Phout’s Man-Woman Shaman Shawls, and Phout Finally Learns My Name

Our ethic for our 10 years as Above the Fray has always been to minimize our impact as to what the weavers of the region choose as design, preferring that they reach into their creative talent and traditions as opposed to chase what they may think will sell well in a western-style market that they have not met.

Two of Maren's good friends: Phout on the left, and Souksakone on the right. Both are leading textile weavers, dyers and designers in Houaphon Province

Two of Maren’s good friends: Phout on the left, and Souksakone on the right. Both are leading textile weavers, dyers and designers in Houaphon Province

This last year we broke that rule, and we’re glad we did!

Phout, a master-weaver and dyer who lives in Houaphon Province, Laos, had woven several gorgeous all-silk “man-woman” healing cloths some years ago. We have found this traditional style of shaman’s shawl (in Lao, phaa sabai) to be uniquely attractive.

The “man-woman” phaa sabai is a complex silk of three contiguous panels: the two end panels are woven in the discontinuous supplemental weft style with the center panel left in plain-weave with no supplemental decoration. The two end panels are of identical design, yet one side has received a full spectrum of supplemental colors to highlight the motif-patterns, while the other side is left in only two muted colors that seem to hide the design. The weavers smile when they tell us that the vibrant, complex side represents the spirit of the female, while the “simple” side represents the spirit of the male.

Phout models one of the man-woman phaa sabai we had ordered.

Phout models one of the 100%  silk man-woman phaa sabai we had ordered.  The silk is locally-raised, and Phout did the natural-dye work herself.

A local healer would traditionally use such a cloth as a tool to gain access to the “spirit world” to perform a healing, whether the injury were physical, mental or spiritual. The “man-woman” expression is symbolic of the need for humans to have spiritual balance within themselves; a lack of well-being would be a confirmation that one’s “life-force” is in need of repair.

Phout had indicated that this complex design was not finding a niche in the marketplace, and that a weaver’s time was better spent on other designs that the tourist markets were finding more profitable (phaa sabai cloths require a lot of hand-reeled silk and time on the loom).

Another "man-woman" healing cloth from the same region; the weaver is the model.

Another “man-woman” healing cloth from the same region; the weaver is the model.

“But they are so beautiful, and traditional,” blurted out Maren. Phout rolled her eyes. But the truth is obvious: if it doesn’t sell, then it cannot take up the valuable time of the weaving experts.

So we ended up “ordering” that she ask one of her finest weavers to weave an older man-woman healing cloth design Phout has in her archives, in three different ground colors.

They are stunning! Even Phout was excited about how they came out. Yes, we paid a bit of a premium for the “special order,” but we believe they will sell well in the emerging international market, and perhaps create some momentum for this style of traditional cloth to remain relevant in the styles of cloth that the master-weavers perceive the market will support.

Phout is a wonderful energy and loves to laugh, and she and Maren have a sister-like affection for each other. Every time we get together we soak in each other’s company and, thanks to our translator Mai (who is a childhood friend of Phout’s), we can share thoughts and stories.

Another 100% natural-dyed silk "man-woman" healing cloth modeled by the weaver.

Another 100% natural-dyed silk “man-woman” healing cloth modeled by the weaver.

Here is the tale, appropriate perhaps for the political season, of Phout finally learning how to pronounce my name:

“Djozhhh,” Phout strained.

“Yes, ‘Josh’,” I affirmed in English, adding a quick “Chou, chou.” (Yes, yes.)

Again I pushed my lips into an open pucker, and slowly rolled as long a “j” sound as the consonant can have in English, followed by a quick “ah,” and ending with the soft extended “shhhhhh,” of a librarian. Then said slowly again: “J- j-o-shhhhhhhh.”

I paused a brief second, then pushed my name out a bit faster: “Josh.”

Phout focused. She started with a buzzing “dzzzz” and then puckered to an English “j.” She held the sound and rolled her eyes towards me for confirmation.

Phout's aunt, Sukkhavit, dons a shaman's traditional healing cloth; this one is not of the "man-woman" style.

Phout’s aunt, Sukkhavit, dons a shaman’s traditional healing cloth; this one is not of the “man-woman” style, but is equally stunning.

I tried to infuse some optimism into her by widening my eyes, and I offered a quick “jo-” sound, to indicate that our “j” sound needs to jump straight to the “ah”, and that the consonant cannot be “buzzed” like the “z” in “azure.”

Phout jumped off her “dz,” shot across a long “ahhhh” and landed back on the “dz” sound again. “Dz-aah- dzzzz.” she enunciated in a fizzle. “Dj-dj-aaaah-zhhhhhh,” she echoed again, nearly begging for approval.

It was our friend Bounkeo, smiling at Phout’s side, who came to the rescue. “Djahshh,” he blurted to her matter-of-factly. She then she repeated after him a shorter, closer “Djahshh.”

Bounkeo threw out his version again, and Phout again repeated it.

“Chou, chou,” Bounkeo smiled. “Djahshh.” and he raised his eyebrows, and he paused a beat: “uh…. Djahshh Buzhhhh.”

