A Mid-Pandemic Report on the Traditional Artists of Laos and Vietnam

Both Laos and Vietnam closed their borders to visitors in March, a few days after Maren returned to the US from Hanoi during her Spring business visit. Now, nine months later, the borders still remain closed, much to the apparent health benefit of the local population. To date, Vietnam (pop. 95 million) has had a total of 1,381 cases with 35 deaths; Laos (pop. 7 million) reports 41 cases and no deaths. [It makes one wonder if the people in the region may have some degree of immunity to this particular virus.]

Maren and SOuksakone model two of Sousakone’s amazing naturally-dyed silk shawls.

That is not to say that the lives of our friends and many others in the region haven’t been sharply affected. With international tourism shut down, those who provide guiding, transportation, accommodation, and food services for the annual 18 million international visitors to Vietnam and 4.5 million visitors to Laos (2019 numbers) have been largely unemployed and reliant on other means of “getting by.”

Somchanh, in the foreground, carves a textile hanger.. HIs brother-in-law, the other carver, helps with the business when the tourist market is busy.

Somchahn, a talented woodcarver in Luang Prabang, Laos who has supplied Above the Fray with wood hangers and other carvings for over 10 years, reports that he has no sales, and the famed night market in Luang Prabang is closed. His recent investment into being a guide and translator also has been halted. He says he is fortunate that his wife’s family lives with him, and he has been harvesting food and doing other odd jobs as he awaits the return of his livelihood. Our pre-payment for his wood-carvings, which we will pick up when we next return, was greatly appreciated.

A photo from 2005 – that is 9-yea-old Zall, 12-year-old Ari, and 18-year-old Sho on the first day we met. We hired Sho to be our guide for the day, and our friendship with her (and later, her family) has been central to our relationship with Vietnam for 15 years.

Sho, our first Hmong guide in Vietnam who now lives with her husband (a hotelier) and children in Luang Prabang, and who owns a boutique textile store, reports that there are very few sales. She has closed her second shop and, like many, is relying on a few sales to the local population. She says she feels fortunate to be open t all as 75% of Luang Prabang’s inhabitants rely on tourism for their living, and so most of the hotels, restaurants, and shops have closed. Everyone is well, she smiles, but everyone is ready for a return to “the normal.”

Thi, our liaison to northern Vietnam and a dear friend for many years, has had her life turned upside down by the pandemic, but she and her family are adapting and faring well.

Thi, Sho’s sister who lives in Hau Thao in northern Vietnam (where Sho grew up), and who has  also been our guide, translator, host, “textile advisor,” and dear friend for many years, also smiles when she says things are well – and by that she means everyone in the family is healthy and safe. The new 2019 expansion of her guesthouse sits idle, and the few tourists visiting the region – all Vietnamese traveling in-country – are not very interested in the cultural experience of a Hmong homestay or learning how traditional textiles are dyed, batik’d, embroidered, and woven. Trang, her husband, is still making and selling jewelry (which Above the Fray highlights!) to the local Hmong population, as he has for 25 years. Her family’s garden, she says, is large and flourishing this year.

Trang embosses a set of earrings for the local Black Hmong community in his workshop at his home in Hau Thao, Vietnam.

Our dear friends in Houaphon Province in NE Laos – Souksakone, Phout, Malaithong, Lun and Bounkeo, Nang Tiip, and many others – where we have invested much of our time (and is the topic of our book, “Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos”), are probably the least affected. Of course, the markets have dried up for the types of textiles that tourists tend to purchase. However, the tradition in Laos is for Lao women to wear a Lao-style sinh (skirt), so currently more weavers are creating sinh to sell to the the Lao people. While this market is more limited, it allows the wheels of the silk-weaving economy to continue to turn. Worms are being harvested, silk is being spun, the looms are clattering away. Mai says that many weavers are learning how to market online to the Lao-speaking customer.

Maren and Phout don two silk shawls created by Phout.

However, there are deeper currents of change in this part of the world beyond the impact of the pandemic as the rural communities modernize at an extraordinarily rapid pace. Many of the weavers, especially those living in small villages, will be facing strong winds of socio-economic and cultural change as the tourist industry, and development in general, rebounds.

Nang Tiip has supplied us over the years with many phenomenal silks shoulder cloths.

We note that many of our friends in Laos and Vietnam are not far removed from times of austerity or transition. Most of the people with whom we have contact still have close ties, if not current outright responsibilities, to extended families and maintaining a family farm. No one voices concerns about going hungry or being abandoned, especially in the rural areas, which have a recent history of being quite self-sufficient, thank you very much. (As one friend notes: “Hey – at least this time there are no bombs are falling from the sky…”)

The weavers are still weaving during the pandemic, but the markets have changed. Here Maren peers over the shoulder of a silk weaver to see the new creation.

While people are aware of the risks of the coronavirus, no one who we have talked with knows anyone who has had Covid-9. They understand the risks of the virus and listen carefully to government instructions and information, but the truth is that our contacts in Vietnam and Laos are far more concerned about the dangers to their international friends. They fear (no doubt correctly) that Maren and I, as well as their other friends and customers in the USA and elsewhere, are in far graver danger from the virus than they are.

