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Textile Guide: Lao weaves

Updated: May 15, 2020

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 ethical and authentic silk textiles

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.

Weaving Lao ethical and authentic silk textiles

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.