Upon walking into a hill tribe village in Laos’ Houaphan Province, many first-time guests are surprised to find their preconceived images of “tribal life” at odds with the surroundings. Households commonly own a motorcycle or two that ferries kids to school, drops mom at the market, and takes dad to work (perhaps a field, perhaps an office). The bent grandmother under the stilted home reaches into her purse to retrieve a cell phone chiming the opening of a Phil Collins song. The market down the street offers six flavors of Pringles.
The “back alley” of Xam Tai village; looms are set up under virtually every home. Photo by Joe Coca.
Ten years ago, the sedate village of Xam Tai (population ~1000) received electricity every third day, sharing access with other area villages. Today electricity is 24/7, and washing machines, refrigerators, cell phone cameras, and on-demand hot water heaters have changed daily routines dramatically. The new medical clinic—a building out of Anytown, USA—is busy. Maren and I, beginning last year, now chat in real time with our Lao friends on Facebook.
Yet, amidst this transformation, the local women continue to weave the intricate patterns of their ancestors in their own homes, and the majority of young girls, beginning as young as age six, are routinely introduced to the art of weaving. Still today, 90% of Xam Tai’s women weave.
Ten-year-old Mai Chom separates the vertical heddles using the horizontal pattern string. Photo by Joe Coca.
In Xam Tai and other weaving villages in NE Laos, we are witness today to a particular moment in time when a traditional, but not naïve, culture becomes able to welcome the gadgetry, mobility, and opportunities of modernism. Access to information, markets, and education has never been more readily available, and a general feeling of optimism and forward progress pervades. Fear of hunger and disruption, which many of the elders vividly remember, no longer haunts daily life.
The village leaders of Xam Tai voice both enthusiasm and concern. The enthusiasm comes from the opening of new markets, both in the expanding middle and upper class population in Laos and in developing tourist and world markets. The talent of Xam Tai’s current weavers is still pridefully upheld and recognized as the finest in all of Laos, and a weaver’s time in 2017 can generate economic security for a family, a requirement for any textile tradition to survive.
Souksakone is a skilled weaver, leading dye-master, and textile businessperson in the Xam Tai District. Photo by Joe Coca.
However, elders also voice concern. Souksakone, a local textile leader who has 400 weavers working with her colors and patterns, tells us that she is confident that the current leadership can maintain the economic foundation of their community through the creation and marketing of handwoven textiles. But the next generation? Souksakone sighs: “Who will lead?” Her own children, all of whom gained a college education, now have so many outside opportunities. Will textile creation be a satisfying and successful occupation in the generations ahead? Will the developing markets persist?
Further, the flood into the local markets of synthetic fibers (both as pre-made clothing and as skeins for weavers) and chemical dyes threatens Xam Tai’s traditional ethic of tomasat—using only natural materials. Can tomasat remain economically viable in a world of cheaper, readily-available options?
A weaver’s personal basket holds a skein of cotton, bobbins, her shuttle, and, of course, her cell phone. Photo by Joe Coca.
Today, Xam Tai is vibrant and confident—a model for this generation of how a traditional culture can adapt without losing its cultural integrity. Whether the future generations of Xam Tai can continue to maintain their unique identity through textile creation will depend on culturally-attentive leadership from within the community and the successful development of and support from outside markets.
An autographed copy of our book may be ordered through our website (www.hilltribeart.com). Also available at thrumsbooks.com, amazon.com, or your local bookstore.
[This blog was originally posted on www.thrumsbooks.com, the website of our wonderful publisher. Thank you, Thrums, for providing the path to get the story told!]
Maren and I never chose to be textile enthusiasts or authors, of Laos or anywhere else. Nor was this destiny inherited, or even anticipated. We kind of just . . . uh . . . followed our curiosity.
We began our adult lives together as cultural adventurers, not textile enthusiasts, and many highlights of our 34 years (and two children) together involve backpacks and rural Asia. Our curiosity about how others lived, especially those with fewer modern amenities, has always fueled our itch to explore. We also reveled in the stories—and bonds—that such adventures create.
Xam Tai’s beautiful valley. Photo by Josh and Maren from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.