Kim Mun Lanten Masks, and Me

A Kim Mun Lansen mask from the late 19th Century.

I grew up in a household with tribal masks on the walls.  My parents had a modest collection of strange and macabre traditional Haida and Tlingit masks that (who?) peered at me from the living room and hallway walls. They watched me then as a kid, and still, on occasion, reveal themselves in my dreams.

When we began exploring the traditional village art of SE Asia, I was excited to discover that there were a couple of ethnic groups who have a tradition of carved wood masks: the Ta-Oi of southern Laos have flat wood masks that they hang in their homes and temples to ward off nefarious “spirits,” and the Kim Mun Lanten (also called Black Dzao or Black Yao) who used wooden face masks in ceremonies that help secure one’s “spirits” to oneself. These second masks have most caught my attention.

A mask from the early 20th Century. Older Kim Mun Lanten masks with uneven expressions are deemed more collectible.

The Kim Mun Lanten people of northern Vietnam and Laos traditionally follow a Daoist doctrine which overlays beliefs in animism (being affected by outside “spirits”) and ancestor worship. The masks are worn by shaman during ceremonies to impersonate deities who help one’s own spirits adhere more strongly to the self. Thus, a mask may be used by a shaman to strengthen someone who is going on or coming back from a hunting or trade expedition. The masks are decorated with bright paper at each usage, and often an older mask will have vestiges of paper from its last village ceremony. Jess Pourret, author of The Yao (Art Media Resources, 2002), writes that masks with pink or white paper decoration are worn by female shaman to represent “one of the female deities who protect the souls of small children and oversee fertility in women.”

We have never seen a wooden mask in a Kim Mun Lanten shaman’s ceremony, though we have witnessed such ceremonies. This photo shows paper scrolls and cut-outs, a hanging textile, and other items used by the shaman in a just completed ceremony. We were asked not to take photos during the ceremony or of the shaman.

Some masks are carved from soft wood – often these are newer, necessarily thicker, and cruder in their cuts. Others are carved from hardwood, and made thinner and more face-forming – often these are more valuable as they took more precision to carve. The masks we encounter are quite varied, reflecting the uniqueness of each village and shaman. Many masks are additionally decorated with tufts of goat or other hair that is stapled to the wood to mimic beards and eyebrows. Pourret notes that even masks of the female deities may sprout beards.

This mask is perhaps 30 years old. I love the gold foil on one tooth!

More modern Mun masks – those less than 30 or so years old – can be found in tribal art shops on occasion, and so we assume that a few may still be being carved for traditional use in the most remote areas. But that is conjecture, and not based on our direct experience; we have never witnessed a shamanic ceremony that used a wooden mask, and our few written-in-English resources indicate that these masks are very rarely used anymore. Communities that once relied on shamanic healing today have access to modern medical clinics and treatments, and science-based education dominates the public schools that are in every village. In all but the most remote corners of the Annamite Mountains of northern Vietnam and Laos, the traditional beliefs and spiritual understandings of the world have faded as the global world of modern information comes to reach Earth’s every corner.

Fifteen years ago, 19th and 20th Century Mun masks were often found hanging in dusty “tribal treasures” stores that speckled Hanoi’s touristed neighborhoods. A half-generation later, both the majority of tribal arts shops and the previous generations’ backlog of traditional arts that sustained the market are memories. Particularly, the most endearing, oldest, and highest quality masks (and other authentic ritual art) are now residing in private collections. [Oh – the masks we passed up in our early, ignorant wanderings…]

A Kim Mun Lanten mask with much wear from the late 19th century; the hardwood is incredibly thin and light. The paper and gold-colored foil was applied at its last village ceremony; the paper’s color indicates that the shaman was a woman.

We originally sought masks to sell at our events – and indeed, this year we do offer a small selection. But given that each of the one-of-a-kind masks seems to have a way of finding its way to my heart, and given that I grew up with a vivid imagination affected (empowered?) by masks, most have climbed into our personal collection.

A Kim Mun Lanten mask from the early to mid 20th Century. We have been told that the high cheekbones are indicative of Kim Mun Lanten who live farther north in China.

Little has been researched about Kim Mun Lanten masks, and my personal desire to share their form and intention drove me to consider writing our second book that would celebrate this art within a traditional belief setting. I even consulted a publisher about such a venture.

Two things, however, have derailed this author’s dreams:

First, there is limited English-language research on the masks and the cultural beliefs of those who practice/practiced with these masks. I recently discovered, however, two extensive bibliographies of publications researching relevant beliefs systems – nearly all from university-based publications in untranslated Vietnamese or Chinese. This left the task looking a tad daunting….

A newer Kim Mun Lanten mask, still decorated with its paper. This mask is perhaps 25 years old. Most newer masks that were used in traditional ceremonies are thicker, and the carving a bit cruder.

