The evolution of weaving in Laos, which emerged from the cultural contact between different ethnic groups, has created some of the most intricate and stunning textiles to come from the simple floor loom. For more than 40 years following World War II, Lao weaving all but disappeared. Within a few short years, Lao textiles, in particular the Lao Tai people's supplementary weft weaving, travelled from the brink of extinction to what is considered by collectors and connoisseurs to be amongst the finest textiles in the world.
Lao weaves: the history
Silk production, dying and weaving reached Laos with the arrival of the Tai Kadai people from Yunnan in today’s China, around 1,200 years ago. As they travelled through the region, they encountered the indigenous Mon-Khmer people who were already weaving other types of fabric, mostly raw cotton and hemp.
The two main types of looms used today in Laos are unchanged in design since the earliest days of silk-weaving. The first type is the standing loom, which is commonly used amongst the Tai people. You often see them standing under stilted houses. The second is the backstop loom, used by Mon Khmer and Austro-asiatic weavers. Weaving skills were traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, and only wealthy families could afford to "spare" a daughter for this time-consuming craft and take her away from the main work in the rice paddies.
A weaver in the workshop of Ock Pop Tock, Luang Prabang.
Traditionally, weaving was done within the household for personal use only; from the breeding of the silk worms, extracting the silk, to dying and weaving the cloth. Cotton was used for everyday clothing and homewares; silk was used for rituals, like weddings, spiritual events and funerals, for visits and gifts to the temples, and for special textiles within the home. Family heirlooms were often used as inspiration for weaving special pieces.
The many ethnic groups in Laos provide a vast variety of patterns, colour schemes and shapes. Therefore, the clothes will also portray the wearer’s identity as well as their social and marital status. Ethnologists state that Lao textiles can be traced back to specific villages because the design is so representative of that unique culture or family.
House of Wandering Silk Lao Tai Chok scarves.
Lao weaves: death & revival
Following the end of World War II, Laos suffered under decades of war; first against the French and later between the government and community forces. “For many years the ancient silk-weaving tradition of Laos was stifled under the Communist regime that took over the country in 1975. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party saw no need for the elaborate hand-woven silks that Laotians (mostly women) had been making since at least the 14th century. With members of the country's royal family confined to “re-education” camps and with wealthy Laotians in exile, the market for lavish, labor-intensive fabrics dried up.” (Source: New York Times). Silk cultivation and the weaving of the complex Lao textiles all but disappeared.
After this long period of decline, Lao textiles experienced a revival starting in the 1990s. The country eased restrictions on investment, trade and travel; a stronger local economy and increase in tourism led to a dramatic increase in demand for these special textiles. This revival has been spearheaded by some remarkable women who are leading the way in traditional Lao textile production, such as Carol Cassidy of Lao Textiles, Oudone Phimphrachanh of la Maison Oudone, and Joanna Smith of Ock Pop Tok.
Ock Pop Tock boutique in Luang Prabang.
The jewel of Lao weaves
The most sought-after weaves are the discontinuous supplementary weft weaves, called chok in Lao. “Chok was invented by the Tai ethnic group of people, and it’s now considered a quintessential Lao technique” says Joanna of Ock Pop Tok.
Chok weaving is a technique where two or more different coloured threads are inserted between each row of warp thread. These are inserted by hand, so it’s akin to embroidery or carpet weaving. Kani weaving and jamdani are similar techniques employed in India. These supplementary threads go over and under different numbers of warp threads to make a pattern. A row of ground colour weft is inserted between each pattern to hold the cloth together.
Chok weaving, is done from the reverse side of the fabric.
Working from the back of the cloth, “the weaver’s fingers dance over the threads, moving shuttles, looping threads, and lifting warp; a slip of the finger or the mind, or a single dropped thread can create glaring errors. Precision, consistency and accuracy are required with every move, from designing the pattern to raising, spinning and dyeing the silk, to completing months of weaving."
(Source: Above the Fray)
The pattern is created by use of a heddle, a group of strings behind the two fixed heddles used for plainweave. This is like a blue print and holds that pattern for the finished design. Chok weaving requires great skill and patience, as one piece often takes up to 6 months to complete.
The heddle stores the pattern for the textile design. Here, a loom in the workshop of Ock Pop Tock, Luang Prabang.
Mythology & motifs
The value of textiles in Laos measures far greater than their utility or aesthetic pleasure; they are heavy with symbology, meaning and beliefs. So much so that anthropologists can determine ethnic group, marital status, region and function from looking at textiles.
"The Lao traditionally did not orate or write the stories of their history and culture, they wove it. Strand by strand, Lao stories are woven in the intricate dense patterns and motifs of textiles. Yet the story-depictions—religious, mythical, legendary, and even stories about personal aspirations and histories—are so elaborately fantastic, and the motifs so esoteric, that in many cases only the weaver can accurately interpret the story."
(Source: Victor Paul Borg)
"Each textile’s design contains traditional symbolic motifs, most of which appear “hidden” within the geometric complexity. Motifs may include mythological river-serpents, naga, elephant-lions, siho, giant spirits, phii nak, rainbow-bellied birds, hong, and many others"
(Source: Above the Fray)
"Some motifs are mythical creatures of legends and folktales such as soho (half lion/half elephant). Others are inspired by the natural environment; trees, flowers, clouds, water, lightning, birds and animals. Religious belief play an integral role in the textile design; often depicted are ancestor spirits, the afterworld, temples and stupas. Animal and mythical creature motifs are frequently used in the arts of the Lao. This is partly because animals are thought to have special powers; many are the animals from the zodiac. Another reason is because of the important role animals played in the epics that accompanies the introduction of buddhism onto Lao. The Naga motif is perhaps the most frequently used.
A naga is a mythological water servant with unparalleled magic powers. Nagas can assume the form of other beings, such as animals and humans. Lao legends tell of love tails between Nagas and humans. Generally, they are seen as benevolent beings that protect and save humans from illness, hunger and bad spirits. When they are angry Nagas use their power to create floods, storms and other natural disasters, or inflict illness and even death.
A powerful and popular motif is the hong, a mythical bird. Hong are considered creatures of great beauty, and are sometimes used as metaphors for female beauty among per class women. The xang hong or soho is a magnificent creature combining the power and strength of the elephant with the prestige and beauty of the bird. Some people interpret soho as a half elephant, half lion and somethings the soho or hong are shown pregnant with naga. Soho is often depicted with a human or ancestor spirit rider. In some stories, the ancestors are interpreted as from men or gibbon men. The frog represents rain and reproduction.
The elephant represents wealth, respect, strength and prosperity, and is thought to have rain bearing powers. The crab symbolises resourcefulness and the promise of a bountiful harvest, while birds are seen as a sign of freedom. Some folk tales tell stories of birds keeping weavers company then transforming into handsome young men to marry the girls."
(Source: Ock Pop Tock)
Planning a trip to Laos? Read our travel guide on textile hunting in Luang Prabang!