The Ancient Art of Lao Silk Weaving

A landlocked country bordered by Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, Laos is often neglected on the large tours of Asia but offers visitors a land bursting with vibrancy. Silk weaving in Laos combines a rich culture that dates back centuries with a modern feeling of community amongst the women of the country. Weaving is a colourful way of expressing individuality and ethnic diversity whilst honouring spiritual connections and Lao mythology.

Experiencing the silk weaving industry in Laos is a journey through the strands of time and modern calamities that have nearly extinguished this highly-skilled craft.

The Origin of Silk Weaving

The ancient traditions of weaving in Laos can be traced back over 1,200 years to the migration of the Tai-Lao people from modern-day Southern China. They brought with them the art of silk cultivation and weaving that had been practised in China for centuries. Upon their arrival in Laos, the migrants encountered the indigenous Mon-Khmer groups, primarily in the southern provinces of Laos, who already wove cloth with cotton and hemp. This initial blend of cultures has developed over the centuries into the ethnic diversity in silk weaving we see today.

women weaving - pixabay

Silk weaving was a home craft exclusively carried out by women, historically only amongst the upper class. Daughters of the working class could rarely be spared from the rice fields to learn the intricate and time-consuming art of weaving. Weaving skills would be passed down from mothers to daughters who then pass down their weaving skills through the generations. The textiles created would be used around the home, for special occasions and spiritual ceremonies.

Contemporary silk weaving is carried out by all classes of women and is a highly-valued skill in modern markets.

Techniques, Materials and Motifs

The techniques and materials used for creating the stunning final textiles have changed very little over the past 1,200 years. To create the unique soft Lao silk the process begins with the humble mulberry tree. Arguably one of the most important stages in Lao silk weaving, the mulberry tree plays a vital role in the rearing of silkworms as their only food source. The mulberry tree is carefully planted and grown to ensure the leaves and berries are of the highest quality when picked.

The leaves of the mulberry tree are fed to growing silkworms who live for roughly 24 days in specially designed climate-controlled huts before they begin to form their cocoon. The silkworm cocoons are harvested between 5-7 days of their maturation, long enough to allow for silk formation but before the moths inside have a chance to eat it. To harvest the silk the cocoons are cleaned (the fibre removed is later used for pillow stuffing) and soaked in boiling water to loosen the strands before up to 100 of them are pulled together to make a single thread.

silk cocoon - pixabay

The silk threads are almost ready for spinning, but first, they need to go through a texture treatment to create Laos’ famous soft silk. The thread is soaked in rice water overnight to aid colour absorption during the dyeing process before being rinsed and dried overnight. The thread is then boiled for a second time which ensures any leftover gum from the cocoon is removed. Finally, the silk threads are spun together and are now ready for dyeing and weaving.

Natural dyes with ingredients such as indigo, mulberry fruit and tamarind are used on the silk for rich tones exclusive to the individual pot of dye mix made at any one time.

Silk weaving in Laos is still carried out by hand and requires skill, patience and dexterity to achieve the complex designs created over many months. Two different loom types are used in the weaving of silk, ethnic groups originating from the migrations in the 8th century favour an upright loom whilst the Mon-Khymer people use a backstrap/body tension loom.

The patterns and motifs woven into Lao silk textiles are distinctive to each ethnic group and are often symbolic meanings of the weavers’ history, culture and personal stories. Weavers take inspiration from mythology, history, ancient family textiles and the natural environment surrounding them. Flowers, trees, clouds, lanterns, the moon, stars and rainbows are all woven into the stories told in silk.

Mythological creatures play a huge role in weaving patterns both historically and today with the most common depicting Naga and Siho. Naga is a river serpent with immense magical power and is commonly used to symbolise protection, whilst the Siho (half elephant and half lion) represent great power and strength. Living animals are also popular inclusions within intricate weaving patterns. Birds are used to symbolise freedom and frogs to encourage rainfall and fertility.

Decline and Rebirth in the Modern Day

After the conclusion of the Second World War, Laos experienced a difficult and dangerous period that threatened to cause the extinction of the ancient craft of silk weaving. The country faced political turmoil as civil war broke out between communist factions and royalist supporters as well as environmental havoc due to bombing during the Vietnam war. Thousands were displaced or killed and the craft of weaving declined. However, the craft has seen a resurgence in recent years due to the relaxation of tourism in Laos and the demands for silk on the international market.

During the 1990s a revival in silk weaving was pioneered by extraordinary women determined not to let traditions die. American master weaver Carol Cassidy became interested in Laos silk weaving after a trip to the country with her husband in 1989 but faced difficulties from a communist government who regarded the craft as unimportant. Ms Cassidy desired to expose to the world the beautiful creations woven entirely by hand.

To the surprise of Carol Cassidy and her husband, they were the first foreigners to be granted a business license and the dream became a reality. A commercial workshop was built in an old colonial house in Laos’ capital Vientiane and three local weavers were employed. Ms Cassidy has built a thriving business over the years, now employing over 40 local weavers and shipping to luxury fashion houses/brands all over the world.

Outside of the capital, you will find Mulberries Organic Silk Farm and Phontong Handicraft Cooperative. The cooperative was founded by Kommaly Chanthavong, who in 1976 gathered ten displaced women from her home province Hua Phan, Xam Neua to use their weaving skills as a form of income following the devastation of the Vietnam war. Kommaly now works with over 3,000 co-operative members offering classes on a working silk farm that teach mulberry tree growth, silk cultivation and weaving to those lacking these traditional skills. In 2005 Kommaly was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize with 1000 peace women for her considerable work with rural women, giving them skills to lead an independent life.

Discovering Silk Weaving as a Tourist

As Laos continues to grow as a country and open up their tourism markets, more and more visitors are flocking to the country for an exclusive travelling experience. Silk weaving has been revived partially due to these tourism demands and there are specialist boutiques, museums and sustainable companies that can provide authenticity.

loom - pixabay

The Textiles Museum just outside of Vientiane is a hidden gem and an ideal stop on any tour of Laos. The museum is a private, family-owned space dedicated to showcasing the historical examples and modern techniques of silk weaving in traditional Lao huts. The museum displays the tools used during all stages of the textile process and offers visitors the opportunity to try their hand at mixing dyes and experiencing weaving. The museum also offers displays of ancient textiles visitors can view on a personalised tour.

The owners of the Textiles Museum own Kanchana, a popular boutique in the centre of the capital where they sell the textiles they weave at the museum. Visitors can also purchase other locally made designs in many different gift forms. For visitors seeking other boutiques, pay a visit to Carol Cassidy’s workshop where you can watch the weavers at work and view pieces destined for luxurious brands all over the world.

weaving carving - pixabay

Silk weaving has enjoyed a long history of cultural significance and continues to bring women from all over Laos and other countries together as a united community. From the origins of silk production women have woven stories, their hopes and dreams, and histories for their families. The next generation of weavers can look forward to a future continuing in the footsteps of their cultural heritage, safe in an industry that continues to flourish as inspiring women fight to keep it alive.

“I knew very little about Laos and when the opportunity came to write an article about the country, I jumped at the chance to do something different. After discovering this ancient tradition of silk weaving, I knew I wanted to learn more about it and I have enjoyed exploring the world of weaving, adding to my love and knowledge of crafts.”

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