Phout laughed with the insight.  “Chou, chou… Djahshh Buszhhh – Am-er-i-ca!  Chou, chou. Djahshh Buzhhh.”

Here Phout dons another style of a "shaman's shawl." Her design and dye work is some of the finest in the world. She has 50 weavers who work under her direction.

Here Phout dons another style of a “shaman’s shawl.” Her design and dye work is some of the finest in the world. She has 50 weavers who work under her direction.

The Traditional Silk Artists of Xam Tai, Laos

Souksakone, Xam Tai's leading master-dyer, template designer, and weaver.

Souksakone, Xam Tai’s leading master-dyer, template designer, and weaver.

The Traditional Silk Artists of Xam Tai, Laos

In the remote Annamite Mountains of NE Laos, and most notably in the Xam Tai District of Houaphon Province, the rich, cooperative, silk-weaving traditions of the Lao Loum and Tai Daeng ethnic groups still thrives, much in the way it has for millennia. Our family (mom, dad, and our now 22 and 19 year-old sons) has had the great privilege and opportunity to nurture friendships and forge textile-based business relationships with Xam Tai’s artists for the last 10 years. Their art, traditions and warmth have nourished us and opened up worlds of personal insight.

The silk weaving arts of the region are born from both Buddhist (the Lao Loum ethnic group) and animist (Tai Daeng and other Tai groups) traditions that are focused on healing and maintaining the strength of both the individuals and the community itself. The silk-raising and textile-creation processes have been central to beliefs and spiritual health and have also provided an economic foundation for countless generations. Not to diminish the essential building and farming roles of the men (all villagers participate with planting and harvesting), the women’s historical central role in textile creation has supported both core cultural beliefs and access to the cash-based trade-economy of the outside world. Because of this, women have been, on the whole, equally empowered and valued within the culture.

A weaver models her newly-woven shaman's shawl.  The silk is locally-raised and naturally-dyed.

A weaver models her newly-woven shaman’s shawl. The silk is locally-raised and naturally-dyed.

Local tradition holds that these complex weavings grant healers access to the spirits that affect health, both of the individual and of the community. Ancient motifs are woven into the textiles forming the geometric complexity; river-serpents (ngeuk) emblematic of female power, elephants (saang) that uphold political power, “hong” birds that represent male power, ancestor spirits, and fierce giant spirits (phii nak). These spirits can be invoked by shamans to heal a person from an injury or fever, protect an infant, revitalize an underperforming rice-field, or generate luck for a business venture.

An 8-year old silk weaver with a "sample-sized" silk, affectionately called a "love token."

An 8-year old silk weaver with a “sample-sized” silk, affectionately called a “love token.”

Even today in the shade of the thatched-roof homes in Xam Tai, silk shaman, healing and other ritual and household textiles are still woven for economic support as well as actual village use. However, the textile’s role of accessing spiritual and ancestral power for healing is diminishing as their world increasingly overlaps the modern 21st century.

The traditional silk-weaving process in Xam Tai has six distinct roles:

  • The seri-culturist, who raises the worms from tiny egg to fuzzy cocoon, all in the shade of their village home, taking great care to avoid disease and predators.
  • The reeler, who nurtures the warmed silk strands through her fingertips, pull by pull, pacing her work to match the cooling rate of the silk’s sticky seracin.

    A weaver works at her village-made loom.

    A weaver works at her village-made loom.

  • The dye-master, who pride herself on using only natural dyes created from what the jungle provides. A scale-bugs secretion, lac, forms the traditional foundation of red that is integral to so many of their textiles, but nearly every hue can be generated and fixed to silk.

    A young weaver (and her baby) models her temple-cloth.  Both Buddhists and animists in this region create and use textiles in their traditional ceremonies.

    A young weaver (and her baby) models her temple-cloth. Both Buddhists and animists in this region create and use textiles in their traditional ceremonies.

  • The pattern-template maker, who is likely also an expert weaver with highly-developed visual skills. The floor loom’s pattern-template (khao ti dai) contains the instructions for the weaver for the textile’s line-by-line creation as the weaver concentrates on her weaving precision and effective use of supplemental colors. A khao ti dai is saved for re-use, allowing certain effective, desirable patterns to be re-woven through the generations.
  • The weaver (of whom there are several hundred in the Xam Tai region, age 7 to 80), who sit at their large floor looms and deftly and miraculously create the most intricate and vibrant traditional silks in the world.   The region is most famous for its discontinuous supplemental weft patterns, but one also finds superb samples of tapestry weave, ikat and supplemental warp patterning. A singe large masterpiece shaman’s cloth (phaa phii mon) may take a woman 4 months to create at the loom. For many families, weaving is the sole source of income, keeping a high level of interest among women with the skill, patience and talent.

    A 13-year-old weaver works on a silk healing cloth.

    A 13-year-old weaver works on a silk healing cloth.

  • The businessperson, who gets the silk to the marketplace (assuming that’s its destination). This vital role, which requires both economic savvy and outside contacts, is often managed by the dyer.

    The design of the template-pattern can be clearly seen on this loom.  After each horizontal memory-thread, which represents a line of pattern in the weft, is used, it is moved from the template's top to the bottom; later, the memory threads will be moved from bottom to top, creating the traditional mirror-image motifs in the design-work.

