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.

2020: The Year of the Safe Hill Tribe Sale Event

Above the Fray: Traditional Hill Tribe Art is excited to announce 2020’s “Fine Silks and Tribal Art Safe Holiday Sale.” You will be able to visit us in our Eugene Gallery either in-person or online with a personal shopping visit via Zoom or FaceTime. The event starts Friday, November 20, and will run through December.

Despite needing to cancel our annual events at public venues this Fall in Portland, Sacramento, and Eugene, we do have exciting new hill tribe textiles and other treasures for you to peruse and consider for your holiday shopping.

“New stuff?” you wonder. “How is this possible?” Well, Maren dashed over to Laos and Vietnam in late February and early March – just as the pandemic was starting – and squeaked in a visit to our friends across northern Laos and in northern Vietnam. She managed a “full shop” before escaping home on one of the last regular flights out of Hanoi, lugging with her all the Vietnam inventory.

Our newly-acquired inventory in Laos wasn’t quite so lucky. The day in March it was to ship air-freight was the day Thai Airlines stopped all flights in or out of Laos. Thus, there sat our 15 large boxes of silks, baskets, wood carvings, and more on the tarmac, pre-paid, awaiting a return to normalcy. And awaiting….

We were patient … and then more patient – and we obliquely aligned with the relaxed “go with the flow” attitude that pervades much of the pace of traditional Lao life.

However, ultimately, we are also pragmatic. With no “return to normal” date; with nightmares of the humid Lao air invading and possibly mildewing our shipment; with the bottom-line realization that the weavers and others we help support, as well as our business, actually do depend on sales 🤨; with all this in mind, we sought an alternate shipping procedure. As is the nature of the business world, more cash put more grease on the wheels (and wings) of commerce, and, as the photos document, our boxes arrived in good shape, sans mildew, at our home just this week.

OK – so now that we have the goods (whew!), we are organizing the details of our Holiday event. We will use our own in-home gallery space for layout and display. Eugene shoppers may visit in person (by appointment only, with masks, one person/pod at a time). For our many friends who cannot visit in person, we will offer personal shopping with us using Zoom or Facetime – just contact us to set an appointment. We are also putting together a series of short videos on our website for those who want to “peruse the aisles” before contacting us.

Again, we open November 20 – and we’ll send out formal invitations in a couple of weeks. We trust you are safe and well, and we look forward to sharing some personal time with you this holiday season.

Hill Tribe Textiles in the Time of Coronavirus

At the beginning of February, Maren and I recognized that our usual, annual trip to the hill tribe villages of Laos and Vietnam might be hampered by the distant news of a viral pandemic. Rather than waiting until March (when I was free to go), Maren opted to leave early (anticipating possible future closure), and I chose to remain home to ensure that our Eugene “world” ran smoothly even if Maren was delayed returning. Both of us could not be caught on our regular Asian “business trip” in the event of future border closure.


While I did not get the enjoy a visit to friends and participate in our continuing learning and documentation of the silk, hemp, and cotton weavers of the region, Maren did manage to zoom through several of our regular villages for textiles and other tribal arts just prior to border closures, returning home a week earlier than anticipated.

What was it like visiting these villages on the cusp of a pandemic?  Here is Maren’s report:

Well, yes, I was nervous about visiting countries abutting the source of Covid-19.  It was a tough decision to proceed but missing the chance to see and support our artist friends didn’t feel like an option.  So, off I went.

All went smoothly flying to Vietnam.  Remote temperature checks going through Korea, but no personal stops, though I had to fill out a health survey upon arrival in Noibai Airport in Hanoi.  I wore a mask throughout my flights and in airports, and wiped down everything I could at my plane seat with alcohol wipes.

I spent a day in Hanoi, acclimatizing to the time zone and checking in with our friends who provide textiles and other tribal arts we can’t obtain elsewhere.  All expressed concern about being able to survive the decrease in tourism, evident even at the end of February in Hanoi.  Everyone was cautious and most locals wore face masks (though almost no tourists did).  Masks are often worn in large cities in Asia against air pollution, so most locals were happy to comply with wearing them against Covid-19.  A friend who stocks many small items we purchase in Hanoi even offered me 5 cloth face masks for free out of concern for my health while traveling for this trip.  Our friends in Asia are so kind!

A Hanoi street vendor prepares to make my breakfast of herb filled omelet in a baguette, all for less than a dollar!  I sat on a stool in front of a coffee stall and watched.  Note the wooden bar and baskets holding all of the tools of her trade, including the stove.

The next morning, I left Hanoi on a taxi booked through our good friend Mr. The’ who owns the E.T. Pumpkin travel agency.  Lovely, though long, drive to the border with stops for coffee and lunch.  When I arrived at the Vietnam border, they asked me for my passport before even getting into the visa check room.  Upon examining it, the border guard said I couldn’t go to Laos as I didn’t have a Laos visa.  I explained that, for the last 15 years, we had crossed at that border and obtained our visas at the Laos side as we crossed and didn’t need to have a visa ahead of time.  He disagreed.  I took back my passport and stomped, rather perturbed, to the visa room.  There, he showed me a sign that said that travelers could not cross into Laos without having a visa ahead of time, and that the effective date of that ruling was January 1, ostensibly due to Covid-19.  I told him that that was not true.  I had checked the Laos embassy site, and this border crossing had absolutely no notification of needing to have a visa in advance.  After pointing to the sign many times, he pulled me into another room, where a border guard with better English explained that that was the rule and there were no changes allowed.

I called our friend Malaithong (Mai), who was waiting on the Laos side of the border for me with a car and asked her.  She hadn’t heard of the visa requirement, even though she is the Director of Tourism Development for Houaphan Province, which borders Vietnam at this border point.  I called Mr. The’, who said Mai may be able to call the Laos visa office and have them quickly make me a visa and e-mail it to the border office.  Despite many phone calls, the effort was to no avail.  Mai ended up driving back to her home two hours from the border, and I ended up having to drive the 7 hours back to Hanoi in my cab.  There, Mr. The’ had arranged for a one-day visa for me with the Laos Embassy, and a staff member came to my hotel the next morning to pick up my passport, and then returned it that evening complete with Laos visa.  The next day I took the same cab (very sweet and kind drivers!) back to the border where crossing was easy.  I stopped to thank the English-speaking border guard for being so understanding of my frustration 2 days earlier.  Always good to admit when you are in the wrong (particulary to regular border guards)!  Two days late and many dollars and time spent in a car for both me and Mai, but the trip was back on.

Phout, Souksakone, Maren and Sukkhavit (Phout’s aunt) in 2009.

Mai met me on the other side and we finally were on our way to Xam Tai, the birthplace of the stunning silk textiles about which we wrote our book “Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos”.  Hugs all around, and great relief to finally arrive.  Unfortunately, having been delayed at the border, I missed the wedding of the young woman (daughter of Chola in our book) we first met when she was 12 years old, who wove beautiful narrow scarves with bright butterflies on them.  SO disappointing.

Four Lao sisters: Phout, Maren, Souksakone, and Mai. Maren may not look Lao, but…..