However, our first visit in 2007 to the extraordinary silk-weaving village of Xam Tai in Laos’s remote northeast corner (told in our book’s first chapter) portended a new direction for adventuring, as a door was opened that allowed us to delve deeper. This time our curiosity welled from a different fount, and it propelled us seek not a broad experience, but rather the details of a people and their incredible textile-based culture: How does Seuk raise the silkworms, and reel their filaments? How does Souksakone, the dyer, extract the red from the excretion of a scale bug? How do the mechanics of the clever “supplemental heddle system” on Phout’s hand-built loom create and save the complex patterns? What are the meanings behind the other-worldly motifs on Lun’s healing cloth?
Seuk reeling silk from the steaming water in the reeling pot. Photo by Joe Coca from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.
Our experiences, research, and developing relationships eventually pursued more profound questions as well: How does this unique and intricate textile art, which dates back to the dawn of the culture, support the economic and spiritual well-being of the region’s people? How does it transmit their inherited cultural knowledge? How did this textile tradition come to be? How are the art and people reacting to today’s rapid modernization? What does the future hold?
Maren and I also have come to understand that the more we learn, the more timeless and relevant the story of these traditional weavers and their art reveals itself to be.
Upon reading Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos last month, my brother expressed surprise—and gratitude—that our “textile book” shared stories and personalities. He commented that he truly felt like he was “soaking up the village scene” and sharing time with the locals, which in turn made their history and art seem that much more approachable. The following week Maren’s mom, past president of the Seattle Weaver’s Guild, expressed appreciation for our meticulous descriptions of the silk raising, weaving, and dyeing processes and the depth of ethno-historical information. She was drawn to our book’s precise and supportive detail.
Phout of Xam Tai at her loom. Photo by Joe Coca from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.
Our publisher, Linda Ligon, wrote last month in“Weaving off the Beaten Path” that we had told her we wanted to author a book that “would not be like any other book Thrums had ever published.” (Thanks for being undaunted, Linda!) That is, we wanted a fun-edged telling that introduces story and personalities to lure the cultural enthusiast and armchair traveler into the ever-more-tantalizing details (just as we were pulled in). We also wanted to present clear and relevant facts and description to satisfy the punctilious textile enthusiast, while still intriguing that reader with a rich and supportive cultural experience. We wanted a book that engaged the curiosity of both my brother and Maren’s mom.
We also wanted a book—and here we can celebrate the entire line of Thrums Books publications—that supports the relationship between culture and craft, craft and artist, artist and appreciator (i.e. the marketplace), and appreciator and culture, as the health of this cycle ensures the relevance and vitality of human creativity and traditional arts. So a special thank you to Thrums Books, for allowing us an opportunity to share a tale of a most amazing people and their inherited art-form.
We hope everyone enjoys the story. Oh, and the details, too!
The cover of our publication, now available (autographed!) at www.hilltribeart.com or your favorite bookstore.
Phout, Maren, Malaithong and Souksakone enjoy a late evening barbecue on our porch in Eugene, OR.
It was a decade old dream come true. Rather than Maren and I visiting our wonderful Lao weaving friends in their village in Laos, we finally “got even” by having them visit us on their first ever trip to America; for weavers Souk and Phout, it was their first time outside of SE Asia. They were able to bring childhood friend Malaithong with them for her translation services and to help facilitate the business and adventure opportunity.
These are three precious friends of ours who we met a decade ago in Xam Tai, Laos when we first started Above the Fray, and their work has been central to the finest quality silks that we offer our customers.
Souksokone, Malaithong, photographer Joe Coca, Maren and Phout at the Santa Fe Folk-Art Market.
The first week was spent in Santa Fe, where they were welcomed as special guests of the exquisite and selective Santa Fe Folk Art Festival and Market. For two days the jet-lagged weavers attended workshops that introduced them to American business and marketing, and then they sold some phenomenal textiles in the marketplace. Maren and I flew down to assist with the sales and cheer them on. The crowd was dense and receptive, and they did well with sales. Many attendees complemented those Lao weavers, dyers and designers as the highlight of the 150 or more represented artists.
Phout and Souksakone’s first visit to a Whole Foods Supermarket. So many things!
They then spent a week with us here in Eugene – and the weather was perfect. What a blast seeing our world through another’s eyes. A few highlights:
Watching them take photos in the produce section of Whole Foods – what a selection of greens! The wine department was overwhelming, and just how many kinds of cheese are there?