    The design of the template-pattern can be clearly seen on this loom. After each horizontal memory-thread, which represents a line of pattern in the weft, is used, it is moved from the template’s top to the bottom; later, the memory threads will be moved from bottom to top, creating the traditional mirror-image motifs in the design-work.

While factory-spun silk, analine dyes and synthetic fibers are all readily available in local markets in Laos, the ethic of the silk-artist community of Xam Tai demands that the traditional processes be maintained. This cultural ethic has, for hundreds of generations, supported a cooperative and healthy lifestyle and economy that has allowed their traditional way of life to endure into the 21st Century. Their recent efforts to reach larger outside markets, as through our business, will be essential if these traditions are to continue to remain vital and attractive to future generations of Xam Tai’s cultural silk artists.

The beautiful and remote Xam Tai valley in Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

The beautiful and remote Xam Tai valley in Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

Maren and Josh study a textile with the Xam Tai weavers.

Maren and Josh study a textile with the Xam Tai weavers.

Me Tau Lu (Grandmother Lu)

Me Tau Lu  (Grandmother Lu)

The elderly woman, intently concentrating on the narrow weaving set on the full frame loom in front of her, chewed on her gums as her thin, brittle fingers deliberately tied the supplemental colors onto a row of silk weft. Her hands, knuckles slightly swollen with arthritis, reached automatically for the shuttle and she deftly tapped the shuttle across the top of the weft threads, adding another silk-thin length to the narrow skirt border she was weaving. The 5-inch wide strip, upon completion, would be sewn onto the bottom of a Lao skirt (phaa sinh) for colorful decoration and as protection of the larger skirt body during wear.

Me Tai Lu (Grandmother Lu) proudly displaying the sinh she wove.

Me Tai Lu (Grandmother Lu) proudly displaying the sinh she wove.

She glanced up at our faces briefly, and I held up my small camera with raised eyebrows in a silent appeal for permission to film. She gave a quick nod and then, with her concentration seemingly doubled, she sharpened her posture and returned to the methodical and creative task of turning nature’s silkworm thread into beauty and spirit. I pushed the start button and began to archive her talent.

She licked her lips and set a firm and consistent pace as the camera studied her deliberate and smooth motions. Her deep moist eyes measured every finger’s measured movement.

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This is a loom set up like Me Tai Lu’s loom. The black warp threads are primary; the white warp threads is the supplemental warp. The vertical tan threads are the pattern template (khao ti dai)..

The woman was working with the silk raised in the village where she lived, which is known for its sericulture. Her pattern template (khao ti dai), the web of “instructions” that assured every weft line was accurately formed, was made of a coarser string, no doubt because it was easier to feel and manipulate with her worn fingers. The design required surprisingly intricate finger motions in applying the supplemental colors, and the shapes of the textile’s woven motifs were knife-edge precise. She worked her fingers in an even rhythm. Perhaps her fingers were a little slower than that of a nimble 20-year-old, but her measured precision, molded by 70 or more years of practice, revealed an adept efficiency that was a pleasure to watch. She wove for 3 minutes in focused silence as I filmed her from a variety of angles and zoomed in on her patient, trained finger-work.

I clicked off the camera and casually bowed my head with my hands together under my chin as a traditional “Thank you.”

I caught the surprise in the eyes of a young woman as she watches Maren and Me Tai Lu chat.

A young woman intently watches Maren and Me Tai Lu chat.

 

“She is the oldest woman in the village.” Mai’s voice surprised me – I had no idea she had crept up on us. Mai, our friend and translator, had grown up in a nearby town, and she had relatives in this village and had known this woman, at least casually, for over 40 years. (Mai seems to have relatives in just about every village in Houaphon Province!)

“Her name is Lu. We call her Me Tau Lu, Grandmother Lu,” said Mai and she turned and asked a question of the old woman. The elder stopped her concentration, smiled toothlessly at us, and returned a sentence.

“She says she is over eighty year old,” Mai continued. “She does not know exactly how old, but she can remember back longer than anyone else. She wonders if you would like to see a piece she has finished. Perhaps you would like to buy it?”

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Maren and Zall in the village in Houaphon Province, Laos where Me Tau Lu has lived her 80+ years.

“Of course we would like to see your finished piece.” Maren answered. The elder turned to a young boy who had been watching and gave sharp directions. He dashed off, only to appear a moment later with a tidily folded sinh, or Lao skirt, held flat in his hands.

Through Mai, we learned that this skirt had been made a few years ago, back when her fingers were more nimble and her eyesight sharper. Given the sinh’s size and intricacy, it took two or more months to weave.

She stood up from her worn wooden loom-bench and took the fabric from the boy’s outstretched arms. She shuffled into the sunshine and, after again straightening her posture, she wrapped the skirt tightly across her belly to show off the intricate pattern.

And indeed it was, and is, a stunning 100% silk sinh woven from silk that had been raised, and naturally-dyed, in this very village.   The pattern – seen in the photo – was an older style and a less common skirt form, especially for its vertical stripes. (Most skirts resemble the design worn by the woman in the background of the photo.) The central motif of her sinh was also less common: the crab, which lives (and is hunted) in the clear freshwater rivers.