Mai and I were in Xam Tai for 3+ days, seeing friends, and buying a beautiful new supply of stunning silk textiles.  I am so amazed, every time we go, to see textiles that are even more beautiful than those available the year before.  New colors, patterns, and even new young weavers with their first pieces, shyly but proudly presenting their art for me to purchase from them in front of all of the women of their village – I can never resist buying from these new, hopeful weavers continuing the traditions of their families and cultures.

A young silk weaver in Xam Tai.

No one was wearing masks in Xam Tai, so I made the decision to not wear one either as we spent most of our time outside or in wood houses with good airflow throughout.  However, I used hand sanitizer and washed my hands with soap quite frequently.  I also emphasized with Mai, Souk, Phout, and others, that they needed to wash their hands with soap, not just rinse with water, in order to keep themselves safe.  It’s a very tough task to get people to change their behaviors when they see no evidence of needing to do so.  I was rather worried for everyone, given the number of Chinese workers on many construction projects around Laos who may have gone home for Tet and then come back to Laos for work, thus my anxiety level was higher than the usual level caused by purchasing more textiles than budgeted for due to the beauty of the pieces (yes, I did that again this year…).

The weaver in Xam Tai, Laos dons her incredibly fine naturally-dyed silk shaman’s shawl

Mai Chom as an 8-year-old in 2013.

One exciting event in Xam Tai was being invited to the young weaver Mai Chom’s house for dinner (she is featured in our book).  I had asked her, when looking at a gorgeous piece she had woven (and I bought), if she still was interested in becoming a doctor.  She said yes, and I told her that our friend Vandara’s daughter is a doctor and is willing to talk with Mai Chom about what it takes to become a doctor in Laos.  Mai Chom, now 15 years old, and her mother, were very excited about the connection, and the dinner ensued.  A lovely meal of chicken (traditional for greeting guests), delicious greens, sticky rice, bamboo shoots, and lao hai (Laos fermented rice “beer” sucked up through a bamboo straw, drinking competition style, as a celebration of special guests), were provided that evening for me, Mai, Souk, and Phout.  Lovely to be able to participate in another family’s meal and celebration.  Mai Chom’s parents and grandmothers were there, as many households consist of at least three generations of family.  Mai Chom was the youngest and only participant of her generation at the dinner and beamed shyly the whole time as we talked about her skills and capability with her family.

15 year-old Mai Chom poses with the incredible “man-woman” healing cloth she recently wove. It is woven from 100% naturally-dyed, locally raised silk.

Maren and 15-year-old Mai Chom in February, 2020.

Due to my delayed entry into to Laos, some portions of my trip had to be eliminated, so I was on a much faster deadline to see friends and textile suppliers.  Quick stops and long drives helped make up some time. Fortunately for me, our friend Somchanh, who makes the beautiful hand-carved wooden textile hangers and wall art we feature at our sales and online, is also a driver with his own van, so he provided me with transportation from Houaphan Province to Luang Prabang, with multiple stops in weaving villages on the way.  His wife Chantee came with him on the drive as she had never been to Houaphan before.  She was a great help with purchasing as she knew the prices for some of the items I was purchasing if I had chosen to buy them in Luang Prabang instead of in the village where they were made from the women who wove them.

It was in Luang Prabang where the first true impact of Covid-19 on Laos became evident.  The night market was very sparsely attended.  The night food market was virtually empty.  All of our friends in Luang Prabang expressed great concern about how they were going to survive, not only the virus, but the economic downturn caused by the decrease in tourism.  I admit, I overbought again, in Luang Prabang, out of concern for our friends trying to make ends meet.  Somchanh was worried about the decrease in tourists needing his van service and his subsequent ability to make his van payments.  Others were worried about paying rent on the spaces they showed their textiles and other goods.  Some shops where we had ongoing relationships were closed.  One other friend I just spoke with who lives in Luang Prabang is concerned that she will lose her rental home and have to live in her shop as she has had no income over the last two months and may not be able to keep paying rent on her home.

Mone, a Katu weaver, designer, and businessperson shows off one of her handwoven cloths. The white glass beads are actually woven onto the weft threads.  New textiles for 2020!

Nonetheless, people were cheerful, kind, and welcoming, as usual, and my time in Luang Prabang was lovely, despite the hard work.  I stayed with our friend Vandara both in Luang Prabang, and at her stunning guest house at Tat Kuang Si waterfall.  Her daughter Daeng took such good care of me in Luang Prabang, remembering what I like for breakfast and having it prepared without even my ordering!  Daeng also helped label my purchases for US Customs requirements and helped pack my boxes for shipping.  Such kind friends we have.

I then had a whirlwind day in Vientiane, where I checked in with Carol Cassidy at her Lao Textiles shop.  She is doing well, as are all of the weavers who work on traditional looms making Carol’s own designs for customers around the world.  She was a little concerned about Covid-19 but thought her family would stay in Laos for the summer.  That was not to be, as, shortly after I flew home from Hanoi, she and her family also left for their home in the States out of concern for the virus.  I also had a lovely meal with our friend Phout’s daughter Phouang, her husband Nan, their kids, and, surprise of surprise, Souk, who had come down to Vientiane after I left Xam Tai for business.  The next day, after visiting our shipper with a few more purchases, I flew to Hanoi.  No temperature checks, but everyone wore masks.

Maren with Carol Cassidy at Carol’s studio in Vientiane in March, 2020.

In Hanoi, I visited Mr. The’, who stored my bags for a couple of hours while I had dinner before getting on the train to Sapa.  He said that it was still OK to go to Sapa for a couple of days, but that he didn’t know if I would be allowed to stay in a village with my friends or when Sapa town would close to tourism.  The reason was that, a few days before I had arrived, two tourists from Europe had gone to Sapa, and were found to have been on a flight with someone who had Covid-19.  They were tested and were positive, so the police took them to the hospital, then back to Hanoi to the quarantine site for anyone who tested positive.  46 people in the Sapa area were determined to be exposed to them, and two restaurants and two hotels were closed on account of their visit.  Mr. The’ asked me to report in so he could know what was happening on the ground from my perspective.  I did, daily, and he checked in with me daily too to make sure I was OK.  Friend indeed.

When I arrived in Sapa, there were virtually no tourists.  Restaurants and shops were closed.  I called my friend Thi to see if she could still host me at her home.  She said we’d try, and she could talk to the village chief and let him know that I am “family” if any problem arose (we have known her family well for 15 years, and the girls – all in their 30s – call me “2nd mom”).  A friend of hers from her village drove me in his taxi to her village, and I was able to stay with her.  She had cancelled all future guests to her homestay though, and I was to be her last visitor until Covid-19 danger was considered to be past.

Our very good friend, translator, and cultural liaison Thi, near her home in Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam

We are so incredibly fortunate to have such good friends throughout Lao and Vietnam.  I can’t say that enough.  This time, having ordered some items from Thi to be made by her, her sisters, and her husband (items we have been purchasing from them for many years), I knew that she would have all arranged for me.  Not only that, but, while in Luang Prabang where her sister Sho lives with her family and has two shops selling her family’s items (Sho is the first member of the family we met on our first trip to Vietnam in 2005), I looked over some of Sho’s new merchandise, and, through a phone call to Thi, ordered a few other new items made by their sisters to purchase in addition to the original order.

