays of various aspects of textile production and a shop selling textiles.
Gallery Asiama is run by Linda Mackintosh and exhibits traditional cloth. As well as having many beautiful old textiles, there were a couple of “funery wraps”. These wraps are quite different to anything else I had seen from a weaving structure perspective either on this trip or the previous one. I was told that the technique is no longer being done and were produced in NE Laos and NW Vietnam.
The technique is either two tie woven as “bricks” or three tie to achieve several colour areas. I saw both examples. The designs were large in scale. These were also found in another gallery exhibiting antique silverware and textiles where they were referred to as “banners”.
Ma Teˊ Sai is run by an Australian who supports weaving in the villages and sells in her gallery. While the techniques are traditional her designs and applications are for the western taste.
Caruso Lao is a gallery selling contemporary Lao textiles, wood carving and turning and silver smithing.
Textiles in Pakse and Boloven Plateau
In a village just outside of Pakse we saw mat mi or weft ikat being woven. They used a box loom with only 2 shafts for plain weave fabric. The vertical storage is not used here.
An ethnic village has been set up outside of Pakse that is aimed at the tourists wishing for an overview of traditional crafts from the Atapu region. Each area was represented by a house with representatives from that area often demonstrating or selling their crafts.
There were various warp faced textiles for sale which were woven on back strap looms. Some of these included that woven by the Katu. I loved the warp faced stripe combinations.
A Katu village. The weavers here use beads on the weft. The yarn may be naturally dyed cotton however I also saw some commercially dyed in brighter colours. Sometimes synthetic yarn is also used.
The process for weaving with beads on the weft.
As well as many older women, I was delighted to see this young girl weaving with beads. While her design is simpler, the basic technique can be seen. The back strap loom is set up with as a combination of warp stripes to create an overall pattern and to enhance the pattern of the beads. There is only one weft thread. This has many beads threaded on it. The shuttle is to the left.
When the beads are required they are counted off and woven in the approximate position. The weft is beaten.
Then the beads are placed in the correct position according to the pattern before being beaten into place.
Here’s a movie of the full process.
The Dream Home supports women who were victims of human trafficking.
Pakse Souveni had some exquisite mat mi.
Textiles along the Mekong River south of Pakse.
We saw no weaving being done. In fact there was very little weaving being worn. Life here revolves around farming and fishing. Of note we did see some fishing nets and baskets being made; all useful for this lifestyle.
Textiles in Savannaket area
Laha Nam Village produces mat mi in natural dyes. We participated in a dyeing workshop here.
The ethnic minority group of the Phu Tai originally came from northern Vietnam. They brought indigo and cotton weaving to the area many generations ago. Around 1975 weaving and dyeing stopped because of competition from Thailand. In 1989 -90 when Laos reopened after the war, a government company was set up to encourage people to work again. The company is no longer working with the villagers and instead they have been encouraged to form cooperatives to weave and sell their produce.
Cotton is raised on the banks of the Mekong and processed in the village.
There are several cooperatives in this village and over 200 weavers. The one we visited has 22 weavers. Details of the dyeing workshop will follow in another blog.
Here’s some examples weaving that was produced.
We visited another mat mi village in this area. They were producing yardage of a standard size: 75 x 160cm. This was using commercially spun cotton/rayon on a synthetic warp. It was also typified by two weft rows of mat mi alternating with 2 rows of solid colour. The designs were quite contemporary. We bought in what appeared to be the communal shop where the weavers bought the yarn and then brought back finished product for sale probably to an established buyer.
Textiles in Vientiane Area
Carol Cassidy is a western entrepreneur working with the Laotian weavers to created contemporary designs based on tradition. I have visited Carol whenever I have been in Vientiane. As well as being the driving force behind the gallery and studio, she is also engaged as a consultant in Cambodia and Myanmar. She is very much aware of what is happening in textiles in Vientiane, nationally and in SE Asia. She employs several weavers on the gallery site.
Nikone has a gallery and usually an attached workshop. Unfortunately the weaving workshop was closed due to flooding. She has also developed a range of textiles for sale in Europe and Japan. It is exciting to see that her daughter is becoming involved in the business and catering towards the Lao wedding market. This fabric woven with an ondule or fan reed was one of the treasures I found in the gallery.