Our friend and translator Mai (in the green) and a seri-culture expert looking at the silkworms that are puinned to a board.  The worms are in the stage where they are actually making the precious silk.

Our friend and translator Mai (in the green) and a seri-culture expert looking at the silkworm cocoons that are attached to the board. The worms are in the stage where they are actually making the precious silk.

“Did she spend her childhood here?” Maren asked through Mai.

“Yes,” Me Tai Lu answered as she posed. “I was born in this village, and I raised my children and grandchildren and now their children here, too.”

“What else do you remember?”

“I remember the French [who occupied the region until 1953], when they visited us here. They came a couple of times, and were very nice – and tall, too. They walked down the street and shook the hands of the men. I thought they were very kind.”

“Do you remember the war?”

“Oh, yes. I remember the bombs and the sounds that they made. We had to move our entire home into some caves that are over that way,” and she waved her hand toward the lush limestone hills. “We worked the fields at night then, planting and harvesting the rice.” Her voice was firm, and she looked directly at us as she spoke. “I had young children then. Now they are grown up and old, too” she laughed. “Two of them now live in Vientiane (Laos’ capital), and one lives here.”

The cocoons are put into boiling water for about a minute before the silk is hand-reeled.

The cocoons are put into boiling water for about a minute before the silk is hand-reeled.

Maren eyes Me Tau Lu’s skirt, still stretched across her waist, and says to the woman in Lao, “Sinh, nyam lai.” Skirt, very beautiful. The woman turned towards me, pointed to my camera and stiffened herself. She held a firm face for the photo; smiles are reserved for present, shared moments, not moments frozen in time. I snapped the shot you see here.

The woman flipped a quick few words to Mai, who smiled. “Mae Tau Lu asks if you want to buy this sinh. It is for sale.”

Chou, chou!” Maren blurts out, turning directly to the weaver. “Um … Me Tau Lu, sinh to dai?” Skirt how much?

The elder offered Maren a big grin and nodded her head up and down. The two of them took perhaps 15 seconds to agree to a price. Maren does know her Lao numbers well.

Perhaps the price was just a little high for the “going rate” in the region, but, on the other hand, this silk carries a certain provenance knowing it represents a culmination of a lifetime of skill and effort and participation. Its very manifestation harbors an element of her precious uniqueness, her vital and relevant breath. Each unique, handwoven textile does carry the spirit of its creator.

We paid the proud weaver in cash, as always. She counted the bills carefully and folded them into the waistband at the top of her own faded sinh.

The woman looked directly at Maren and tossed out another line.

Mai laughed. “She wants to now if you want to see another phaa (silk textile) she wove.”

Yes, of course.

Cooperative Economics and Houaphon’s Silk Artists

Almost every silk creation Above the Fray showcases that comes from Houaphon Province, Laos relies on several cooperating independent artists.

A sericulturist in Houaphon nurtures his crop.

A sericulturist in Houaphon nurtures his crop in his home.

The silkworms in boiling water being prepared to be hand-reeled.

The silkworm cocoons in boiling water being prepared to be hand-reeled.

The silk to weave Above the Fray’s textiles is raised by Houaphon’s sericulturists in the traditional method that goes back 1000 years. These “farmers” work year around to breed, raise and nurture the tiny worms to produce on of the world’s finest textile fabrics. And they really do only eat mulberry leaves!

The developed silk cocoons are then put in boiling water and the raw silk is carefully reeled. The reeled silk is purchased by the dyer, who prepares the silk’s texture and color using 100%-natural and locally-available materials that include bug secretions (lac), bark, roots, leaves, wood ash and more. Dyers also use their chemistry skills and add special mordants to the silk to assure that each color adheres with no bleeding.

 

Our friend, Lun, a master-dyer, shows us some of the materials she uses to makes dyes.

Our friend, Lun, a master-dyer, shows us some of the materials she uses to makes dyes.

The dyer then takes the silk to a weaver who creates the finished cloth on a large bed-sized loom-frame. While the selection of colors is conceived by the dyer, the weaver herself determines the location of the supplemental colors that, in her mind, most effectively enhance the complex, nuanced geometric pattern (often helping a particular motif stand out or remain hidden).

Dyers preparing red silk. Red dye is from the secretion of a scale bug that is called "lac."

Dyers preparing red silk. Red dye is from the secretion of a scale bug that is called “lac.”

The "herd" of silkworms out to pasture.

The “herd” of silkworms out to pasture.

The specific, detailed design for each textile is generated by the loom’s pattern-template (khao ti die) that was created by yet another artist. Khao ti die can be stored and re-used, and many patterns have gained powerful, symbolic meaning over generations of use.

Upon completion of the weaving – which for a large cloth may take four or more months – the weaver is compensated by the dyer, and then the dyer has a vital, secondary role: getting the silk to market at a fair price.

This cooperative system allows the sericulturists, dyers, weavers, and template-makers to continue to live, if they choose, in their own small village, raising their families and maintaining a stable, traditional lifestyle. The system also allows the dyer to “oversee” the entire process to assure quality and continuity. Dyers who maintain this oversight role are notorious for their business savvy.