Getting to throw a first snowball ever, while enjoying the views at Crater Lake.
Watching forests glide by the car window for hours. They agree that our life-style here is very tomasat – that is, based on the goodness of being natural. And the roads are so smooth and fast!
Enjoying snow for the first time at the rim of Crater Lake.
Souksakone asking several times where the rice is grown. (“Why so much grass?”).
Setting up a full-size Lao loom in our studio, and celebrating its completion with a quick Lao Basi ceremony and a bottle of champagne.
Setting up the new loom.
Finding large, juicy deer walking unabashedly around our Crest Drive neighborhood. Nobody is eating them??
Eating more meat in a week than they eat in a season – the T-bone with a baked potato was well-received. They agreed they all liked American food – as long as its fresh and home-cooked!
Malaithong, Souksakne Josh and Phout enjoying the natural outdoors.
Roasting the hottest of jalapenos on our bbq grill to gain a bit of “flavor” for the rice.
Hearing them being impressed with how clean things are – so little litter! (And that is a boastful ethic of ours in this corner of the world!)
Phout getting her first elevator ride – to the 73rd floor of Seattle’s Columbia Center! Not sure she’ll do that again…
Phout at the ground level of the Columbia Center. Better place to be!
We laughed so much, and we are so grateful for Malaithong’s translation efforts.
On one evening late in the week, as we shared a bottle of wine, Maren mentioned how we felt like we truly had family in Lao. How was it possible for people so far apart to find such a heart-bound friendship?
Malaithong explained that the Lao have a specific word – Seo – to refer to a friend with who you share a deeper connection. And that yes, we were all seo, bonded by our trust and affection.
Malaithong continued. “Here is what I think happened. In the beginning we were of the same family, and then, when all the people were being put onto the Earth, at that moment there was a ver-ry big storm, and a great wind,” and here Malaithong waved her hands in front of her face and made a “whoo-oo-oosh” sound. “Myself, and Souk and Phout blew about and landed in Laos, and you and Josh blew about and landed in America. But we are still of the same family, and now we have found each other.” We laughed and Malaithong shrugged: “That must be what happened.”
Sharing another wonderful meal – hamburgers! Joining us is our son, Ari.
To read more stories and learn about the silk craftwork of these women (and we dedicate a chapter each to both Souk and Phout) and many others, we lure to our new publication: Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition, and Well-Being (Thrums Book, 2017) by Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck, with photos by Joe Coca. You may order an autographed copy at www.hilltribeart.com, or order through Amazon or your favorite bookstore.
The cover of our upcoming publication, available October 1.
[This story was written to be in our up-coming publication, Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos (Thrums Books, available October 1, 2017) in a section on the future of the independent silk weavers of Xam Tai in Laos’s Houaphan Province. Although the book’s focus and length led to its deletion, but it is still a tale worth telling – a tale emblematic of the rapid modernization occurring in this long-isolated region.]
We were in the NE corner of Laos, in the town of Xam Tai (well-known for its quality naturally-dyed silks), enjoying a wedding reception celebrating the union of the town’s pharmacist’s daughter to a handsome young gentleman. As in much of Lao, the pharmacist is the first medical care option, and as regular visitors to Xam Tai, both Maren and I had asked her advice several times for treating our minor ailments. Hence the invitation.
Perhaps 250 people – a good portion of the town – were present at the outdoor event, held under temporary white tents in a large field close to the new marketplace. The dinner of water buffalo meat and stomach, fresh bamboo shoots, three types of sausage, boiled greens and sticky rice had long been eaten, and the master of ceremonies was alternating between introducing important guests and singing modern pop songs and traditional melodies on an over-amplified electric keyboard.
The bride and groom share a toast with two seated guests.
An abundance of ushers, friends of the young bride and groom, strolled past the tables, making sure that no one lacked food or beverage. The Beer Lao and Pepsi flowed; voices and laughs were loud. The evening air felt cool; the atmosphere was light and joyous.
Maren had been invited to dance and I could see her, a head taller than almost everyone, as she promenaded with her partner in a group circle, waving her hands first to the left, and then the right like a slow-motion hula, only with the women wearing elegant silk sinh (skirts) instead of grass skirts.