Thi had everything arranged upon my arrival in her home.  We started with reviewing and purchasing the items she and her family made.  Her sister Sa, who designs and sews beautifully, was not able to bring her items to me herself, as she delivered her baby the day after I arrived!  A nephew brought over her items for me to choose from – I bought them all.  Thi and sister Zhu (who was 7 months pregnant), helped label the items I purchased from the region the morning I left.  Beautiful textiles, again.  Indigo dyed, as well as natural-colored handspun cotton and hemp, batik fabric and bags, pillowcases made from batik and hemp, beautifully used machettes and baskets, Thi’s husband Trang’s handmade traditional jewelry, what a stunning supply of traditional textiles and accessories.

Thi cutting up pumpkin for our lunch back in 2010.

During the two days I was there, Thi and I also swooped through the market and a couple other villages for the items her family did not make.  While stopping at an ATM to gather more money to purchase inventory items (yes, I overspent my budget here too!), we were stopped by a police officer on a motorcycle who chewed Thi out for not wearing her mask while talking with me, then told us that I had to go register at a tourist registration office set up to track visitors in the area so they could trace who went where in case the tourists ended up with Covid-19.  We found the office and I filled out a form stating my location and travel for the previous 14 days.  They took my temperature, checked my passport and visa, and I thanked them for being so careful regarding the health of the people who lived there.  I wanted to leave a good impression in case they wanted to make life hard for Thi, but fortunately they didn’t.

Given the virus concerns, Josh and I thought it might be best for me to get home earlier than originally planned.  Josh tried calling the airline in the US but couldn’t get through.  I tried calling the Hanoi office of the airline, but they didn’t have anyone who could speak English in the office.  I decided to cut my Sapa trip short and get back to Hanoi to change my flight there.  My flight had already been changed once to go through Japan instead of Korea (experiencing an outbreak at the time), but that created a problem with my connecting flights in the US – into Seattle, with a flight 15 minutes later from SFO to Eugene!  After just two nights at Thi’s home, I caught another train back to Hanoi.

A Black Hmong woman, masked because of coronavirus, sells beautiful hand-embroidered clothing panels in the Sapa, Vietnam marketplace.  She embroidered the belt she is holding when she was a teenager, and had used it for years until deciding to sell it.   Yes, it is in our hands now!

The train arrives in Hanoi at some ungodly hour of the morning, so I arrived at our usual hotel before 6:00 AM.  There, our lovely friend and host Tuyen opened the door for me but didn’t offer a room to a couple of young ladies on the street looking for a place to stay.  I was puzzled that he didn’t offer them a room but didn’t ask him about it until I caught a couple more hours of sleep.  When I awoke and went downstairs to see him, he said that he is the only staff member who has been working at the hotel for 28 days.  All others are back at their villages and can’t come into Hanoi.  He said that if he let in someone who ended up having Covid-19, he would have to go into quarantine and the hotel would be shut and he wouldn’t be able to see his family for 14 days.  He only allowed in people he knew – there were just a few of us staying at the time.  He said that a South Korean person had been trying to get a room a few days before and had been turned away at every hotel as, given the state of South Korea and Covid-19 at the time, any hotel that took him in would be shut and all their staff quarantined.  I don’t know where that poor man ended up staying.

I had to fill out a form that morning showing all of my travel in Vietnam, just as in Sapa.  Then, after coming back to the hotel after getting a coffee, he had me fill out another form, as I had neglected to put in the information on my flight from Laos, and the system had prompted him to get that information from me as it had been entered when I had to fill out the forms in Sapa.  Talk about up-to-date data tracking!  Impressive.

By popular demand, I was able to obtain a few of these from the town of Na Sala, Laos – indigo-dyed, ikat-style, handspun, handwoven, cotton scarves.  Here, Thong’s daughter models the lovely scarf she wove – the same style each member of our textile tour last spring learned how to ikat tie.

Once the forms were complete, I asked him to help me contact the airline office in Hanoi.  He called the office number I gave him.  The office gave him a number for an English-speaking office member.  He called her and put me on the line.  I offered to go to her office and she said “no, no, no, we can just do this on the phone”.  I gave her my original flight information and within 5 minutes she texted me my new reservation for a flight leaving that night – five days earlier than originally booked, to go home.  Such efficiency!!!!!

With one day instead of my planned 3 days to finalize all of my purchases and packing in Hanoi, I had to rush!  Earlier, while with Thi, I had e-mailed the woman whose sister makes the stunning quilling cards we discovered last year in Hanoi.  She emailed me in Sapa saying she needed me to come pick them up sooner as the hotel where she worked was closing due to no customers from Covid-19.  We managed to connect in that one day I had in Hanoi.  Whew!  The other people with whom I had placed ordered in Hanoi had everything ready for me and in a whirlwind day I picked everything up, bought boxes and tape, and my lovely hotel friend helped me organize and pack everything in order to make the flight home that night.  (He said he was pleased to help, as he had nothing else to do!).

A beautiful village valley near Xam Tai in Laos’ Houaphan Province.

I hauled all of my Vietnam merchandise home on the plane as there was not time in Hanoi to arrange with the shipper to get all of the items to her to be shipped to our customs broker in Portland.  It was a good thing too, as we have all of that inventory in hand now, but all of our items purchased in Laos are stuck in Vientiane waiting for flights to resume as, when Laos closed its borders, even cargo flights stopped.  Fortunately, our Laos shipper is very good and kind, and has put our bags in their airconditioned office to keep them all in good shape until they can be shipped.

I found it rather concerning that, in the Hanoi airport, we had temperature screening before entering the departure area and everyone wore face masks, but, when arriving in the US, there was absolutely no health screening and almost no one wore a mask.  This was on March 17, when covid-19 had been in Seattle, where I landed, for at least two weeks, and was rapidly spreading throughout the country.

A proud silk weaver in Xam Tai, Laos dons her latest, naturally-dyed handwoven “phaa biang.”

Having made it back home (out of the frying pan into the fire), I am left wondering why Laos and Vietnam have so many fewer cases of Covid-19 than the US, and no deaths to date?  I’m sure scientists and epidemiologists are all scurrying to figure that out.  My only contribution to the reasoning, besides the obvious better testing and isolating being done in those countries, is that people there eat so much better than we do.  Lots of fresh veggies with each meal, less meat and sugar.  That, and the median age in Laos is 23, Vietnam 30, and USA 38.

Josh and I are relieved that I was able to go on our business buying trip this time, as, not only did I want to check in with our friends to see how they are doing, but we were also running out of inventory due to excellent sales at the end of last year, and needed more art to share with all of our customers!

As soon as the Laos shipment arrives, we will be ready to share the beautiful items purchased on this trip.  However, due to Covid-19, all of the shows we were planning to attend to share these beautiful handcrafted items have been cancelled for this year through October.  We do not yet know whether it will be safe, or sensible, to conduct our usual Sacramento, CA, Portland, OR, and Eugene sales this November and December.  SO…….