A silk nearing completion on the loom.

A silk nearing completion on the loom.

It should be mentioned that not all Houaphon silk artists participate in this traditional cooperative economic model. Some may perform multiple, or even all roles, in the process of raising, dyeing, designing and weaving a textile (and getting it to market, as well). In fact, we have yet to meet a dyer or template-maker who did not start out excelling as a weaver.

Here we are with the silk artists of the village of Muang Vaen.

Here we are with some incredibly talented silk artists of their village in Houaphon Province, Laos.

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A superbly crafted ikat-style (in Lao, matmi) silk skirt (sinh).

Above the Fray travels directly to the independent artists in Houaphon allowing us to select the best of the newest creations and obtain a photographic record of the people whose time, talent and vision created that cloth. Several artists anticipate our regular visits, holding back their recent pieces for our perusal and purchase.

The friendships and warmth that these talented people and their communities have offered our family over the years has been our deepest enrichment. We are grateful for the hospitality, trust and companionship that has been extended not only to the two of us, but also to our two sons (now both in college) who traveled with us for our first 10 years. These on-going, personal relationships with the independent artists allows Above the Fray to uniquely showcase the world’s finest silk artists and textiles.

Lun displays one of her masterpieces, a ceremonial wedding blanket.

Lun, a master-dyer, displays one of her creations, a ceremonial wedding blanket. She created the colors and was responsible for the pattern. Motifs include a the rim of ancestor spirits in a candle-adorned temple, and, in the lighter colored center-design, a virtual nest of geometric river serpents called naga, or nyeuk.

Maren at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum’s Symposium in Bangkok & The Amazing History of SE Asia’s Silk Trade

Maren at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum’s Symposium in Bangkok & The Amazing History of SE Asia’s Silk Trade

Last November, I had the chance to attend The Queen Sirikit Textile Museum sponsored Symposium “Weaving Royal Traditions Through Time” in Bangkok, Thailand.  What a blast!  I met textile enthusiasts from all over the world, all of whom were enthusiastic about textiles and eager to share their knowledge and connections.   Additionally, we were truly given the royal treatment, being shuttled to museums and private collections in police-escorted, air-conditioned buses, and fed delicious food and drink.  As the kickoff event for the Queen’s Museum, this was an event to see!

1.In Bangkok, at private showing of collection of Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textiles – Maren at back left of audience. Photo courtesy of John Ang, Samyama Co., Ltd., Taipei, a fellow conference attendee.

1. In Bangkok, at private showing of collection of Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textiles – Maren at back left of audience. Photo courtesy of John Ang, Samyama Co., Ltd., Taipei, a fellow conference attendee.

Aside from the pampering and meeting fellow participants (including the renown authors of our most used and treasured books on Laos textiles!), was an incredible 4-day orgy of information on and viewing of SE Asian textiles, with the primary focus on Thailand, but also extending to Indonesia, Laos, Japan, India, Malaysia, and even to England!

I had not grasped, until this symposium, the impact of politics and trade on the location of and production of textiles in SE Asia.  I often think of culture and clothing as being static from the point I first see them, but reality is constant change due to trade and imitating others’ work.  I also tend to categorize, for comfort and reference, a particular pattern/material/color as belonging to one person/place/time, but the truth is more flexible.

The front of the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

The front of the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Now, some of the fascinating history:

400+ years ago, the predominant silk textiles in Thailand were saris woven in India delivered via sailing ships.  These ships sailed south and east in one season and north and west in the other, following the prevailing trade winds.  Due to the long trips, the merchants brought their religious advisors with them.  Thus, India exported not only their textiles, but also their religion and culture to Indonesia, Thailand, and surrounding areas.  Later, with steamer ships, came the ability to sail against the wind, speeding up trade throughout SE Asia.

Two of the Laos funeral banners from the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Two of the Laos funeral banners from the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the women being dressed for the Khong performance in the brand new gold and red tapestries woven specifically for the dancers. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the women being dressed for the Khong performance in the brand new gold and red tapestries woven specifically for the dancers. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Royal court textiles in Siam (now Thailand) were made of saris and shawls worn in the Thai tradition.  That is why 7 meters of cloth (sari size) are used each for the traditional Thai skirt and pants.  The cloth was greatly valued in the royal courts, and certain fabric was given as payment to those doing service to the King, after which it was required that those textiles were used exclusively in court appearances.  Certain patterns and colors were restricted to royal use, and were forbidden to be used by the common people.  These restrictions are no longer enforced.  (Throughout this time period, local villagers continued to weave textiles, but without the direct support of the royal courts, wove only for themselves for their own clothing and religious purposes.)

A textile preservationist and her assistant at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum showing one of the Queen’s dresses – made of   gold-wrapped silk thread – gorgeous!  Photo courtesy of John Ang.

A textile preservationist and her assistant at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum showing one of the Queen’s dresses – made of gold-wrapped silk thread – gorgeous! Photo courtesy of John Ang.