Malaithong, our translator (and good friend for nearly 10 years), nudged me on the shoulder; she shouted to be heard over the din.
Three of our best friends in Laos: Phout, Souk, and Malaithong. All three grew up in Xam Tai as friends. Malaithong learned English and is our translator as well. They are enjoying a wedding party in this photo.
“This man coming over. Ve-ery big man. Big boss…” She paused and made sure she had my full attention. “He is a good man. Everybody likes him, and he works ve-ery, ve-ery hard.” The “ve-ery ve-ery” came out slowly and in a higher tone.
The gentleman she nodded toward sat at the next table and held his empty glass to the side, tilted towards us so that his current guest could not again refill it.
Malaithong straightened her posture. “He has many good ideas for what to do for tourism and economy in Xam Tai.” She again paused, and then she leaned close and whispered: “He is like the boss’s boss’s boss,“ and she nodded slowly.
The gentleman sat on the edge of the folding chair, swaying a bit back and forth, eyes squinting and with a wide smile of perfect teeth. His face glowed with perspiration. His shirt was untucked. But in all fairness, it was near the end of a wedding celebration.
The rural Xam Tai valley looks much the same as in centuries past. Wait – are those electric lines?!
Suddenly he turned and held out his hand. “Sabaidee-ee,” (Good health), he said, and he pulled himself up from his chair and plopped himself onto another next to me. His squint and smile maintained the open easy lilt of person who had been celebrating for many hours; however, his voice was sure and direct. We pumped our hands up and down two or three times; then he set his glass on the table and brought his other hand to rest on top of our shake. His moist, warm hands held onto mine gently but firmly.
“Sabaidee,” I returned with a smile and nod.
Mailathong didn’t wait a moment. “Mr. Josh, this is Mr _____, district vice governor of Xam Tai.” She then said a few words in Lao, “Josh” being one of them. He continued to hold my hand as Malaithong spoke, his squint, smile and glow looking directly into my eyes.
“I am…uh… so hap-py to…uh… to meet you, Mr. Josh,” he said in deliberate, careful English. He had to nearly yell to be heard over the pounding keyboards and other nearby conversations. His English was thick and slow-paced, but, with a bit of focus, quite clear. Malaithong reached for an open bottle of Beer Lao and filled our short glasses.
Modern guesthouses are a recent development in Xam Tai.
He held up his beer with a warm smile, and we each drained our share. His hand returned to the top of our handshake. He then said some more words to me, which I could not decipher in the din, but I continued to shake his pumping hands and nod. If nothing else, I thought, we can share squinty eyes, crooked smiles, and radiant complexions.
“I … uh … I show you,” he said brightly, as if having a sudden epiphany. Removing his moist right hand from our shake he reached into his shirt pocket for his iPhone. “I am engineer,” he said as he tried to open an application with the same hand that held the phone.
“Very good,” I replied. “An engineer.” Part of me wished to be rescued from the conversation. Trying to follow an engineering-themed thread led by a thick-accented celebrator in the cacophony of a Lao wedding was, perhaps, more culturally immersed than I particularly wished to be at that moment.
Weaving provides a solid income for the majority of families in the region.
The vice governor sat up squarely, let go of my hand and moved his fingers quickly on the phone. “I want … uh … to show you…” and his words dropped off as he poked at his phone. His eyes opened wider and his sway stopped. “I show you … uh … idea. My idea.” I laughed for no reason, and glanced at Malaithong. She was nodding with her eyebrows raised, urging that I share my full attention.
“Here,” he said finally. “This is … uh … what I think … for Xam Tai.” On the iPhone’s screen spun a shape in slow motion that looked like the blueprint of a house. The spinning house grew larger and all I could think of was Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz as it spun downward and landed on the Wicked Witch. He continued with more words, but I couldn’t make them out in the noise.
“For Xam Tai…” he said emphatically, pointing at the screen. “I think … uh … like engineer … I think to help Xam Tai to make … uh … for park for Xam Tai.” The iPhone’s vision stopped spinning, and then the short demonstration on the iPhone started to replay itself.
Two weavers display their recently woven sinh (skirts).