Give us a call if you are looking for a special, handmade, custom, beautiful gift for a friend, family member, or yourself.  E-mail us with any specifications including size, color, motifs, and price for items you want.  Let us know if you are curious about what we think is extra special was discovered on this trip.  We can take quick photos and send them to you for custom, in-home shopping.  Help us support these artists through the economic downturn they (and we!) are experiencing due to Covid-19.

Most of all, know that we miss the opportunity to meet with you and share stories of your, our, and our Laos and Vietnamese friends’ lives.  Stay healthy.  Wash your hands.  Wear your face masks.  Take care of yourselves in the ways that work best for you.

We look forward to seeing you as soon as we are all healthily able to do so.

Beautiful northern Vietnam.




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)

Village Textile Tours with Maren

A guest focuses on creating her own wax-resistant batik pattern in a workshop taught by a Black Hmong woman.

It was the fourth day of the tour, and, having whirl-winded through Hanoi old town and museums, taken a night train, and then survived the bustle of the Bac Ha market, we were each perched on a stool with a slightly waxed board on our laps, a piece of hemp carefully smoothed over its surface, and, following our teacher Tshai’s directions, we each dipped our handmade batik tool into the hot wax in an iron pot over coals, and attempted to draw the traditional Hmong designs on our cloth. Much hilarity, unintended drops of wax, wiggly lines, and not enough space for the designs later, we each finished our own sample piece.  Next, into our hostess Thi’s indigo pot for the deep, beautiful blue.  Multiple dippings and dryings later, the pieces were boiled to take off the wax and reveal the designs.  They were good!  We were each so thrilled with our first attempts at Hmong batik.

Creating our own batik designs on locally-made hemp cloth dyed with indigo.

Batik was our first of many workshops in local textile arts in both Vietnam and Laos.  Thi also instructed us in how to peel, soften, and splice hemp fiber, the first three steps of a very lengthy process to create the hemp cloth used in making Hmong clothing.  Two different embroidery classes followed – Black Hmong embroidery, and then Red Dzao.  We also wandered through villages, trying out the hemp looms, seeing other indigo dye pots, looking for weaving tools, “ironing” hemp between a rock and a log, and visiting the local shops and markets to purchase handmade textile items. We even had a traditional Dzao/Yao herbal “sauna” bath at our last homestay night!

Sharing time with our Red Dzao artist-hosts.

Meanwhile, the food was delicious, local, and cooked by the families with whom we stayed.  Spring rolls were delicious!  We also had fresh steamed vegetables, chicken, pork, steamed rice, pancakes with mangos or bananas, fried rice, bamboo shoots, and tomatoes with tofu.  Delicious! Always plenty to eat, and special “happy water” (rice whiskey) for a couple evenings too.

Learning how to peel and splice hemp fiber.

A few travel days later, reeling silkworms was on the agenda.  Mai Souk, our silk reeling teacher, showed us the process for raising and reeling silk, and, much to the amusement of the remainder of the onlooking villagers, we each had turns at learning the feel of reeling and winding skeins of silk.

Two days of natural dyeing followed, with natural dye experts Souk and Phout at the lead.  We made fresh indigo green, red from lac, light and medium gold from Dton Ven (the bark of a huge jungle tree), among others, giving us 6 skeins of silk and one handwoven (by Phout) silk scarf dyed in the color of our choice.  Phout, the renown faster fringe twister of the region taught us her method, and the weavers of Xam Tai came around frequently to share their beautiful textiles for us to admire and buy.  A day of wandering around local villages, seeing their looms and tools, and getting a feel for the countryside was followed by the special, ubiquitous Laos ritual of a basi, given in our honor.

The crew with our skeins of hand-reeled silk we had just naturally-dyed with locally harvested materials. Souk (far left), Lun (third from left), and Phout (far right) are master dyers in Xam Tai.

Again, delicious, local food abounded.  Every meal had at least two types of cooked greens, and often fresh greens too. Boiled chicken, fried fish, fish soup, ant eggs, chicken eggs, silkworm larvae, bamboo shoots, more greens, fresh pork, fried pork belly, bananas of all sorts, pineapple, watermelon, instant coffee, beer, lao-lao, and more appeared throughout our freshly cooked home meals.

Spinning hand-ginned and bow-fluffed cotton in Na Sala.

We were very well fed, and the food was always fresh and local.

Enroute to Xam Neua, we stopped in a basket weaving village to observe the community members gathering to weave the double-walled sticky rice baskets from which we ate at every meal in Laos.  We also toured the caves in Vieng Xai, the headquarters of the Pathet Lao during the American/Vietnam war, a fascinating view into the struggle to establish the current Lao government.  In Xam Neua, we visited the market admiring textiles, weaving tools, and a myriad of fruits and vegetables before settling down for the night in a local guest house.

Next day, we got an early start to the town of Na Sala, where we learned from Lao Loum friend Thong how to gin, bow fluff, roll punis, spin, wind skeins, and wind the village-raised cotton on the matmi (ikat) frame in order to tie our own matmi scarf!  We took the frames with us to finish tying the pattern during our trip.  Some people even dyed their cotton at our weaving day at Ock Pop Tok.

A day and a half were spent in Phonsavanh, Xieng Khuong Province, visiting the new museum (nice!), Mulberries silk farm, the Mines Advisory Group center, a Tai Dam village, the village of Napia where they smelt the aluminum from the bombs America dropped on Lao during the Vietnam war to make spoons and bracelets and other saleable items, plus a tour of one of the Plain of Jars sites.

Posing with our owned ikat-tied cotton threads that are now prepared for dyeing in indigo.

Finally, we made it to Luang Prabang, where we wrapped up all of our silk experiences by weaving our very own textile on a traditional Lao floor loom with a pattern using both continuous and discontinuous supplemental weft patterning – just like all of the stunning textiles we viewed (and purchased!) in Xam Tai – though a touch simpler!  We also had a personal tour of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center in Luang Prabang, toured a temple, gave morning alms to the monks, and ended at the beautiful Kuang Si waterfall where we swam and assisted with making a Lao meal for our dinner.

Weaving with Lao silk.

It was an incredibly varied, and busy, tour with opportunities to see and actually do the textile arts of each of the cultures of the people with whom we stayed. Staying and learning with these artists friends is an opportunity only possible through our tours.

Want to join us on our next tour?  Write to me at maren@HilltribeArt.com or call me at 541-686-4285.  We’d love to share our friends and the beauty of Vietnam and Lao with you!

Maren takes a turn practicing discontinuous supplemental weft weaving. Everyone got to weave their own piece!

Little Kids in Hill Tribe Laos and Vietnam

Little Kids in Hill Tribe Laos and Vietnam

In our last blog, we detailed the lives of school-age children (age 6-16), who generally have regular chores (such as weaving or farm work) in modern village life in hill tribe Laos and Vietnam. Infants and little kids up to five-year-olds, however, appear to Maren and me to live in a most ideal world: one that is full of affection, attention, freedom, and play.

A Flower Hmong mother at the weekly village market in northern Vietnam.