Second, as I started to dig into internet and library research, I realized that enjoying a personal relationship with a tribal group’s mask-work does not make me in any way a spokesperson for the masks, or the beliefs that give them original meaning. My selfish interest is a personal creation, and my outsider voice could never, without intensive research, come to represent an articulate understanding of these masks and the people and beliefs they symbolize. In essence, my attraction is a selfish artistic attraction, and such intimacies are best left to personal thoughts (and dreams) about how certain masks attract and affect my psyche.

So I think I’ll just enjoy the masks for what they offer me as I traverse and celebrate life’s path, and, in a personal blog to my friends, share my enthusiasms and quirks.

Our latest acquisition is this peculiarly small, lightweight Kim Mun Lanten mask from the late 19th/early 20th Century

The Pace of Change in Traditional Textile Creation in NW Vietnam

Maren and I recently returned from several weeks in northern Vietnam, both retracing old routes and exploring a couple of new areas where textile creation has a rich tradition. We come away not so much with disappointment, but with a clearer understanding of the changing dynamics of the traditional village textile arts.

Two Red Dzao women from Lao Cai Province embroider handmade clothing with silk thread. Many of the Red Dzao in this area, despite the proximity of easier alternatives, still naturally dye and embroider their own cotton clothing.

Thi, our Lao Cai Province guide, translator, and friend for over a decade, still makes and wears a  traditional Black Hmong outfit. [OK – the t-shirt and knit leg warmers are store-bought!]

Certainly there are pockets of Vietnam where the traditional arts of textile creation still thrive. The Black Hmong and Red Dzao people of Lao Cai and Ha Giang Provinces can often be seen wearing traditional jackets, headdresses and other culturally-identifying clothing. Many of the artists, in addition to making their own family’s clothes, still weave, batik, and embroider additional pieces to meet an expanding tourist market (that now includes tourists from Vietnam’s rising middle-class). In these villages, women can be found walking down the road splicing hemp strips into a ball wound on their hand, and indigo-dye pots still bubble away in a corner of the house.

A Hmong woman in Yen Bai Province in northern  Vietnam holds up a handmade shoulder bag. Like many locals, she is wearing a factory-made acrylic skirt printed with Hmong designs. However, she still wears the traditional leggings and jacket.

But that is the exceptional pocket. Roaring over the mountains of the region are winds of modernism, bringing with it the allure and pragmatism of inexpensive factory-made clothing. The most revealing example in NW Vietnam is the recent proliferation of the Chinese-acrylic pleated “Hmong skirt,” a bright polyester replacement for the traditional hemp and hand-spun cotton skirts worn by the previous hundred generations. These colorful knock-offs, complete with printed Hmong motifs, are machine-washable, light-weight, dye-fast – and about 1/30 the cost (!!) of a locally-purchased, handwoven hemp skirt.

A Whoite Hmong woman holds up a hemp skirt made by a herself and her mother 10 years ago.  She wears instead a cotton skirt spun and woven by a community of Lue people. The decorative stripes of color are traditional design, but the material is factory-made acrylic.

In a small White Hmong village outside Sin Ho in Lai Chau Province, a local explained to us that the village had fully stopped weaving its own hemp skirts about 10 years ago. The time required to raise and prepare the fibers was too dear – that time is now better spent expanding farm production or working in a shop or other business. Today, some villagers purchase lighter-weight cotton fabric raised and woven by their Lue neighbors to make their skirts.  However, we noticed that many of the village women were wearing “Hmong-style” printed acrylic skirts. An elder brought out from her trunk a couple of older traditional hemp skirts she and her mother had made years ago from locally-raised hemp; the young children gathered around to see the artifacts and hear the story of what their elders used to do and wear.

This White Hmong woman also holds up an traditional hemp skirt. She herself chooses to wear the inexpensive, light-weight acrylic skirts sold at the local market.

A loom in Muong Lat handmade from aluminum bars more typically used for home construction.

Near the village of Muong Lat in far west Vietnam, near the Lao border, we found a small pocket of weavers. Handmade looms made of wood and even aluminum bars graced the front work-area of several homes, and while the fibers they chose to use were often factory-made polycottons, the designs were traditional Tai Daeng. However, we noted that few locals wore what was being woven. “We weave these skirts to sell,” said a young 20-ish weaver through our translator. The market they sell to? Their neighbors across the border in Laos, where traditional wear is still the fashion, and regional economics less developed.

Near Mai Chau in Hoa Binh Province we found Hmong women who still spent many of their hours embroidering traditional motifs onto acrylic cloth for a skirt they planned to sell in town or to people stopping in their village. The embroidery thread is no longer reeled silk or handspun cotton, but brilliant acrylic yarn purchased in the store down the road. These hand-embroidered outfits, they said, were now only worn for special occasions, such as a wedding. The embroiderers themselves, sitting in the shade in a courtyard at their home, wore factory-made “Hmong skirts,” the designs of which were bright and familiar.

Maren (and to the left our White Thai translator, Hua) visits with two Hmong embroiderers to learn about their art and their markets.

To be sure, many in the Vietnamese Hmong communities are adamant about displaying at least some of their traditional wear when they are in their own community, but, from our perspective on this trip, most Hmong women are now regularly wearing these acrylic skirts.

