A visit to the Lao countryside fills one’s eyes and ears with intriguing wonders. Farm animals forage for food while villagers carry out daily activities, preparing meals and tending fields. However, a recurring scene is women, regardless of ethnicity, carrying out different stages of textile production.
Women are the primary producers of handwoven cloth for dress, household accessories, and ritual items. Traditionally, the knowledge is passed down from elder relatives to younger kin. Or, girls and adolescents learn from watching other members of the village complete different tasks related to textile production and decoration. Old textiles are templates for the colours, format, and patterns serving as markers of each ethnic group.
In the past, society judged a woman’s ability to be a good wife and mother by her creativity and skills in weaving. Patience and a work ethic were essential to produce finely embroidered or woven fabric. Thus, unmarried females displayed their finest and most beautiful textiles at ceremonies and festivals. They were also required to accumulate textiles to complete trousseaus they prepared, for their future roles as wives and mothers. As gifts to loved ones, these fabrics were created with care.
Previously, women were solely responsible for the raw materials utilised in textile production. They cultivated cotton and later processed it by hand into thread. Hmong weavers also grew hemp. Members of the Lao and related Tai groups reared silkworms in order to reel silk from cocoons. Some silk was exchanged with those who did not practice sericulture such as Hmong and Mien women. Weavers also grew or collected the raw materials used in natural dyeing. Nowadays, dyes and threads available in the local markets have replaced many of the natural materials since these items are inexpensive and reduce weavers’ workloads.
Traditional female attire of most groups has parallels. Tubular skirts serve as lower garments, but the composition and decoration vary. For Lao and related Tai groups, a skirt or sinh is composed of three sections: waistband, midsection, and border. An identity marker of the Tai Lue is a large indigo or black skirt border. Borders on ceremonial skirts of the Lao and Tai Phuan, for example, are decorated with supplementary weft techniques. Other types of lower garments include pants worn by White Hmong women and short, pleated skirts worn by members of other Hmong subgroups as well as some Akha subgroups. The skirts of the Hmong are composed of hemp while those of the Akha are cotton.
A head covering was also part of women’s dress in the past, but this tradition is dying. The method of folding and wearing a head cloth indicated a woman’s marital status, ethnic affiliation, and village location. Hmong women acquired fabric produced by neighbouring groups, such as the Mien, Tai Dam or Tai Phuan, to use as turbans. The Lao and Tai also utilise handwoven fabric as shoulder cloths and shawls. Other weavings serve as clothing accessories such as belts and baby carriers.
The handwoven textiles worn by women are elaborately decorated compared to those used by males. Men, generally, accentuate their outfits a long-sleeved shirt and baggy trousers with checked or patterned shoulder cloths. Some grooms don silk hip wrappers several meters in length for their wedding.
In the past, members of the elite wore silk on a daily basis while others reserved this costly material for special occasions. Lao silk, internationally renowned, possesses unique characteristics, such as un-uniform texture created by hand-reeling filaments into thread.
Since the introduction of a market economy in the mid-1980s, commercialisation of handwoven textile production has occurred. Weavers must look beyond their ethnic identity and produce textiles that meet market demand. Some women belonging to groups, such as the Khmu and Hmong, that never wove, or only wove using backstrap looms, have begun using frame looms since cloth woven on the larger devices can be sold throughout the country. Production of specific textile types has increased while others have declined or disappeared altogether. Textiles used as household accessories have been replaced by manufactured goods readily available in the market. Inexpensive, factory-made clothing
is also found throughout the country, threatening some types of weaving. For example, there has been a decline in the use of hemp since many Hmong can now buy fabric from the market to create special occasion clothing. Sericulture or raising silkworms to produce silk, and the cultivation of cotton and hemp are decreasing every year in Laos. However, wearing clothes made from traditional textiles remains part of the national identity, and this should continue to sustain the production of handwoven textiles in the future. But, producers must also adapt to the demands of the market
STORY & PHOTOS BY Dr. LINDA S. MCINTOSH
ILLUSTRATION BY THEO