Phaeng Mai- gallery and weaving studio. There are some delightful contemporary woven fabrics in the gallery. It was great to return to Phaeng Mai where I had studied last year.
Magic Lao Carpets is the first and only carpet making business in Laos. The carpets are hand knotted and are stunning. As well as seeing the finished product, we were able to see all the stages that go into weaving them.
Each carpet is worked on by a team of young girls. They work from printed graphs.
The silk is hand knotted around the warp. Note the line to check the pattern. Then they are beaten in.
The pile is trimmed with shears regularly.
There are several other galleries. Mulberries, which I had visited in Phonsavan, also has a gallery in Vientiane.
Some interesting bits and pieces and overall impressions.
This is how convenient a loom can be to set up. A weaver arrives with the warp all threaded through the heddles. All that needs to be done to weave is to put it on the loom, attach treadles and suspend shafts.
Often the very long warps (up to 90 m) for the supplementary weft weaving is loosely coiled in a bag and suspended from the back of the loom. In this case the warp has been wound on a board. This will result in even tension across the full width of this loom. Note that this warp board is tied onto the loom and not permanently fixed.
Bamboo stretchers are usually used. They are placed under the weaving, out of the way. You can tell on this weaving how frequently it has been moved. They are very useful when weaving weft ikat to keep the ikat consistently aligned.
Textile production form a part of daily life. Looms are found under the houses. Here chickens roost on the loom with the most complicated mat mi.
Many communities that are close to the Thai border have been impacted by the death of the Thai king. This is a year of morning. This has affected the sale of textiles for use in ceremonies including weddings. The village of Laha Nam has had a major downturn in indigo mat mi production. It has also resulted in an upturn in entertainment offered on the Laos side of the border with weekend tourism increasing.
It is sometimes difficult to identify which ethnic group is producing which cloth. At one gallery we were told that it comes from “the north”. This may be because a middle man/woman is involved in buying the cloth or that they are directing villages into producing cloth of a particular style because it is popular and readily saleable.
The issue of copyright is seen as a major one by many galleries. The best galleries aim at staying one step ahead of the competition. There are no laws that protect copyright.
How prevalent is handwoven fabric in today’s society? In general daily life women are the only ones who wear traditional dress in the form of the sinh or skirt. Along one road, I surveyed how many women were wearing the sinh as opposed to western dress. In this instance it was about even. It does however depend on where one is. Remote villages are more likely to retain traditional cloth and certain ethnic groups seem to value it more than others. Areas where there are government or public jobs often require women to wear the sinh as a uniform. School uniforms require the sinh to be worn though it is a commercially woven version.
I thought this market we stopped at along the road between Savannaket and Vientiane provided an insight. On one side of the aisle was a shop selling western clothes while directly opposite was one selling the sinh.
The one area that still has high regard for traditional textiles and dress is the wedding industry. This will be the only time that men wear traditional dress. The cloth here exhibits a high standard of exclusiveness and workmanship.
We heard that the generation of Laos and International women who had dedicated their lives to promoting weaving either traditional or contemporary were approaching retirement with a lack of young blood coming through. This must impact on the future of weaving and textile production in Laos.
I saw these two panels in the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Museum. They reflect the diverse attitudes in ethnic minority groups as to the value of traditional textiles.
The government will play a vital role in the future of textiles. It was very evident that Laos is undergoing great development with financial partnerships with China, Thailand and Vietnam. This is creating new jobs which pay so much more than textile rates. The rate of growth was extremely evident in Vientiane with high rise buildings appearing and in the proliferation of petrol stations along major roads.
The issue of the survival of traditional crafts in contemporary society is not new. As Laos moves into this new era of economic growth and the impact of the popularity of western dress increases, I hope that the knowledge and skills of those working with textiles will continue to be appreciated and for them to have a place for their work.
Coming: I will document the stages of mat mi, the indigo dyeing workshop we participated in and eventually a report on the textile experience in Cambodia.