An Hmong woman playfully wraps an older  traditional baby carrier around her daughter-in-law.  What they are wearing is typical of the region these days – leggings are very popular!

In our 15 years of regularly visiting the region, we have seen a dramatic shift towards relying on factory-made clothing for daily wear. While we, as naturally-made textile enthusiasts, mourn the continuing loss of these arts, we do recognize that this shift comes during a time of stability, confidence, and growth. With electricity and the internet reaching the furthest corners of the region, and with a developing middle-class economy, we see advances in access to modern education, healthcare, transportation, and opportunities that we ourselves would want for our children. It is, indeed, a story that has happened all over the world; increase in wealth and industrialization leads to a decrease in the general use of things handmade.

A new dam near Muong Lat in Thanh Hua Province brings electricity and modern infrastructure to what a decade ago was a very remote area.

All photos property of Above the Fray (HilltribeArt.com)

Kids, Labor, and Hill Tribe Cultures

A young girl, perhaps 6 years old, sits upright on the loom’s bench in the shade of her family’s home; you can see the creases of concentration on her brow as she pushes the shuttle through the shed that she had carefully lifted with her weaving sword. Her grandmother sits on a stool next to the girl’s loom and, although busy with her own lap-bound textile project, she occasionally offers a few soft words to the girl. It is the first week of the girl’s official weaving lessons, and she does look serious sitting at her own loom, her silk project stretched across the warp and weft threads in front of her.


This seven-year old in Ban Tao, Laos sits under her home with her grandmother and weaves for an hour each day after school


Granted, the young artist-in-training has for years been watching her elders daily at the loom creating the textiles that both transmit the knowledge and mores of their culture and support the economy of the community.  And in this village – Xam Tai, Laos – about 90% of the women weave.

Occasionally, Maren and I share photos of young weavers, and often – and not inappropriately – there are queries about the pressures and expectations on the young workers. Indeed, are they being exploited?  It’s a valid question, and the world is rife with examples of unhealthy child-labor situations.

Nine-year-old Mai Chom of Xam Tai, Laos hold up a “sample-sized” silk, affectionately called a “love token.”

Children who live in traditional, rural communities are usually expected to participate in the essential daily tasks: sweeping the compound, caring for the farm animals and the vegetable garden, assisting with the maintenance, planting and harvesting of the fields, caring for younger siblings and the very aged, helping with meals and laundry.  All these tasks and more are essential components of how an indigenous healthy community a) facilitates the daily tasks of living, b) teaches to the young the myriad of practical skills necessary for a healthy community, c) transmits the communities’ ancestral knowledge and mores to the next generation, and c) generates an economic benefit.  Youth itself, starting at school-age, offers little excuse for a demonstrated lack of responsibility or “pulling of one’s own weight.”

Mai Chom, 12 years old in this picture, shows us how her loom operates.

In Xam Tai, Laos (cultural home to some of the world’s finest naturally-dyed silk art), almost all youth attend public school from age 6 to 16 (usually 9-11 AM and 1-3 PM, 5 days a week). After school, each is then expected to assist with essential household and community tasks for 2-3 hours.  The boys are generally expected to join the men in fieldwork; the girls typically join the women at the loom.  Some girls in Xam Tai choose not to dedicate their time to the weaving task – not everyone has the patience or skills – and other household or field tasks offer an alternate contribution.  Also, during rice-planting and harvest time, all members of the community assist in the essential fieldwork.

A young weaver works diligently as she hand-picks the silk decoration on her textile.

In a modern, wealthy society, such task development for youth often gets channeled into the development of specific talents such as playing the piano, pitching a baseball, painting a picture, acting on-stage, or practicing ballet.   The hours of work/play spent in such hobbies and extra-curricular activities certainly contributes to the individual’s development, and also has an impact on the broader community (albeit an impact that rarely plays to immediate needs). In fact, these activities are my culture’s means of transmitting cultural knowledge and mores.

15 year old Ta of Meung Kuan, Laos, displays a ceremonial textile that she designed and wove of naturally-dyed silk. She weaves for about 3 hours a day after school.

In traditional cultures, one’s time and participation tend to be closely tied to pragmatic considerations (especially if, as in rural Laos, subsistence living is in living memory). The pervading norm that “we must all contribute so we can all make it” becomes a dominant cultural voice, and a youth’s participation in supporting the larger community becomes the key vehicle for that youth’s maturation. Whereas some cultures might reward individual expression and “striking out on one’s own,” (indeed, even egotism), other cultures – especially small, traditional groups – hold more strongly to the ethic that the unity of the group and an ethic of “belonging-ness” supersedes the promotion of the individual. The cross-generational needs of the family and the economic and spiritual health of the community are priority.

This photo was taken on this 6-year-olds first official day of sitting at her own loom. Her grandmother sat at her side instructing her.

Pride in being a contributor – a “grown-up” – is clearly seen on the faces of the young weavers (as well as their parents and grandparents).  Finally – mature enough to participate!  As parents we saw that pride in 3-year-old Ari as he poured in the pre-measured washing powder at a laundry task, and as 7-year-old Zall joined in to help stack the firewood.  The individual spirit lifts when we contribute to “real-world” tasks – when we’re a member of the “getting-it-done team” – and this pursuit of the greater good is a young person’s path to gain respect and skills.

