The Fabulous Fabrics of Laos

    By Nancy Swing

If you're lucky enough to travel into traditional villages in Laos, look under the stilt houses. There you are likely to see women bent over their looms, weaving intricate and colourful textiles as they have for centuries. Even in the outskirts of Vientiane, you will find these weavers producing glorious silks and everyday cottons in complex designs.

Using both natural and factory made dyes, the weavers draw upon the rich culture of Laos to hand-loom fabrics that are a lesson in geometry: spirals, angular meanders, scrolls, hooks, diamonds and triangles. They also weave in stylised elephants, spirit figures, birds, flowers and trees. Perhaps the most typical motif is the nak, a mythical and benevolent dragon who brings the rains and protects the rivers. You'll see this guardian serpent on the steps to temples all over this part of the world.

These symbols arise from a blend of three religions which have shaped the rich cultural history, of Laos. The earliest Lao were animists believers in spirits, and many of these traditions still persist, not only in the fabrics but in ceremonies as well. Hundreds of years ago, Hinduism spread eastward from the Indian subcontinent to affect all the cultures of Southeast Asia, and Laos was no exception. Buddhism, perhaps the most obvious influence today, has added its own symbols to Lao weaving. This melange of cultural strands has helped create textiles which are world-famous among those who appreciate fine fabrics.

Even if you aren't able to travel outside Vientiane, you can easily see, and purchase if you're inclined, the fabulous fabrics of Laos. Take a stroll through the left side of Talat Sao, the Morning Market, and you'll see a wide range of textiles for traditional women's skirts, men's sarongs, shoulder cloths and utilitarian items like bags and head coverings. Most of these weavings are of cotton or a blend of silk and polyester, pure silk having become too expensive for the average Lao to afford. (In the old days before the introduction of machine-made fibres, even peasants wore silk!)

Although most of the textiles in Talat Sao are modern, you will find a couple of stalls with old fabrics. There are also shops in town which sell both old and new weaving. The Vientiane Guide with its accompanying map, available at most hostelries and many shops, is a good source of information about where to find the beautiful textiles of Laos. However, there are three enterprises in particular which you should not miss.

Near the river and Wat Xieng Nhune of Manh Thatourath Street is the Art of Silk, operated by the Lao Women's Union. Originally founded in 1955 as the Lao Women's Association, this organisation has evolved to meet the needs of today's Lao woman.

The union's Art of Silk project protects and preserves old textiles, trains weavers in traditional techniques, including natural dyes, and operates a shop where their fabrics can be sold. Upstairs is a small museum displaying some of the old textiles which are the inspiration for the modern weavings. In the shop you will find a variety of silk and cotton fabrics, as well as bags, scarves, blouses and shirts. All are moderately priced.

The Art of Silk shop and museum feature traditional textiles made by village women from all over the country. You'll see the red-and-black fabrics of Attapeu, the intricately mixed weaving techniques of Sam Neua and indigo batik from the Hmong. Proceeds from sales go directly to the weavers.

In about the same price range is Lao Cotton, with two shops, the older one just off Nam Phou Circle on Setthathirath Street and a recentlyopened outlet opposite the Swedish Guest House on Sokpaluang Road. Perhaps the most extensive collection is in the salesroom at the factory located in a lane opposite Wat Oupmouang on Luang Prabang Road. The short trip out to the factory is well worth the time and effort.

Lao Cotton is the result of a United Nations project to preserve weaving skills and to develop contemporary products. You'll find a large variety of cotton fabrics in traditional and modern designs. They are justly famous for the quality of their table and bed linens, garments, bags of many sizes and shapes (often trimmed in leather), portfolios, and interior decorating articles. Those made from traditional designs are particularly not to be missed.

If you have time, you can have something made to order at the factory. You might also want to visit Lao Vilai Samsenthai near Khoun Boulum Street with its clever contemporary fashions created from Lao Cotton by designer Efi Haninkes.

At the upper end of the price range is Lao Textiles on Nokeo Khoumane Street, near Wat Mixay. Here you will find hand-loomed silks created for couturiers, museums and connoisseurs of fine fabrics.

Founded in 1990 by textile designer and weaver Carol Cassidy, Lao Textiles is preserving the ancient Lao art of silk weaving at its best.

Carol uses a Macintosh computer to interpret traditional colours and designs for contemporary use. Her master weavers then loom these designs into fabrics for fashion and decor as well as items of apparel like shawls and scarves.

These textiles grace homes throughout the world and are displayed in museums on two continents. For example, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos recently redecorated his office residence using Lao Textiles. Other embassies in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore have purchased wall-hangings and upholstery fabrics.

The fashion industry is also enthusiastic about Lao Textiles, and we can expect to see them featured in couturier collections in the near future, as well as in exclusive shops like Barneys in New York City.

When you visit Lao Textiles, you'll see something very special. If you buy something, you'll have a treasure.

Whatever your pocketbook, don't leave without a sample of Lao weaving. Take it home. Wear it or put it on the wall. You'll have a tangible reminder of a unique, unspoiled and enchanting culture.


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