The culture exported from India most predominantly seen in Thailand and other SE Asian countries due to this trade is the royal dance and costume from the Ramayama.  Thus, while Thailand is a Buddhist country, the royal dance and theater is based on the battles between Hanuman and Garuda, and other Hindu Gods.   I had always wondered why predominantly Buddhist and Muslim countries had such similarity of religious costume and dance expression to India – now I know!

A male dancer being dressed in his Khong performance clothing – the dancers are sewn into their clothing to ensure the textiles stay in place during the athletic performances. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

A male dancer being dressed in his Khong performance clothing – the dancers are sewn into their clothing to ensure the textiles stay in place during the athletic performances. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

As a result of this trade, Japan was importing a great deal of the Indian sari fabric from Siam in the 1600’s, leading Japan to believe that the textiles were Siamese in origin.  By the mid-1600’s, due to an influx of unwanted missionaries, Japan closed its borders to all but Dutch merchant ships.  Thus, the Japanese never learned that the silk saris were made in India, resulting in the name given to them of Sayama, indicating an origin in Siam.  The Japanese treasured these textiles, again for portions of royal court dress, and also used the saris to make covers for teapots, to cover boxes holding tea implements, and other culturally important wrappings.  The Japanese also tried to duplicate these saris, but, as the Japanese were painting the silk, and the Indians were dying it, the Indian made saris retained their color much longer and so were preferred.

Textile production is also greatly impacted by economic/political decisions.  For example, in the 1850s, Siam made a trade agreement to provide rice in exchange for textiles, and from that point on, the people in the center of Siam switched from weaving to solely agriculture.  Even now, other than some people who have migrated into the center of Thailand, the area has a distinct lack of textile production.  Again, economic drivers trumped cultural norms, though the long-range impact of the shift to solely agricultural production cited here amazes me.

One of the antique Laos textile ends from a shaman cloth which is part of the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textile collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the antique Laos textile ends from a shaman cloth which is part of the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textile collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Also, during much of this time, regions of Laos were under the auspices of Siam or China, paying respective tribute to their King or Emperor.  Local rulers paid homage in return for the court clothing and protection of their respective royal patrons.  This is yet another example of how fashion and textile motifs and designs spread.

Now, for the more modern influences that caused silk to rise as an economic and cultural phenomenon in Thailand.

When the current Queen Sirikit came to her position, the royal dress of Thailand was western – it had been mandated as such since 1941.  When she traveled to NE Thailand in Isan when she was 23, she saw locals wearing skirts of their own weaving, and she commissioned them to weave her some of the stunning textiles.  This was the beginning of her ongoing support of weaving in Thailand.

One of Queen Sirikit’s dressed worn on her European tour with the King in the 1960s – stunning cloths representing the best of Thai textile weaving and design. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of Queen Sirikit’s dressed worn on her European tour with the King in the 1960s – stunning cloths representing the best of Thai textile weaving and design. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

When she and King Rama IX toured Europe in 1969, She designed her entire wardrobe, half western and half her own design using traditional Thai clothing styles as an influence, with the assistance of several French and British designers.  Her wardrobe became a worldwide sensation, landing her at the top of the best dressed woman list in 1965, the first Asian woman to ever make the list.

Due to the Queen’s efforts, and the ensuing efforts of Jim Thompson, who started the Thai Silk Company in 1960, Thailand is now famous for, to the point of being synonymous with, silk.

Thanks for reading, and for your continued interest in learning more about the people behind the textiles of SE Asia.

Raising Silk for the World’s Finest Weavers: Adventuring to Ban Tao, Houaphon Province, Laos

Raising Silk for the World’s Finest Weavers: Adventuring to Ban Tao, Houaphon Province, Laos 

Our saungtheaw, a pick-up style public “bus” with two hard benches in the bed, finally emerges from the narrow rutted jungle track that had followed the tumbling Xam River for an hour, and we lurch to a stop in front of Ban Tao’s sole store.  Our family and Mai, our translator and good friend, and several others along for the ride, stretch the kinks from our jarred bones and, seeking shade from the close and humid sun, huddle in the shade of a scraggly papaya tree.  A half dozen locals adults, and perhaps 15 kids, all crowd close.  It had been a couple years, we are told, since anyone remembers white people visiting their town.

The road to Ban Tao.

The road to Ban Tao.

The store sells canned and dried goods as well as Chinese-made tools and plastics.  Several varieties of potato-chip-like snacks in bright foil packets wait for attention.  A fridge – and electricity, although sporadic, has only recently reached Ban Tao – proudly displays cold cans of Coca-Cola and bottles of Beer Lao and water.  A few baskets of fresh vegetables and jungle fruits sit in front, seeking customers.  A 10-pound iguana, with a trickle of blood on it’s alert face, is leashed with a rope to a wooden post – no, one won’t find fresher meat in the area.  (And guess what Mai’s family had for dinner that night!).

Arriving in front of the store in Ban Tao.

Arriving in front of the store in Ban Tao.

We had traveled to Ban Tao because it is renown for its sericulture.  For generations, this small village of perhaps a couple hundred people has been central to raising the highest quality silk required by the incredible weavers of Houaphon Province.

Ban Tao’s head inspects the silkworms.

Ban Tao’s head inspects the silkworms.