Mai Chom, who is 13-years-old this year, models one of her textiles in front of her community.

Traditional Textile Creation and the Shrinking World

This post was previously published at www.thrumsbooks.com, the website of the publisher of our recent book: Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition, and Well-Being, and a site we’d recommend to further explore the role of textiles in today’s traditional cultures.

In 2008, in a small village in the beautiful Annamite Mountains of northern Laos, Maren and I met a Tai Daeng silk weaver who had sewn clever, flower-like tassels crafted from silk cocoons onto the fringe of a traditional healing cloth. We commented on how much we liked the decoration; it was an attractive visual detail. Returning to the same village the following year, we were surprised to find that virtually every textile offered had this flower-tassel. “We knew you liked them,” one weaver smiled.

Lun, a master dyer and weaver from Houaphan Province, Laos, dons her silk phaa phi mon, or Shaman’s shawl. The silk is locally-raised, hand-reeled, naturally-dyed, and handwoven on a floor loom. Note the flower-like tassels! Photo by Above the Fray.

Maren and I turned and stared at each other. When we started our traditional textile business, we had made an ethical consideration not to pre-order textiles from village artisans; we wanted to minimize the impact of our own aesthetic on the designs that come from the imaginations and traditions of the textile creators. Yet here were the weavers marketing themselves directly to our customers. In our naiveté, Maren and I had believed that we could both select textiles and avoid impacting the artists’ creative expression. (No doubt we also made inaccurate assumptions about the naiveté of hill tribe businesspeople.)

The truth should be spoken boldly: Creators of textiles – at least those for whom weaving is a livelihood – weave foremost to satisfy an economic need; their investment in training, materials, and time must ultimately ”turn the wheel” of a household. Thus, every textile we buy, every color choice we make, every comment about quality or design that’s heard impacts the competent artists’ effort to meet their essential economic need. Ultimately, traditional textile creation must be pragmatic, as success for weavers depends on one’s time and effort being of predictable value.

But this practical realization also finds its limits in our shrinking world.

A Katu woman in Attapeu Province weaves a traditional cloth on her backstrap loom. White glass beads are being woven onto the textile’s weft threads. The yarns are chemical-dyed polycotton. Photo by Above the Fray.

In a Katu village in Attapeu Province, southern Laos, we encounter a unique traditional woven expression: that of precisely placing patterns of beads on the weft threads as the textile is woven on a back-strap loom. Several generations ago, the Katu made their own beads from lead, poking a thin bamboo rod through a molten droplet to create the bead’s hole. These lead-beaded textiles carried a luscious chainmail drape (and rare surviving pieces now fetch hundreds of dollars a square foot). In the early 20th century, colorful factory-made glass beads became readily available, and the art of bead-making disappeared. By the mid-20tth century, chemical dyes were readily available, and the time-consuming art of naturally-dyeing cotton yarns was soon forgotten. Recently, acrylic yarns have replaced hand-spun cotton, and the regional skill and art of growing, harvesting, and spinning cotton has virtually vanished.

Today, this Katu village still hand-weaves beaded textiles on back-strap looms – albeit for tourist sales. If plastic beads were to replace the glass, or if a mechanical device were to place the beads on the threads – would that textile still be “traditional”? At what point is the integrity of authenticity challenged?

A Katu weaver holds up a stunning man’s ceremonial shoulder cloth that she recently wove. Photo by Above the Fray.

In northern Vietnam’s Lao Cai Province, the Hmong people can now buy rolls of chemical-dyed poly-cotton skirt fabric printed with the regional Hmong people’s traditional batik patterning. The rolls look much like the hand-spliced, handwoven, indigo-dyed wax-batik’d hemp that has been central to the local economy and to regional cultural identity for generations. In the marketplace, this factory-made fabric cost a fraction of what the local hemp weavers must charge.

What does makes a textile traditional? – Its design? Its artist? The artist’s culture? The method of creation? The label, or purveyor? The textile’s “story”?

In the marketplace in Vietnam’s Lao Cai Province, a Black Hmong weaver, dressed in locally-made indigo-dyed hemp cloth, holds a 6 meter long roll of hemp that her family harvested, spliced, wove, indigo-dyed, and designed with wax-resist batik. Photo by Above the Fray.

Supporting traditional textile art, artists and cultures by definition impacts the art, artists, and cultures we seek to celebrate. That is, our support generates change. From the artist’s vantage point, this dance of inviting modernity while participating in one’s cultural heritage is a tight-rope walk with far-reaching effects that unfold over generations.

The modern world can mitigate the effects of this cultural sharing by acknowledging two things:

First, for traditional textile designs and processes to remain vital and vibrant, the marketplace must fairly support the value of the creator’s time. Ultimately, a textile that doesn’t “turn the wheel” won’t be made.

And second, the voices and stories of the world’s traditional textile artists must be heard and shared. And here I’ll recommend exploring the breadth of cultural voices in the books offered by Thrums Books.

The Engineer of Xam Tai

The cover of our upcoming publication, available October 1.

