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Updated: Feb 28 '15
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Silk and cotton weaving by hand is an age-old tradition in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, known also as Laos, the Lao PDR or to anyone living there, simply as Lao. Intricate and beautiful designs in fabric are produced by Lao village women on wooden-framed looms operated using both hands and feet. The cloth is woven from hand grown, spun and dyed cotton or silk thread. The weaving looms are usually located under the house the coolest part of the living area of the dwelling.
Traditionally, Lao houses were constructed using hardwood pillars and planks for flooring and outer walls. Woven bamboo strip panels formed room partitions and dried grass thatching covered the roof. Nowadays, due partly to the growing shortage and expense of suitable wood, pillars are made of steel-reinforced pre-cast concrete and corrugated iron or fibre sheets are used instead of thatching which deteriorates quickly in the sun and rain. Dwellings are built high enough from the ground to allow for heavy rains and flooding and also to provide headroom for storage, animal shelter, work and relaxation.
Cotton growing, harvesting, spinning and hand-weaving into cloth is time-consuming and arduous. It can take days, weeks or sometimes a month to create a single piece of hand-woven cloth. This is still done by Lao women such as in a small Lao Leu community north of Luang Prabang. They begin by making their own natural dyes from leaves and berries to colour the thread made from the cotton buds from their own small crops.
The process of producing fabric from silk or cotton is basically the same, except for the raw product both of which are natural fibres, which is combed into long strands and spun into thread, then woven into fabric on a loom.
For cotton, this begins with cotton plants grown locally by Lao villagers. Cotton flowers (blooms) are harvested and the white fluffy shroud is separated from the seed and rest of the plant. The cotton balls are stored in bamboo strip baskets, ready to be spun and turned first into long strands of fibre which can then be dyed into different colours, then woven into lengths of fabric.
Cotton and silk fabrics are used for many different purposes, from the Lao skirt worn at by every Lao girl and woman to scarves, shawls, dresses, blankets, bed or cushion covers. Some of these colourful, attractive items are exported and find places in Western homes as wall hangings, table cloths, runners and cushion covers.
For either cotton or silk fabric, the next part of the process involves spinning the combed fibre into skeins of thread; some are then coloured using natural dyes made from fermented leaves and berries. Below is a Lao woman making pots of dye. When the dyed cotton thread is dry it can be spun into yarn, first into skeins or loose coils and then fed on to bobbins or reels. Notice that all the 'machinery' is built and operated by hand.
The final process, and apart from the growing of the cotton plants to maturity, longest of all, is the weaving of the fibre into a fine, medium or thick fabric it gets cold (below freezing) at night in the mountains of Northern Laos, especially during the cold months of December and January on the hand and foot-operated wooden loom found under most Lao village houses. Lao women pass family traditional designs and weaving skills on to their daughters; the same that they inherited from their own mother and grandmother.
The different ethnic groups in Laos, especially in the north of the country, provide a vast variety of patterns, colour schemes and designs. Garments like skirts will portray the wearers identity as well as their social and marital status.
Although locally-cultivated silkworms (actually not worms at all, but caterpillars from the silk moth bombyx mori) are harvested to produce wild silk fibre in outlying Lao villages, there is an increasing lack of local silk thread which is becoming difficult for the Lao weavers to source. Silk fibre comes from the cocoon or outer protective casing of the silkworm pupa; this is the three-week stage of insect transition from crawling caterpillar (larva) to flying moth (adult) which will mate and lay eggs. After a few more weeks, these hatch as silkworm caterpillars to complete the cycle.
Silkworms must live in their natural habitat which is the mulberry tree. A by-product of sericulture (as silkworm growing is known) is the production of mulberry paper (actually a soft natural fibre itself) made from the leaves of the mulberry tree.
In Thailand and Laos this is known as 'saa' and it is used to make many attractive consumer items like wrapping paper and lampshades.
The silkworm is found in many Asian countries besides Laos. Hand-reared silkworms are not killed for 'wild silk' production. The moths are allowed to break free and the damaged cocoon, with less viable silk fibre, is then spun and made into cloth.
