Shopping in Laos is a unique South-East Asian experience. Unlike other parts of the region where you are jumped upon as soon as you enter a shop, in Laos you are more likely to have to wake up the person behind the counter to serve you. This means that browsing at leisure is possible, and taking time to admire the tapestries in particular is an absolute pleasure.
The tradition of Lao weaving dates back hundreds of years. Present-day hand weaving is not the norm in most parts of the world but in Laos the art survives. The skill is usually practiced by women as for generations the patterns have been handed down from mother to daughter. However, the war disrupted this process and sometimes now the weavers dont understand the significance of the symbols they are weaving. As Laos opens up to increasing foreign influence even more of the tradition may be lost.
However, interest is being regained in the dying art. In some places the textiles actually have ritual significance and are still produced for temple offerings. Most traditional designs have mythological or animal motifs, such as birds, which refer to particular ceremonies or festivals. For example, the dragon or naga, is considered to have protective powers and is commonly included in patterns.
Carol Cassidy is someone who is trying to not only restore the skills involved in the weaving process but bring back some of the traditional patterns and motifs. She is an American woman who has been based in Laos since 1990. She runs a factory and shop in the capital, Vientiane and employs over 35 people, mainly from Sam Neua, one of the main bastions of the industry.
Foreigners often visit her shop in Vientiane and her guest book lists European royalty as well as well-known American politicians. Cassidy undertook a lot of research before even starting the factory, revealing hundreds of years of storytelling in silk. She is now considered the preeminent international authority on the subject. She has exhibited in Sydney, Hong Kong and New York and is often likened to Jim Thompson, the American businessman who helped transform the silk industry in Thailand. In Cassidys factory, a museum-quality weaving can take up to six months to produce and the progress can be as slow as half an inch a day for the really complex patterns.
Most pieces for purchase are woven in Vientiane, Sam Neua or Luang Prubang. Most are silk but sometimes cotton is used with silk brocading. In Luang Prubang the Tai Lue dominates the industry. The Tai Lue is one of the largest ethnic minorities who live in the northwest of Laos and are justly famous for their weaving skills. They used to be the royal court weavers and still produce some of the finest examples of weaving in the country.
Thanks to Carol Cassidy and other pioneers working to bring more international recognition to Lao weaving techniques, more and more small factories are opening up throughout Laos, producing textiles in both silk and cotton. They not only provide increased employment opportunities in this developing country but manage to combine the traditions of the past with business opportunities in the present and future.
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