[This story was written to be in our up-coming publication, Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos (Thrums Books, available October 1, 2017) in a section on the future of the independent silk weavers of Xam Tai in Laos’s Houaphan Province. Although the book’s focus and length led to its deletion, but it is still a tale worth telling – a tale emblematic of the rapid modernization occurring in this long-isolated region.]

We were in the NE corner of Laos, in the town of Xam Tai (well-known for its quality naturally-dyed silks), enjoying a wedding reception celebrating the union of the town’s pharmacist’s daughter to a handsome young gentleman. As in much of Lao, the pharmacist is the first medical care option, and as regular visitors to Xam Tai, both Maren and  I had asked her advice several times for treating our minor ailments. Hence the invitation.

Perhaps 250 people – a good portion of the town – were present at the outdoor event, held under temporary white tents in a large field close to the new marketplace. The dinner of water buffalo meat and stomach, fresh bamboo shoots, three types of sausage, boiled greens and sticky rice had long been eaten, and the master of ceremonies was alternating between introducing important guests and singing modern pop songs and traditional melodies on an over-amplified electric keyboard.

The bride and groom share a toast with two seated guests.

An abundance of ushers, friends of the young bride and groom, strolled past the tables, making sure that no one lacked food or beverage. The Beer Lao and Pepsi flowed; voices and laughs were loud. The evening air felt cool; the atmosphere was light and joyous.

Maren had been invited to dance and I could see her, a head taller than almost everyone, as she promenaded with her partner in a group circle, waving her hands first to the left, and then the right like a slow-motion hula, only with the women wearing elegant silk sinh (skirts) instead of grass skirts.

Malaithong, our translator (and good friend for nearly 10 years), nudged me on the shoulder; she shouted to be heard over the din.

Three of our best friends in Laos: Phout, Souk, and Malaithong. All three grew up in Xam Tai as friends. Malaithong learned English and is our translator as well. They are enjoying a wedding party in this photo.

“This man coming over. Ve-ery big man. Big boss…” She paused and made sure she had my full attention. “He is a good man. Everybody likes him, and he works ve-ery, ve-ery hard.” The “ve-ery ve-ery” came out slowly and in a higher tone.

The gentleman she nodded toward sat at the next table and held his empty glass to the side, tilted towards us so that his current guest could not again refill it.

Malaithong straightened her posture. “He has many good ideas for what to do for tourism and economy in Xam Tai.” She again paused, and then she leaned close and whispered: “He is like the boss’s boss’s boss,“ and she nodded slowly.

The gentleman sat on the edge of the folding chair, swaying a bit back and forth, eyes squinting and with a wide smile of perfect teeth. His face glowed with perspiration. His shirt was untucked. But in all fairness, it was near the end of a wedding celebration.

The rural Xam Tai valley looks much the same as in centuries past. Wait – are those electric lines?!

Suddenly he turned and held out his hand. “Sabaidee-ee,” (Good health), he said, and he pulled himself up from his chair and plopped himself onto another next to me. His squint and smile maintained the open easy lilt of person who had been celebrating for many hours; however, his voice was sure and direct. We pumped our hands up and down two or three times; then he set his glass on the table and brought his other hand to rest on top of our shake. His moist, warm hands held onto mine gently but firmly.

“Sabaidee,” I returned with a smile and nod.

Mailathong didn’t wait a moment. “Mr. Josh, this is Mr _____, district vice governor of Xam Tai.” She then said a few words in Lao, “Josh” being one of them. He continued to hold my hand as Malaithong spoke, his squint, smile and glow looking directly into my eyes.

“I am…uh… so hap-py to…uh… to meet you, Mr. Josh,” he said in deliberate, careful English. He had to nearly yell to be heard over the pounding keyboards and other nearby conversations. His English was thick and slow-paced, but, with a bit of focus, quite clear. Malaithong reached for an open bottle of Beer Lao and filled our short glasses.

Modern guesthouses are a recent development in Xam Tai.

He held up his beer with a warm smile, and we each drained our share. His hand returned to the top of our handshake. He then said some more words to me, which I could not decipher in the din, but I continued to shake his pumping hands and nod. If nothing else, I thought, we can share squinty eyes, crooked smiles, and radiant complexions.

“I … uh … I show you,” he said brightly, as if having a sudden epiphany. Removing his moist right hand from our shake he reached into his shirt pocket for his iPhone. “I am engineer,” he said as he tried to open an application with the same hand that held the phone.

“Very good,” I replied. “An engineer.” Part of me wished to be rescued from the conversation. Trying to follow an engineering-themed thread led by a thick-accented celebrator in the cacophony of a Lao wedding was, perhaps, more culturally immersed than I particularly wished to be at that moment.

Weaving provides a solid income for the majority of families in the region.

The vice governor sat up squarely, let go of my hand and moved his fingers quickly on the phone. “I want … uh … to show you…” and his words dropped off as he poked at his phone. His eyes opened wider and his sway stopped. “I show you … uh … idea. My idea.” I laughed for no reason, and glanced at Malaithong. She was nodding with her eyebrows raised, urging that I share my full attention.