Commercially-produced silk thread imported from China and Japan is now also being used by Lao weavers to supply the large market for silk fabric in Vientiane and other cities and also for export. This thread comes in many colours and is made using chemical dyes, which do have advantages such as colour-fastness; silver and gold content is used to add a further dimension and texture to the fabrics made from it. A significant difference between wild and large-scale silk production is that commercially-reared silkworm pupae are killed by dipping them in boiling water or by piercing them with a needle. This is so that the whole cocoon may be used, making it more viable economically.
Lao weavers produce many silk and cotton fabrics
There is a constant need for fabrics and although not all are hand-woven, some coming from Thai and Chinese factories, all Lao women and girls must wear the traditional Lao skirt (sinh) some of the time. It's usually compulsory attire for schoolgirls and students. In the cities especially, many also wear Western style clothing like jeans and t-shirts. Official occasions, such as those of national significance, require traditional dress for Lao women in public places. On formal occasions, Lao men usually wear European-style clothing like a suit adorned by a Lao silk sash at ceremonies, presentations and weddings.
Traditional designs and patterns include symbols like diamonds, birds, snakes, elephants and other animals and flowers. These are not merely ornamental. They have significance offering both status and protection to the wearer. Here is an example of a traditional design wall hanging. The photo shows only half the piece which is about 6 feet long by 2 feet wide (2m x 80cm).
Below are modern, lightweight silk scarves in 'ikat' design.
While there are shops and boutiques all over the world selling exotic fabrics and handicraft from Laos and Southeast Asia, the best place to find handmade Lao silk and handicrafts is the Vientiane Morning Market (Talat Sao), famous throughout the region for its variety and choice of products of all descriptions. Women weaving full time in the Lao villages bring their cloth to the city or sell it to travelling 'brokers' who supply the market stall holders. In spite of these 'middle-men' beautiful pieces that would grace any home, restaurant or hotel can be purchased for a few dollars, out of which the poor weavers get a relative pittance for their labours.
There are some higher quality but more expensive silk products available from galleries and studios around the capital, and in Luang Prabang where there is also a great selection of places to stay with discount prices. Visit Hotels in Luang Prabang for more information.
After a long period of decline in the art of weaving, several studios were founded in the early 1990s. Today in Vientiane there are organisations continuing and expanding the tradition, employing and training young women in the art which is still handed down from mother to daughter in the villages of Laos.
Lao Textiles is a centrally-located silk showroom and workshop housed in a restored French colonial-style mansion on Setthatirath Road, not far from the Nam Phou Square Fountain in Vientiane, and also not far from the modern Lao Silk Hotel.
It is well worth a visit to see how American Carol Cassidy has worked since the early 1990's to revive and modernise the Lao silk industry almost single-handedly, not only by training local women in traditional weaving skills but also introducing them to new designs, colours and styles of fabric. This picture was taken at Carol's busy training workshop/gallery.
Learn to weave silk in Vientiane half and full day courses are held at the Houey Hong Vocational Training Center for Women in their village about 7 km from town. Not only can you learn a new skill but also experience the time and effort needed to dye thread and weave silk fabric by hand on a traditional wooden loom.
Checking for genuine silk
Silk quality varies and fabrics are produced to suit different purposes or budgets. However, not all the hand-woven items seen in the markets are pure silk. Other threads such as cotton, rayon or other polyester can be used exclusively or mixed with silk thread. There are ways to tell if silk is pure, mixed or 'fake'.
Pulling the cloth: if the
threads stay tight, it is likely to be authentic silk. If not, loosely woven
fabric may be due to the imbalance between warp (the
'base' threads on the loom) and weft (the threads woven
across them). This indicates the number of threads has been
reduced or there was too much dyeing.
Elasticity If the cloth can be stretched it indicates that non-silk thread has been used.
Burning a few strands of the cloth: the ash should be loose and smell like burnt hair. If it forms lumps, then it is not silk.
When creasing or crumpling pure silk it should not recover 'spring out' too quickly or slowly. Either indicates different thread has been used.
Soaking silk in warm water should not release the dye in good quality fabric which should be 'colour-fast'.
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