From day one, infants are held close to the mother’s (or another person’s) body at virtually all hours of the day. Working mothers, whether in the field, at the loom, or cooking over the hearth’s fire, often have an infant strapped on their back. If mom isn’t available (or is finally able to catch a quick nap), there’s grandma, or a big brother, sister or aunt, or neighbor, available to assure the youngster is safe and close. In that regard, it is rare to hear infants cry for more than a second or two, if at all, and they seem to live by the tenet: You can’t over-spoil an infant. In many homes, grandmothers especially play a central role assisting with infants and raising young children.

Blue Hmong woman shows off her beautiful son and her hand-dyed and embroidered baby carrier (with acrylic factory-made edging).

The regional textiles mirror this focused responsibility and nurturance, and every ethnic group has unique designs and motifs for infant-wear. The Red Dzao of northern Vietnam have a special hat designed by the ancestors to protects infants from nefarious spirits. These red and black hats are covered in radiant designs of white seed-beads, cowry shells, small coins, and/or fluffy tassles – all symbols of good luck and protection. Tradition holds that a spirit looking down from above would only see this red and black flower design (and not the child under the hat), and thus move on, leaving the child unharmed.  The Tai Daeng people of NE Laos have a special children’s blanket called a phaa tuum, and its motifs often reveal the phii nyak, a vicious traditional spirit known to protect the innocent. The multi-paneled baby carriers of the Black Hmong are renowned for their extremely intricate (and time-consuming to create) indigo-batik designs.

Red Dzao baby in his carrier with his special hat on. Lao Cai Province, Vietnam

Tai Daeng woman wrapping her baby in a phaa tuum. The central head and curly arms of a phi nyak can be seen. This blanket is indigo-dyed cotton on silk; the zone-dyed red is made from the excretion of the scale bug called lac.

Once kids are mobile, perhaps age 1½ or 2, the entire village becomes their playground for about 3 years. In truth, we’ve yet to be in a small village where the prevalence of its youngest members is not central to the energy, cheer, and attention of the village activities.  And yes – from this writer’s standpoint I’d say that they mostly get to “run wild,” as long as they stay reasonably safe, get along with others, and respond to an elder’s directive (assuming they’re within earshot…). The 4 and 5-year-olds are often the first to greet a village visitor as they are out playing on the village periphery. From a textile standpoint, there is little to note here – quite literally – as these are often the “clothing optional” years for both boys and girls. Cool weather brings out cheap western-style shirts (and, if potty trained, pants).

This older sisters helps care for her younger sibling.

We notice that everyone in the village seems to carry responsibility for the young ones. Every adult or older sibling seems ready to help manage a youngest’s true needs. Indeed, one of the central tasks of the older children is to look after the well-being of the younger, just-mobile kids.

An Akha dad entertains his daughter. Luang Nam Tha Province, Laos

Very often, older members of the community will look after the children during “work hours” while the able-bodied parents are off doing physical labor. The grandparents (who may or may not be grandparents by blood) seem to relish this supervisory role as they sit in the shade of their home surrounded by the buzz of youth at play. The elders are often involved in a home-bound task, perhaps shaping bamboo strips for basket weaving or spinning cotton with their spindle. As in many village-centered cultures around the world, grandparents often act as “first parents” to children, at least during the day. But we also note that the small kids do tend to care for themselves and look after each other quite well – grandparents are called on only for more serious boo-boos, or perhaps to put together a meal.

This Lanten grandmother cares for her granddaughter. Luang Nam Tha Province, Laos.

And toys? Don’t get us started!  Every old bicycle tire, every stick or plastic bottle, every rain-swollen ditch, every ball (whether store-bought or a wrap of rags), every puppy and frog and bug and puddle, every thing you can grasp in your hand –  Oh my gracious! – The world is so full of treasure when imagination and friends are sailing together at full mast!

Play is central to a young child’s life throughout the region


Maren meets the young Welcoming Committee in a Khmu village near Muang Khua in central Laos.

[Note: Throughout northern Laos and Vietnam, people appear well-fed and comfortable; kids of all ages seem healthy and engaged. Food, water, and shelter, while often basic, seem to be readily available for the vast majority. However, we are aware that our “traveler’s vantage point” may limit our ability to see or gain access to communities where basic needs are not met.]

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.

Welcome to Xam Tai (Chapter 1)

from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition and Well-Being,                 by Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck (Thrums Books, 2017)

We each weave a life, don’t we? 
 I sit on the worn bench;
the shuttle passes left, then right, like a pendulum.  
I weave the tasks I did not know I had chosen. 
 How many of us weave from cradle to grave,
never mindful of the growing cloth?


Chapter 1: Welcome to Xam Tai

Two small boys, one naked and one wearing only a t-shirt, ran blindly towards us laughing.  They each held a stick and they were taking turns whapping a bicycle tire frame to continue it on its bumpy path.  Looking up from their game, they saw us four falang– Maren, myself and our 12 and 9 year-old sons, Ari and Zall – and they both stopped mid-stride.  The tire itself rolled forward another 20 feet, directly into Maren’s outstretched hand. She smiled: “Sabaidee,” she greeted.

The two little boys stood still for a moment, and then one turned and fled back to safety.  The other stood wide-eyed, frozen.  An older boy, dressed for school in a white shirt and dark pants, now saw us as well and shouted something that thawed the toddler.  The little boy looked back at the shouter, then at us, then turned and ran in the direction of his original playmate

The older boy, wearing a broad smile, trotted towards us; before he had reached our side, he blurted ou,t as one long word:  “Hellowhatisyourname?”

“My name is Maren,” enunciated Maren slowly. “What is your name?”

“Ma-ren,” he repeated, then:  “MynameisBoun. Gladtomeetyou.“  He turned to Ari, extended a hand, and repeated: “Hellowhatisyourname?”

Before Ari could answer, another boy came running up shouting ”Hellowhatisyourname?” Ari pronounced his name for both, and then each boy asked Zall his name. Zall’s “z” sound proved a challenge and the boys smiled as they tried to turn a buzzing “zhhhh” into a delicate “zzzz.” We all laughed at the bee-hive sounds.

Typical site under a home.

Two more children joined.  Everyone wanted a turn with “Hello what is your name?” and we were finally rescued from the lengthy introductions when a woman emerged from the nearest home tightening her sinharound her waist.

“Sabaidee,” Maren nodded towards the woman, pressing her hands quickly together under her chin in the traditional greeting.

“Sabaidee,” the women returned with a bright smile and a casual bow and hand-press.  She pointed to our two blond boys and says something that made the gathered children laugh.

Our guide and translator, Kaiphet, quickly stepped up from behind us, introduced us, and inquired as to whether there were any weavers in the village.  We had read in travel books about the traditional silk and cotton weaving of Laos’ Houaphon Province, and we had seen samples of the quality weaving in the Laos’ major hub, Luang Prabang.  We had also seen outlines of looms under many homes as we had approached Xam Tai on the bus.

Our guide, Kaiphet.

