Silk Weaving in Laos : An Ancient Asian Tradition
Lao Silk Textiles - Detailed Motif
Silk Weaving in Laos
The women of Laos have been weaving silk for over 1000 years. This ancient tradition has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations, and silk weaving remains a beautiful, creative expression of Lao culture today. Laos is a small country in Southeast Asia with a population of just 6.2 million and few exports.
The art of weaving experienced a long period of decline, but then the number of visitors to Laos began to increase. Westerners, seeing the wonderful designs and incredible detail of Lao traditional dress woven in silk, took an interest causing a revival of the tradition in the early 1990s. An American women named Carol Cassidy with a deep interest in weaving visited Laos in 1989 and fell in love with the country and its rich weaving tradition. Carol established one of the first commercial weaving studios in Laos and did a great deal to promote Lao weaving.
Today several studios in Laos are weaving silks of spectacular quality, incorporating ancient tribal designs as well as contemporary designs. Thanks to international media coverage, Lao silk is now receiving deserved recognition from around the world. The demand for woven silk textiles from Laos is steadily climbing as more and more people have the opportunity to appreciate this superb art form.
In the past, Laotian women normally weaved only for themselves and their family. They bred the silk worms, extracted the silk and dyed it with natural dyes before weaving textiles to be worn for every day use or for special occasions. Often they would take an heirloom piece as inspiration and modify it somewhat.
Over past centuries, the various ethnic groups in Laos have provided a vast pool of influences, leading to an astonishing variety of patterns, color schemes and shapes. The women of Laos are passionate about silk weaving, and joyfully work their looms. Silk weaving plays a vital role in Lao tradition. The growing demand for silk textiles is helping to stimulate a tiny economy with few exports by providing a valuable source of income for women and their families as well as helping to promote tourism.
Traditional Silk Loom
The Lao have spent hundreds of years perfecting the art of silk cultivation and the thread used is of a consistently high quality. The silk taken from a cacoon consists of a single filament up to 3000 feet long. Five or so filaments are often combined to make a usable silk thread.
After the silk is dried and spun it is then dyed using a variety of plant extracts:
- · Indigo plant - blue, black and green
- · Mahogany tree-dry earth and brick red
- · Ebony fruit -grey
- · Annatto seeds –orange
- · Jackfruit -yellow
- · Bark of the Indian trumpet flower tree -green
- · Almond leaves -olive
Ancestral dyeing techniques are very meticulous and great care is taken when selecting the plants from which the dye is extracts. Most fabrics in the world today are dyed with synthetic dyes, which lack the natural beauty of natural dyes. Some studios in Laos are now using German synthetic dyes which are fade resistant.
Lao Silk Wall Hangings
Once the weaver is clear on the design to be used, silk weaving begins on a traditional wooden loom. It’s a remarkable experience to watch a complex motif emerge slowly with each expert movement of a master weaver. The skill and patience required by the weaver is staggering. A single piece can take months to complete. Traditional designs or motifs include ancient symbols such as diamonds, temples, birds, mythical serpents (Naga), elephants, flowers and other animals. These ancient symbols are said to offer protection to the owner. The starflower and other geometric designs attract good luck and prosperity. Certain animal characters are believed to increase fertility, while the firestone and spinning tools reflect wisdom and creativity.
Weaving techniques used include warp, weft, supplementary weft, matmee or ikat and tapestry.
- Warp refers to the silk threads stretched lengthwise on the loom to be crossed by the weft, which then forms the cloth.
- Supplementary weft refers to a decorative technique in which the motif is formed using additional threads. This imaginative technique can appear to some as though it were embroidered onto the cloth.
- Matmme or ikat is the process of adding a pre-dyed pattern into the warp. Silk threads are dyed in a pattern and woven into the piece creating an interesting effect where the colours appear to bleed into one another. This technique is also used in India and Indonesia.
- Tapestry is a freestyle weaving technique popular in the Northern Laos.
Silk Weaver, Laos
Lao Silk Textiles Home Décor
Unlike mass produced machine woven textiles, the surfaces of loom woven silk are not perfect, but show the beautiful organic characteristics of hand-woven and dyed silk. When considering the value of a silk it is only fair to take into account the massive volume of time and exceptional skill required to create these beautiful textiles. The more detailed pieces created by master weavers are really works of art.
Lao silk textiles can be used as wall hangings, table runners, bed runners or wraps. Some pieces also look wonderful framed. Vintage textiles sometimes combine cotton with silk, especially the pieces that originally formed the hems of skirts worn by Laotian women. These pieces are in short supply and will increase in value over time.
The exquisite textiles woven by the women of Laos lend a wonderful, warm ambiance to the home and capture much of the mystical, exotic and playful sense of Southeast Asia. My collection of Lao silk textiles can be seen here.