The elected head of the village appears, and Mai introduces herself and us.  He nods and says he is honored that we would come to their village, but he is sad that we have come during the monsoon season as this was not a time for harvesting the silk – they just keep enough silk worms going to maintain their “crop” for the best growing season.  He leads us, and the growing contingent of curious kids, to a small thatched roof house and immediately directs a group of young people to start a fire. He was determined to show his special guests the full sericulture process.  Smoke filled the now-crowded room – ten, fifteen, twenty people crowd in.  Zall, eager to escape both the crowd and billowing smoke, pulls out a frisbee and a gaggle of boys rush out to play in the dirt-track street.  The village head excuses himself – he has to attend an important function in recognition of a local policeman’s promotion.

Silkworms eating mulberry leaves.

Silkworms eating mulberry leaves.

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

Some silk cocoons appear, presumably a few months old, and an elder woman, who was obviously now in charge of the production, quickly sets up pots of water to boil and pulls out a set of long sticks that helps her handle the cocoons.  Maren wears a full smile, a bead of sweat hanging on her nose; Mai is trying to translate for three simultaneous talkers; a baby starts to cry.  The grandmother sits down at the fire and the crowd pulls back a bit. Yielding the two long sticks as if they were batons, she demonstrates how one takes a worm’s now-boiled cocoon and delicately pulls from the tiny, papoose-like bundle strands of exquisite thread that has been the treasure of royalty for millennia.  We have seen the procedure before, but it seems important for our relationship with these kind people that they demonstrate their full expertise.  Who are we to dictate the pace of a visit or the content of the exchange?

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

An hour later we are led to another home.  In the shade under the elevated floor, behind the fencing that keeps the roving chickens and ducks out, are trays of silkworms devouring fresh mulberry leaves.  The continuing “crop” of silk is being carefully nurtured.  Demand for silk is high (thanks especially to the growing wealth of neighboring China and Vietnam), and for Ban Tao, this is the essential source of business that has supported the village for generations.

Mai excuses herself to spend some personal time with an aunt and uncle who live in town (what town doesn’t she have relatives in?!).  It must be exhausting to have Lao and English grammar jabbering simultaneously in one’s head, and we’ve always greatly appreciated the fact that Mai has never hesitated to set aside some personal time to “clear the noise.”  It also forces us to practice our Lao language skills and hone our skills for developing connections without the benefit of a spoken vocabulary.  Luckily, smiles and laughs, hand and body signals, and the willingness to be a bit of a ham has taught us that clarity can be sacrificed without a loss of personal connectivity and deeper, shared human understandings.

Mai, in green, translates for us as we learn about local sericulture.

Mai, in green, translates for us as we learn about local sericulture.

The sun’s bake drives us into the cool comfort of the village head’s home, a cement-brick structure with wooden shutters on the windows and a corrugated metal roof.  The chief is still at the promotion party, but his wife treats us to glasses of cool water (from a bottle, thank you!), and then she pulls out some older silks made in previous generations.  Mai returns just in time and Maren and the chief’s wife engage in a deep discussion about the difference between older and newer textiles, local dyes, and the village’s sericulture tradition.  I watch Maren secretly drool when a 50-year-old handwoven silk mosquito-net border appears.

Main Street, Ban Tao.

Zall and Maren on Main Street, Ban Tao.

Zall stretches out in front of a slowly-turning fan and seems to melt into the ever-so-slightly-cooler vinyl floor.  It is hot.

Escaping into the bright heat, I hear pop music up the hill and turn my head.  Some man – the village head it turns out – is waving for me to join.  Then another dozen faces peer over a bamboo balcony, and a young man and woman, with big smiles, rush down to my side and insist, with a flurry of words, that I join the party.  I’m handed a short glass of Beer Lao, and, following local tradition, I offer a nod of thanks and slork it down in one gulp (ah – a cold one on a hot day can be a good thing!).  I hand back the glass only to be handed another a moment later, and then a tray of unidentifiable fried meat chunks (dog?) is offered, and a plate of bananas and some other plum-like fruit and then another glass of beer.  The Lao pop music – what I believe to be the same couple songs playing over and over –  is turned up.  The gentleman getting the promotion, who to me looks no older than 16, throws his arm around me and says something in a loud, slightly-slurred voice and everyone, including me, laughs.  More toasts, more beers and then a giant jackfruit is cut open and shared.  The village head comes to my side and over the din of a sappy pop song and the laughter offers what seems to be a more serious-minded toast.  He looks me straight in the eye, and drinks the short glass himself.  Immediately he refills the glass and hands it to me.  I offer, in English, what I hope sounds like a humble thank you and then lift a toast to our shared moment of friendship and joy and indulgence.  Everyone cheers – common language is so overrated sometimes.

A Ban Tao elder poses with her silk coffin cover she wove when she was 17 years old.

A Ban Tao elder poses with her silk coffin cover she wove when she was 17 years old.