The woman nodded and pointed to a bench in the shade under her home. With a wave of her hand, she invited us to sit on the smooth-worn benches under the home; we waited patiently as Kaiphet and the woman exchanged what we assumed were pleasantries. To our left sat a dusty wooden plow and a stack of aged cracked hardwood boards.  On the right were several wide, handwoven baskets, each covered with a section of decaying brown tarp.

We had arrived in Xam Tai, in the southern section of Houaphon Province in NE Laos, at 3 PM after a 7-hour bus ride from Xam Neua over the twisty jungle mountains. We had deposited our packs in a cement box of room in the town’s sole guesthouse, and –  what else to do? – walked the half hour beyond the central market and the bus station, past where the paved lane ended.  The rutted dirt road, far more suited for the motorcycle than the rare four-wheel-drive vehicle, tumbled over a hillock and brought us to old Xam Tai’s several dozen homes, the older residential area.  One main road cut down the neighborhood’s center; raised-stilt homes, a few with thatched roofs but most with metal, lined both sides. More homes straddled a thin, rutted lane behind the front row of  houses.

Surrounding us were dusty browns and tans, from the house’s aged wooden posts to the unfinished crude boards of the houses’ siding to the thick dry roof thatch. A band of the close-by forest’s deep jungle green edged the periphery.  The sky was hazy blue.

The Xam Tai Valley

The woman stood up, re-tightened her faded cotton sinh, and beckoned us to join her around behind the stack of lumber to what looked like a four-post canopy bed; she shoed a couple chickens off a worn stained sheet that covered a structure that looked like something that might hold a narrow mattress; she pulled off the dust-cover.

The complex four-posted loom apparatus was strung with a dizzying, seemingly chaotic array of brown string, pink plastic ties and smooth-worn sticks.  The extended warp, which wrapped across, up and over the loom, glowed with rich red.  A glimmer of supplemental color – a bit of purple and yellow – danced a hint of expression on the front bar of the loom; the rest of the completed textile was hidden, as it had been rolled tightly during the weaving process with the bottom-side up onto the loom’s rolling front bar.

The woman disconnected the front bar and delicately unrolled the completed 3-foot section, making sure not to create excess tension on the still connected warp threads.  With a smile she backed up so we could see the textile she had in progress.

 The silk shimmered like a jewel – a burst of opulence and intricacy and precision in reds and yellows and purples that reached deep and sure.  The bold Escher-esque geometric design – Was this an elephant? Was this a man standing? Was this the rice awaiting harvest?  – defied the “simple-ness” of our surroundings.

 We look closer.  A thousand – no, a hundred-thousand – threads of spirited color has been cajoled and tamed into a woven dance of the exquisite and refined.

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

“Please, show us how?” Maren asked in English.  No translation was needed.

The woman sat down on the worn bench, re-rolled the textile onto the bar, adjusted a plastic tie attached to the comb, lifted a wide set of threads with a wooden weaver’s sword, and passed her hand-smoothed shuttle between the threads, adding another line of red weft.  We sat mesmerized for several minutes, watching her pass the shuttle across the warp, and then hand-pick a selection of bright silk threads across each weft row.

Two more women who must have heard Maren’s “ooo’s and ahhh’s” appeared on the porch above and leaned over the narrow wooden railing.  We looked up and smiled.  “Sabaidee.”

Sabaidee-ee,” they smiled back, also holding the last long-e tone an extra beat.  One of them said something and the weaver broke into a bright grin.  The weaver didn’t miss a beat, continuing to work her hands, methodically picking the discontinuous supplemental color-threads into the textile’s exposed backside. Three young, bottom-naked children appeared from the home and clung to the two women’s knees, staring down at us from the overhead porch.

Ari, our 14 year-old son, offered them a wide grin; the three little boys stared.  One pointed and said  “Falang.” The other little boys quickly repeated: “Falang, falang!”  Ari nodded at their welcome, which literally means “French,” but today refers to any westerner.  Zall, our 11 year-old, raised his ever-present Nikon and snapped a shot of the boys clinging to their mothers’ legs.

Maren leaned down close to the woman’s loom to study its intricacies. The weaver kept working, knowing she was being studied.  Two more children, perhaps 9 or 10 years olds in grubby t-shirts, sagging shorts and flip-flops, ran over to join the growing crowd, bringing with them a dog and a whirl of dust. A chicken with a fleet of chicks scurried by our feet and ran out of the cool of the home’s shade.

The Xam Tai district is gorgeous!

“What is she weaving?” we ask Kaiphet.  Kaiphet translated the sentence into Lao and received a 3 sentence reply, and then turned to us.

“She say it is for a…uh… ceremony,” translated Kaiphet. His brow crinkled as he searched for the best words. “It is phaa sabai, but, uh, I do not know how to say in English –it is  a clothing for a…a…a ‘getting better.’”  He paused.   “She says this style in her tradition is to … uh … how to say … to fix a balance that is inside” – and here Kaiphet put a hand on his heart.  He paused again.  “She… uh… says she has been weaving this piece since the end of rice harvest – about 2 months.””

The woman continued to weave on the large floor-loom, sending her worn wooden shuttle back and forth on the silk warp threads.  Another older woman appeared from a home behind the first; in her left hand she held a few folded textiles.  She said something quick and sharp to the two boys, and one dashed off towards where the elder had come from.  An older girl brought out a plastic pitcher of water and three glasses, and we all shared a turn refreshing ourselves.

Two more people arrived – a toothless bent man wearing black-framed glasses and a young woman with an empty a backpack basket who appeared art least 9-months pregnant.  They stood off to the side, joining the now-dozen children, and watched intently.

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

Maren had a flood of questions, and Kaiphet did his best:

The silk? – “Raised here in the baskets woven by her father, under these tarps. Here, take a look….”

The threads? – “Hand-reeled by her aunt, who lives over there….”

The colors? “All made from the forest – the dyer lives by the bus station…”

The pattern? – “This one was shaped by her grandmother and has been woven many times…”

The weaver? – “Her mother, this woman over here, taught her to weave when she was 7 years old… “

Other women and children gathered to watch and listen, and a couple older men, and another pitcher of water appeared. They smiled between themselves as they listen to our strange words, then our translator’s struggling enunciation, and finally the weaver’s concise answer.

A stack of silk textiles appeared, and another woman unfolded a creation and held it up to her chest so we could see the full dance of her phaa sabai.  A bevvy of sharp-angled two-headed serpents dove through each other, purple over gold, in a sea of shimmering green and maroon.  Maren and I laughed at the beauty and movement.

Maren asked a few more questions through Kaiphet, but the more detailed information Maren sought about the source of the silk and the meaning of the pattern proved the limit of Kaiphet’s English.  Kaiphet looked a bit embarrassed.  “No problem,” Maren said to him, “Bo penyang.” Kaiphet smiled at the Lao expression.

“Does she have any textiles for sale?” asked Maren, eyebrows raised. Kaiphet translated and the weaver nodded and turned her head upward toward the two women on the porch.  She rattled off a paragraph of information. One dashed inside, we presumed to get whatever she might have for sale.  The boy who had earlier dashed into the home brought out two cheap blue plastic chairs and nodded for Maren and me to sit down.