“Here,” he said finally. “This is … uh … what I think … for Xam Tai.” On the iPhone’s screen spun a shape in slow motion that looked like the blueprint of a house. The spinning house grew larger and all I could think of was Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz as it spun downward and landed on the Wicked Witch. He continued with more words, but I couldn’t make them out in the noise.

“For Xam Tai…” he said emphatically, pointing at the screen. “I think … uh … like engineer … I think to help Xam Tai to make … uh … for park for Xam Tai.” The iPhone’s vision stopped spinning, and then the short demonstration on the iPhone started to replay itself.

Two weavers display their recently woven sinh (skirts).

I looked to Malaithong, who had just refilled the governor’s and my glass. She smiled and said loudly: “Mr. ____ is a ve-rry smart man. He wants a new park in Xam Tai, where the old market used to be. You know, across from the new bank.” I nodded. Our family had loved that old, low-ceilinged, dilapidated market, but its recent replacement certainly was cleaner, safer, and had room for expansion.

The vice governor watching me intently while Malaithong continued: “He has plans to build a central park for Xam Tai – a nice place for tourists and business. Like in the big city – only in Xam Tai it would be smaller, of course.”

I looked again at the iPhone, and I suddenly understood the graphic. Mr. ____ had programmed a phone app to show a 3-dimensional layout of a park-plan he had developed. The graphic on the phone was a spinning view of the imagined center park, as if the viewer were a slow-moving bird coming toward it in a narrowing circle. Yes – there was the open field, and a pavilion-like building. The center-point of the park layout spun in closer and the viewer finally landed in the park next to the handsome building – only to be jolted back to the beginning of the animated loop.

Malaithong with an armload of freshly processed silk. The silk worms are raised locally.

Malaithong explained that the vice governor wanted to make Xam Tai an important town and increase tourism and help promote the local silk weavers. “The center building could have a tourist office,” Malaithong cheered. “For explaining the weaving,”

I looked up at the vice governor. He sat steadily, straight-faced, almost solemn now. I reached out with my left hand and gently clenched his right shoulder; with my right hand, I presented a confident thumbs-up. “What an excellent idea,” I said, and the vice governor burst into a wide smile. I nodded largely, up and down, assuming that a bigger “yes” was a better “yes.”   He started a gentle nod in the rhythm of my nod.

Maren just then returned from the dance floor, and, after introductions, we showed Maren the animation. Maren watched intently for a moment, and then, after a brief explanation, her face lit up. “That would be wonderful!”

She then insisted that the vice governor, now sober as a judge, show and explain to her the details of his presentation.

Malaithong sat and watched, a small smile on her face. As they say, all politics is local.

Cotton Spinning in a Lanten Village, NW Laos

The Kim Mun Lanten people plant their cotton in the forests and alongside their rice paddies. Our week-long visit in summer, unfortunately, did not coincide with the harvest and ginning season (December and January), but cotton spinning and textile dyeing and weaving are year-round activities in some local villages, and we were eager to explore what we could of the local textile traditions. After all, seeking out people making traditional, village-use items nearly always leads to an adventure.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

The day after our Akha spinning lesson, Tui guided us to a village of the Kim Mun Lanten ethnic group, a people renowned for their cotton spinning and weaving. The locals of the village were very surprised to see Western visitors, and perhaps thirty or forty women and children crowded closely (the men were working in the rice fields). It took a few minutes to get used to the closeness of the people and the seeming infringement on what we feel is our “personal space.” However, the shared smiles and nods and Tui’s cheerful demeanor and explanation quickly melted any awkwardness.

The women of the Lanten village wore loose-fitting handspun cotton tunics that wrapped and tied across the chest and loose-legged knee-length pants, all dyed to a rich, deep blue with locally harvested indigo. The outfits were modest and, from a distance, unadorned. Upon closer inspection, however, each jacket had a thin strip of color at the collar, cuff, or edging. From a frog closure on her neck, each adult woman wore white or pink streamers of silk (or acrylic), which they constantly threw over their shoulders when doing handwork, and a shorter tassel of silk on each end of a thin woven-cotton waist-belt. Several wore handmade earrings and hair clips of silver or “white bronze,” an inexpensive alloy made of copper, tin and zinc.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

When Tui explained that we were searching for local textile traditions, one forward woman grabbed Maren tightly around her arm and marched the whole parade of us through the village to her home. She opened up a fast conversation with Maren as if Maren could understand every word. Tui gave up trying to interrupt with a translation. However, Maren, undaunted, smiled and eventually responded with equal enthusiasm, albeit in English, about our desire to see their art. Neither understood the other’s vocabulary, but they shared a sense of curiosity and opportunity. They both laughed and leaned on each other as they walked up the dirt slope.