An hour later, just as the promotion party was dispersing, Maren and Zall, each with an armload of new treasure, track me down.  “It’s alright” I stammer.  “I’ll just take a catnap on the ride back…”

The next day, back at our accommodations in the more central town of Xam Tai, the head of Ban Tao suddenly appears.  He has a friendly business relationship with our dear friend Souk, a master dyer and weaver, at who’s home we are staying.  We share some food and drink (again the traditional exchange of beer – at 10 AM – although not enough to alter the day’s trajectory of tasks).  Mai translates that the most important reason he visits today is to play a game of petanque (bocce ball) with me, one-on-one, on the small court set up in Souk’s front area.  Mai’s eyes tell me that his invitation is formal and important – we had not yet had our full time together.

A young weaver shows off her creation.

A young weaver shows off her creation.

I can’t remember who won.  But that shared half hour of petanque has really stuck with me.  You don’t need shared language to share time and purpose and affection.  We smiled and chatted in our respective languages, the content of the words secondary to the meaning of the communication.  We laughed at our errors, cheered at our luck.  Fate and opportunity – the ties that create friendships and business and purpose on all human levels – had created a bond that needed only be acknowledged to be empowered.  Our roles were assured; our relationship formalized.  And perhaps, in a small but important way, our larger purpose validated.

The Intricacy of Koh (Discontinuous Supplementary Weft Pattern Weaving)

The Intricacy of Koh (Discontinuous Supplementary Weft Pattern Weaving)

Souk and other weavers who create the intricate ceremonial blanket, shaman and healing cloths utilize a complex technique of loom weaving called discontinuous supplementary weft (or Koh, in Lao).  Once the warp threads (the length) are strung, Koh requires that the artist, while weaving the weft threads (the width), hand-picks different colored threads and loops these supplemental threads onto selected warp threads to create the desired designs.  These textiles are woven with the backside of the fabric facing up on the loom so the weaver has access to looping the supplemental threads neatly.  However, the weaver cannot see the emerging finished pattern on the bottom side and must, as Patricia Cheesman writes (Lao-Tai Textiles, 2004), ”work in the abstract since nothing is written down… (and) hold the image of the design in her mind.”

The heddle on the loom.

The heddle on the loom.

Close up of a vertical pattern heddle.

Close up of a vertical pattern heddle.

To assist the weaver with complex designs, long shafts made of wood can be placed within the vertical heddles that create each row’s pattern.  To set this up, the heddles (vertical threads that intersect with the warp threads) are first positioned in the warp by looping strings around each warp thread and passing about a half meter above and below the textile.  Pattern sticks are then placed into the verticalheddles, instead of the warp, with each stick (and there may be hundreds of them) lifting the selected warp threads according to the desired pattern.  The weaver brings the heddles separated by each pattern stick in turn towards herself, lifts the selected warp threads, and places a wooden sword into the shed (the selected warp threads) to hold it open while she hand-picks that one row of what may be dozens of supplemental threads.  She then removes the sword and weaves a tabby shed (a row of plain weave) to hold the new threads in place.  The pattern stick is then placed into the vertical heddles below the textile in the same order which stores the pattern; this allows the weaver, once a design is complete, to start the process in reverse creating the mirror image of the original pattern (thus, each complex design image is woven with its reflection).  Sometimes the designs are so complex, using over 1000 pattern sticks, that string is used instead of sticks to take up less space on the loom – this is the manner in which most of the textiles we purchase in this region are made.

Mirror image patterning in a shaman cloth.

Mirror image patterning in a shaman cloth.

Koh is an amazing process to watch.  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.

Young weaver picking the supplemental weft color patterns from the back side of the cloth.

Young weaver picking the supplemental weft color patterns from the back side of the cloth.

For centuries, these Koh textiles have been used for ceremonial purposes by shaman as well as ordinary villagers. These traditional textiles have been created to symbolize, access and affect the world of spirits and ancestors, and are used for healing ceremonies, planting and harvest rituals, protective rituals for travelers and newborns, and at weddings and funerals.  These devoted dyers and weavers, their art and traditions, have been central to their cultural memory.

Full view of the vertical heddle with pattern strings stored both above and below the warp.

Full view of the vertical heddle with pattern strings stored both above and below the warp.

What are Phaa Sabai Healing Cloths?

What are Phaa Sabai Healing Cloths?

Healing cloths, or in Lao “phaa sabai,” are – and here I quote from www.hilltribeart.com – “used by both shaman and ordinary people, and use a combination of color and design for their powerful healing protection.  These hand-woven, naturally-dyed silk shawls, usually woven with a bright-red background, have complex supplemental weft details woven on either end of the cloth, with a center area of a single, undecorated color…  Healing cloths are used in healing ceremonies, and are also used in ceremony to foster a healthy future for the village or crops.  They may be worn by the healer, or the ill person, or even laid in the garden depending on the unique traditions of that village and the type of healing that is being sought.  Each ethnic group, sub-group, valley, and even individual villages often have unique styles of weaving and ritual to express their spiritual lives and needs; even individual weavers have input as to a healing cloths’ design elements and color.”

Weaver modeling her recently woven Phaa Sabai.

Weaver modeling her recently woven Phaa Sabai.

Phaa sabai take up to two months to weave, not including the time spent raising, harvesting, processing and dying the locally-grown silk.  Additional photos (in color!) of phaa sabai and some of the weavers of Ban N—– can be found on our website gallery.