Our boys, sensing another hour at this home, sighed, and looked around at the 15 or so kids who surrounded them. Ari dug into his daypack and pulled out a frisbee.  “Come on, Zall.”  The two dashed out onto the main track.  The local boys watched Ari and Zall toss the frisbee three times, and then the fourth time Ari zipped the frisbee to the boy who brought us a chair.  The boy ducked and laughed, then ran after the crashed frisbee and attempted his first ever frisbee toss.  Everyone laughed and ran to where the frisbee had landed. Maren and I knew that every boy 14 and under would be entertained for at least half an hour.

Two more women arrived along with several more children who looked anywhere between 3 and 12 years old.  The boys ran to join the new-found game; the girls gathered around their moms’ legs and the loom.  A moment later three more women came scurrying around from the road.  There must now have been 20 people crowded around, not counting the dozen boys playing frisbee out in the road.

Then a bustling, weathered woman charged in shouting what sounded like instructions to all of us.  Slung across her shoulders was an old worn purse so large that she almost could have fit into it herself; stuffed into the bag was a jumble of hastily folded rich-colored textiles.  I think I actually heard Maren smile.

A woman in Xam Tai poses with her baby and handwoven healing cloth.

The short pugilist of a woman grabbed a silk from her purse and shook it at Maren.  She shouted a few sentences – two women looked down sheepishly, and another laughed behind her hand.  The original weaver returned, carefully clutching several neatly folded shimmering silks.  She presented the stack to Maren with two hands and  a little bow, and then stepped back, glancing at the elder.

The older woman scowled and spat out another couple sentences. The second woman laughed again under her breath, which inspired the sour-looking elder to throw out a few more quick lines. Kaiphet chose not to translate her words; we chose not to ask.

Maren picked up one of the original weaver’s silks and unfurled the opulent body-height tapestry.  Rich gold threads, highlighted with sparks of deep green and blue, detailed the popular siho(mythical elephant-lion) motif. Ancestor figures, each riding the siho’s back, shimmered in the  sun. Maren took her time to admire the piece with her eyes and hands, chortling subtle “oooohs” and other under-the-breath accolades at the complex artistry.

The elder, eyes blinking rapidly, waited perhaps 5 seconds, and she shook out one of her textiles and pushed it into Maren’s hands. She spoke in a rushed high tone. No translator was needed to tell us what she wanted.

Maren politely directed the elder’s textile to the side, all the while nodding and smiling. As politely as possible, Maren ignored the elder’s interuption and addressed the original weaver:   “Sii tomasatSii chemi?”  (“Natural color? Chemical color?”)

“Sii tomasat!”the woman grins, surprised at Maren’s Lao.  The elder threw out another couple quick lines – one of the words was tomasat– and then she burst out laughing.  The other woman all smiled.

The cover of our publication, available (autographed!) at www.hilltribeart.com or your favorite bookstore.

Mai Lao? Mai Viet?”Maren continues (Lao silk? Vietnam silk?).  The elder pushed a second textile at Maren, and Maren continued to ignore her, directing her full attention on the original weaver.

“Mai Lao,”the woman answered proudly.  She then rattled a sentence off to Maren, who turned to Kaiphet.

“Sorry,” said Kaiphet, who was watching the frisbee game.  And he turned to the woman and asked her to repeat. He laughed. “She says you speak good Lao.”

The elder grabbed a third textile from her purse and held it directly in Maren’s vision.  Maren turned toward the scowling woman and explained in English, and a flurry of hand signals, that while she would get a turn, but that we were currently talking with this other woman.  Kaiphet didn’t translate Maren’s words, but he does say something short that gets everyone, save the elder, to crack a smile.  The elder, unperturbed, yanked now a fourth textile from her purse and held it up to Maren.  Maren and she locked eyes.

The elder squinted, and pushed up her lower lip to form a deep frown. She held her grim, sour mouth in a deep frown firmly for a moment, as if daring Maren.  And then, finally with Maren’s full attention, she erupted into a wide smile.

Grinning there in front of all the other women and Maren on that first day, Sukkhavit – for that is the elder’s name – held that clutched textile up for Maren to see.  The women all paused, waiting to see how the stand-off would end. Maren raised her eyebrows at Sukkhavit, and then she too joined the wide grin.  Sukkhavit chortled as if a great secret had been shared – and maybe it had.  She reached up and shook Maren by the shoulder, as if waking her up.  Then they laughed together.

Sukkhavit didn’t let go of Maren’s shoulder.

Through Kaiphet, Maren patiently assured Sukkhavit that her silks would be also admired and, possibly, purchased.  Since she had arrived after the others, we explained, it would only be appropriate that she receive our focused attention after the others. Sukkhavit scowled as she watched young Kaiphet struggle to explain and, long before he could finish, she charged off on another quick sentence.  The entire group of locals tried to suppress a laugh.

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

Sukkhavit grimaced and coughed and threw out one-liners throughout the forty-five minutes that we examined the textiles of the others.  We purchased several, and rejected several, and, because no one shared a poorly made textile, we made sure to purchase at least one piece from each woman. With everyone’s presentation came a sharp comment from Sukkhavit, most of which elicited a suppressed laugh from at least one person.

By now it was obvious that this elder was the center of village politics.  She had a reputation – perhaps, indeed, a dominance – that needed to be re-stated and learned given the new social venue of having us in town.  Now she was firmly in the center, in control, making untranslated comments on every piece as we unfolded it.

Finally, it was Sukkhavit’s turn.

It turned out that Sukkhavit did have some of the most flawless and dynamic silks of anyone.  Every piece she presented seemed rich and deep; each carried a special lustre. They were, quite frankly, the finest we had seen yet in the region – or anywhere else for that matter.

We could tell she knew that, as well.

Sukkhavit cackled with each piece of hers we set aside to purchase. She rattled off paragraphs of talk, rarely stopping for Kaiphet to stumble through a basic decoding.

And suddenly Sukkhavit was treating Maren as if they were old friends.

Indeed, both Sukkhavit and Maren seemed to have seen that each other’s take-charge exterior masked an inner soft spot.  And both had much to gain with a good relationship.

In ten minutes, we had bought nearly every silk she had in her purse. (The few we rejected were presented to us by Sukkhavit again the next day, deep in a stack of new things. If nothing else, Sukkhavit is determined.)

Ten minutes after that, all four of us, along with Kaiphet, were sitting on pillows on the deliciously cool floor of Sukkhavit’s home, a pitcher of filtered water and a bunch of tree-ripened bananas and tamarind pods in front of us.

Sukkhavit’s home is built of well-rubbed teak wood and sits on stilts 7 feet above the hard-pack dirt; steep steps lead up to the low-slung doorway. Wooden shutters from the windows are tied back to bring in day’s light and a bit of breeze.  An electric fan swung slowly back and forth slowly sharing it’s breath.  Like most Xam Tai homes, the room is void of furniture, save a chest where a TV and radio sit.  Thin interior walls, also of wood, are covered with Lao Beer advertising posters and “beautiful young women” calendars from the last decade.

Sukkhavit’s home.