Her village-built spinning wheel was in the breezeway of her modest wood home. Maren gestured for the woman to sit on the low stool and demonstrate her technique. The woman sat down and picked out a 6-inch (15 cm) tube of clean unspun cotton. In a previous process, Tui translated, the ginned, fluffed cotton had been gently rolled onto bamboo sticks, and then the smooth stick had been extracted to leave these snakelike cocoons tubes of cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

Holding the soft cotton in her left hand, the woman cranked the wooden spinning wheel deftly with her right. The cotton fiber was hooked onto the end of a horizontal spindle, and as the bobbin spun, she smoothly pulled back her left hand, letting the spindle efficiently twist the fiber. When the twisting yarn reached an arm’s length, she leaned forward and the fiber dropped from the hook; the spindle then hungrily zipped up the length of yarn onto the shaft. The smooth-motioned dance of creating a fine yarn was repeated, repeated, and repeated again, her bobbin growing with a small pulse following each inward reach.DSC03551

Maren smiled and nodded emphatically as the woman demonstrated her efficient motions with the handbuilt device (which could also function as a skein winder, hence the wide Ferris wheel shape). The spinner looked at Maren and then pointed to a plastic bag full of cotton rolls. Maren laughed and stretched out her arms to indicate the amount of cotton and length of time the present project would require. The woman smiled broadly, then squared her shoulders and turned back to again demonstrate the process.

Soon, Maren took a turn with the spinning, and then Tui wanted to try—Hah! A man spinning cotton! Tui posed as a pompous spinner and flippantly spun the wheel. The women, the kids, and Maren and I laughed so hard we nearly fell over.

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Five minutes later we were at a neighbor’s home, around in the back under a tin roof. Here sat a full floor loom, complete with a handmade bamboo comb in a teak frame, a substantial timeworn shuttle, and what seemed like an acre of half-meter-wide handspun cotton cloth rolled onto the loom’s front bar. A woman sat at the loom and worked the two wooden treadles. Tui translated her explanation of the Lanten weaving technique. She then allowed us to photograph the loom; she herself, like many others, asked not to be photographed.

Two plastic pitchers of water appeared. A nine- or ten-year-old girl, presumably a daughter or niece, filled the single glass and offered it first to Maren, who thanked her and then raised the glass to the surrounding community. “Kop chai lai lai,” Maren said in Lao. “Thank you very much.” She finished the glass quickly and passed it back, and then we each in turn had a moment with the glass and a chance to share a word or nod.

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Before we left, several women brought to us cotton yardage they wished to sell, some plain white and some deeply dyed in their traditional indigo. As in most of rural Laos, prices were set; these savvy spinners and dyers were not in the least naïve about the quality or value of their time, effort, and product.

As for us—we could not have had a richer day.


(This article has been published in Spin-Off Magazine, Summer 2016)

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.

Jarai Gravesite Guardian Spirit-Posts


Jarai Gravesite Guardian Spirit-Posts, Or

 What You Won’t Find At Our Sale

They were hardly visible – just an aged, gray stump sticking up amid the tall grass, on the shadow’s edge of a lush and untended grove of trees.

A Jarai guardian of a grave peers over the grass.

A Jarai guardian of a grave peers over the grass.

Our guide, clad in a black business suit – daily business wear for office owners in Kontum, Vietnam – caught his breath.  “And this…” he puffed, “This is where some of my ancestors are buried.”  He took a white handkerchief from his rear pocket and wiped the beads of sweat from his face.

There was no breeze; some insect droned from the still trees. The sun felt heavy. Our guide tipped his hand to usher us forward. We slipped through the natural hedge on a thin path and a small village of haunting wood-carved spirits leaned in.

A Jarai gravesite that is still being tended.

A Jarai gravesite that is still being tended.

Traditional Jarai tombs are small huts that hold the possessions of the deceased and some offerings to appease the spirits. Wooden pillars topped by haunting carvings, representative of spiritual guardians, overlook each grave site. Traditional Jarai burial ceremonies are extremely expensive (involving many water buffalos and cows), and it may take a family many years to afford the proper burial rites for a loved one.  The graves are well-tended until the ceremonies are competed. After the final ceremonies, and after enough time has passed, the tombs are abandoned. The final abandonment ceremony marks the point where death becomes final and the deceased spirit is released. Nature then runs its course with the carvings.

A very old Jarai guardian spirit watches over its long-abandoned grave.

Teak wood, like cedar, takes long to decay, but the regular rains and heat of the region etches its influence upon the site. Each guardian is for each ancestor, and they to continue to be shaped by time and memory. A soul and a teak log can each take generations to dissolve.

A spirit guard tends its duties.

A spirit guard tends its duties.

But here, now, in this Jarai village of spirits with our guide and the sun is a moment of timelessness (and it’s just a moment).  Are the spirits  still here?  Can there really be a hundred years between a yesterday and a tomorrow? What is of our memories…

We have seen these posts for sale in tourist-focused shops that seek “western-sized” pockets.  The posts often still have a rotted, earthen stump, proof of being uprooted from its vigilant role.  Stacked in a corner of a shop, they look lost – and even older. The more shaped by time, the more valuable.  The more determined the features, the “better.”  The bigger, the more.

Each guardian in the shop leans: defeated, exiled. How could one remove such a treasure of time and memory, upsetting the order of decay?  Such items command the respect inherent in their purpose.

A newer guard.

A newer guard.

Some things are not meant to be traded or owned.

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.