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Witnessing Change in Lao Textiles
Traveling to Laos once or twice a year for over twenty years, I have witnessed remarkable changes in the textile field. As tourism developed, new markets for Lao textiles opened and designers from the U.S.A., Europe, Japan, and Australia came to work with local weavers introducing new ideas, designs, materials and processes. However, when the global financial crisis hit, many businesses scaled back their production, producing cheaper items and engaging more with visitors from nearby countries. Since then, new ventures, small factories, and international partnerships have been established.
Many Lao people still live in remote areas, far from the main cities, continuing their textile traditions while adapting to new influences and working with available raw materials. They survive through self-sufficient lifestyles, and producing saleable items which brings valuable income for education and healthcare. Small cooperatives and businesses have formed so artisans can pool resources and share equipment and facilities thereby allowing expanded production of goods for sale and export. The importance of environmental and sustainability factors has increased bringing a renewed interest in use of natural dyes and fibers. Seeds, leaves, roots, bark and flowers, used to make subtle dye colors, are gathered from surrounding areas and deep in the forests. But as demand for dye plant materials increases, sourcing enough of this is becoming difficult.
Many businesses now operate out of the urban centers with workshops, galleries, and museums run by enterprising Lao people and foreigners. There are also training centers for disadvantaged and disabled people as craft provides a means of income generation and self-support.
Australian Emi Weir left her travel career in Sydney to set up Ma Té Sai, which means “where is it from”? As a member of the organization Fair Trade Laos, Ma Té Sai only sells Lao products sourced from individual makers and small businesses in villages around the country. Acknowledging the artisans through labelling and signage, their stories give buyers an insight into traditions and culture, the raw materials used, and the maker’s skills.
Passa-paa (meaning the language of cloth) is designed by Heather Smith, a British textile designer. (Her sister, Joanna Smith, is co-founder of the Laos social enterprise Ock Pop Tok.) Heather brings forward-looking textile design and screen printing to Luang Prabang, the line consists of stylish bags, wallets, scarves and hand-bound notebooks for our modern world. The designs are inspired by the patterns in Hmong traditional embroidery, applique and batik. By changing the color palette, scale, density of pattern, and relationship of forms to background, the fabric designs have been transformed into a modern idiom.
Some traditions were almost lost after the abolition of the royal family as they were seen to be ostentatious and irrelevant to the ideals of the new government. Metallic thread weaving and embroidery have been revived and is now sought after for wedding dress and ceremonial objects. Nithakhong Somsanith learned the courtly art of gold and silver thread embroidery, Silapa pak dinh, from his grandmother when sumptuous costumes were woven and embroidered for the royal family, fabrics stitched with symbols of status, power and spiritual meaning. He now designs and produces sophisticated and embellished garments using this art form.
Contemporary Lao textiles tick all the boxes for modern ideals–ecologically friendly production, sustainable practices, growing small businesses and working with minority people. The fabrics confidently bridge traditions and contemporary innovation, past and present, national and international, all reaching out to a forward-looking world.
In this rapidly changing country, the traditions, skills and creativity of textiles could easily lose out to commercialism, but as long as the Lao people value their heritage and traditions, and visitors buy textiles to take home with their treasured memories, the textile artisans of Laos will be empowered and can continue to contribute to their local economy.
About our Guest Writer: Special thanks to our guest writer Valerie Kirk for this week’s blog. Ms. Kirk is a tapestry weaver, Senior Lecturer and Head of Textiles at the Australian National University. She is recognized internationally for her work as an educator and is devoted to encouraging an appreciation and understanding of textiles, along with direct contact with practitioners. Join Valerie on her next textile tour to Laos January 2019.