We chatted through Kaiphet for perhaps half an hour, with Sukkhavit leading the conversation.  She spoke in sharp, short direct sentences – not angry, but what to me sounded terse and impatient.  Her face was animated, smiling big with one response, frowning deeply with the next. She took a keen interest in our two boys and seemed extra pleased when they reached for their third banana (a young, silent niece restocking the bowl long before it was empty).  She was also very interested in what we were looking for as a business, and we explained that we sought both traditional textiles and traditional craft-work, such as baskets and tools.  She nodded and cut another quick line to Kaiphet.

This acerbic-sounding delivery turned out to be an invitation for all of us to join her and her family for dinner the next day with her family and other guests – come at 5 PM.  It’s the moment travellers always hope for – an invitation to participate on the inside – and we cheerfully agreed.

Poor Kaiphet.  At that next day’s dinner and extended evening, I have never seen someone work so hard to keep up.  The event started with Sukkhavit luring us with a few more choice textiles, and we selected what made sense for our budget. Like most Lao business people we have worked with over the years, she set a firm and reasonable price for each piece; we bargained a little, and she gave just enough so we could all feel successful, but no one forgot who was truly in charge of the dealing. She then turned to a pile of other goods stacked in the corner.

Sukkhavit, always the business-woman, apparently had scurried around town all day seeking possible items for us to buy for our business. Each item she obtained came with a presentation – no, a skit – where she demonstrated its usage. And with each skit the audience, that is everyone in the room, laughed appreciatively.  Here was Sukkhavit as a H’mong farmer, picking greens and tossing them into her richly-patina’d backpack basket.  Here was Sukkhavit as as a Tai Daeng fisherman, stirring her small triangle net in the stream and placing the small caught fish into the creel tied onto her waist.  And now here was Sukkhavit the healing shaman, dancing a hop-step and shaking her bamboo “spirit-sticks” as if in a trance (and she actually had obtained traditional scarf with bamboo “healing-sticks” attached from a local shaman).

Thankfully for Kaiphet, little translation was necessary during the presentation; laughter is understood everywhere.  Sukkhavit’s husband, a kind man whose smile grows in proportion to the number of textiles purchased, passed me a shot glass of lao-lao, local rice whiskey, and he flicked his wrist in front of me to indicate I should toss it down in one gulp.  I returned the empty glass and it is refilled and passed to the person next to me, and so on around the circle twice, and then again twice, everyone sharing the glass. Our boys, getting a nod from Maren and me, join the toast.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught Sukkhavit luring 11-year-old Zall over to a wooden crossbow – what kid doesn’t like a handmade weapon!  We had seen many boys in the area use such tools to catch catch rodents and small birds for dinner. Sukkhavit carefully showed Zall how to hold the crossbow and then drew an 18″ arrow from a woven bamboo sheath.  She pointed to a corner of the room – perhaps to where the bamboo rat was to be – and helped Zall pull the string to a tight locked position and then load the lethal weapon.  Zall aimed and Sukkhavit leaned over his shoulder like an umpire behind a catcher – her eyes, as were Zall’s, trained on the target.  “P-shewwww,” Sukkhavit whistled as if the arrow had been launched (and here for a moment I thought she would actually let him launch the thing).  She laughed and clapped Zall on the back, and then leaned over and gave him a quick grandma-like hug.  Not a word had been translated; not a meaning had been missed.

Sukkhavit and Zall playing with the crossbow on our first visit to Xam Tai in 2007.

“A-li,” Sukkhavit says to Ari from across the room, and she shuffled over to him.  With her hands she motioned for him to stand up.  Ari got up slowly from his cross-legged position, and, as he maneuvered his feet under himself, Sukkhavit leaned back in mock amazement at his rising frame – at 14-years-old he was a full head taller than she was.

She flapped her hand ceremoniously several times as if preparing to perform a magic trick, and then she reached up and grabbed Ari’s shoulder in a firm clutch. The room turned quiet as everyone watched.

There was a moment of profound silence.  She stared up at him with a faux-serious face and with her chin jutted out and cleared her throat.  She ran her eyes over him from top to bottom, bottom to top, as if inspecting a soldier, or a side of beef.

She rattled off a quick couple sentences, and I can only catch the words for “son” (luk sai).  The room burst into laughter, and she continued her inspection. Ari smirked, and looked a little embarrassed.  A woman sitting on the floor tossed a quick line, and then more laughter, and then another said something in an undertone and everyone laughed again.  Sukkhavit’s firm face finally bursts into a wide grin.

“She says…” Kaiphet smiled, and then he hesitated a moment, gathering his words. “Sukkavit says Ari is strong and handsome… and would make good husband.  She asks if maybe you leave him here, and he can find a Lao wife – one who can weave well.”

Everyone watched us intently, smiling and eager, while Kaiphet translated for us, and then we all laughed together on the shared joke.

Suddenly everyone stood – “kinh, kinh”(eat, eat) ordered Sukkhavit –  and the stacks of textiles and back pillows are pushed to the edges of the room. A young woman, one of Sukkhavit’s many nieces, rolled a blue fiberglass tarp about two feet wide and ten feet long onto the floor – the tablecloth. Pillows were re-distributed, Maren and me each getting two – perhaps as marks of honor, or perhaps because we bear bigger bottoms.

Sukkhavit and Maren in 2009.

Out from the back-room kitchen came steaming bowlfuls of laap (minced pork with banana flower, garlic, ginger and chilli), boiled chicken (we are honored with the chicken’s head and Maren does her best with it), chicken broth with onion and garlic greens, bowls of fresh, sweet spinach-like greens, plates of steamed bamboo shoots, and several woven basketfuls of glutinous “sticky” rice.  We sat cross-legged on the floor, and Sukkhavit and her family made sure that the bowls of shared food at our end of the table were refilled long before they approached empty.

Here’s a cultural tip for Laos: Don’t finish your portion. Because you can’t.  An empty guest plate is the sign of a neglected guest, and you will be served food until you leave food untouched in front of yourself. Others will even politely do without to make sure you, as a guest, have too much.  And don’t keep nibbling at the food once you’re full.  Everyone is compelled to continue eating if a guest is still eating.  Finish eating, leave leftovers, and be done. So everyone else can be done, too.

On that first evening I’m sure Sukkhavit shared about her family, but we kept no notes and we were all gabbing and striving for basic understandings ….  and all relying on our dear poor 22-year-old translator Kaiphet for anything that couldn’t be mimed.

So many people were introduced – even ten years later we get faces and names mixed up, and often can’t remember who is related to whom.

After dinner we shared songs back and forth from our cultures – their beautiful and haunting Lao songs of love and friendship oddly balanced with our choice of nursery rhymes (although, in truth, singing a round of “Row, Row, Row, your Boat” went over quite well).

Heads were drooping by 9 PM – dawn arrives early every day. With a dozen good-byes and well-wishes, we don our headlamps and weave our way back, smiling, to our simple guesthouse.  Kaiphet walks with us, finally able to be silent.

“I think we’ve been adopted,” Maren laughed quietly to everyone.

I could feel the smiles around.

Zall, Sukkhavit, and Ari.

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.