I looked to Malaithong, who had just refilled the governor’s and my glass. She smiled and said loudly: “Mr. ____ is a ve-rry smart man. He wants a new park in Xam Tai, where the old market used to be. You know, across from the new bank.” I nodded. Our family had loved that old, low-ceilinged, dilapidated market, but its recent replacement certainly was cleaner, safer, and had room for expansion.
The vice governor watching me intently while Malaithong continued: “He has plans to build a central park for Xam Tai – a nice place for tourists and business. Like in the big city – only in Xam Tai it would be smaller, of course.”
I looked again at the iPhone, and I suddenly understood the graphic. Mr. ____ had programmed a phone app to show a 3-dimensional layout of a park-plan he had developed. The graphic on the phone was a spinning view of the imagined center park, as if the viewer were a slow-moving bird coming toward it in a narrowing circle. Yes – there was the open field, and a pavilion-like building. The center-point of the park layout spun in closer and the viewer finally landed in the park next to the handsome building – only to be jolted back to the beginning of the animated loop.
Malaithong with an armload of freshly processed silk. The silk worms are raised locally.
Malaithong explained that the vice governor wanted to make Xam Tai an important town and increase tourism and help promote the local silk weavers. “The center building could have a tourist office,” Malaithong cheered. “For explaining the weaving,”
I looked up at the vice governor. He sat steadily, straight-faced, almost solemn now. I reached out with my left hand and gently clenched his right shoulder; with my right hand, I presented a confident thumbs-up. “What an excellent idea,” I said, and the vice governor burst into a wide smile. I nodded largely, up and down, assuming that a bigger “yes” was a better “yes.” He started a gentle nod in the rhythm of my nod.
Maren just then returned from the dance floor, and, after introductions, we showed Maren the animation. Maren watched intently for a moment, and then, after a brief explanation, her face lit up. “That would be wonderful!”
She then insisted that the vice governor, now sober as a judge, show and explain to her the details of his presentation.
Malaithong sat and watched, a small smile on her face. As they say, all politics is local.
Maren and I have just returned from an amazing set of adventures in both the far NW and the remote NE of Laos. We found ourselves often in villages where the residents had never met white-skinned people (although they’d of course seen such on TV and in photos), and we were consistently impressed with the textile arts and the open welcome of the people. As we prefer, we nearly always traveled with a local translator helping us facilitate the great pleasure of sharing conversation (and meals!) with the locals.
The new district capital of Meung Kuan: from a sleepy village of 60 thatched-roof homes to a modern platted city in 3 years, complete with a new hospital, secondary schools, covered marketplace, sealed and well-drained roads and several new government buildings.
Efficient gas-powered rice threshing machines are available in all villages.
Our largest take-away from this trip is the evidence of the incredibly rapid pace of development in even the most difficult to reach places. Graded roads, electricity, and access to education and knowledge is flowing into these remote regions at an unprecedented pace, and every year we witness vast changes in their lives.
While we recognize that some things are lost in this modernization, such as traditional animist beliefs and a required devotion to subsistence farming and cloth-making, we recognize that the vast majority of those experiencing this new-found modernity are grateful and eager to participate in a more global world. More specifically, the advent of regular electricity has brought phones (wired technology is completely being bypassed, and even the most remote villages can have excellent reception and wi-fi), washing machines (saving people several hours of grueling work each week), the light bulb (extending time to weave, study and otherwise earn a living), refrigerators (changing food preparation and storage), and allowing the introduction of such luxuries as blenders, television and karaoke (ok, I could do without that one!), electric motorcycles, fans and more.
A new road in Houaphon Province brings electricity and access to villages that have traditionally beenvery isolated
We had a long chat with Mai, an 88 year old weaver in Meung Kuan in Laos, who is ecstatic that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren now have access to nationalized schools and possible college, that the market is full of a variety of excellent fresh and packaged foods, that people can travel to other towns back quickly (so she can visit with her businessman son who lives in Laos’ capital), and that hospital care is accessible. And to note – she was also very grateful that all 11 of her granddaughters know how to weave on a traditional loom and thus could earn a respectable middle-class income using their culture’s traditional skills (sand selling their textiles in an urban marketplace. Such conversations give me greater optimism about the future.
Motorcycles are the preferred method of transportation for anyone within reach of a road.
As developing nations such as Laos, Vietnam and rural China gain access to information and, their voices can be better heard and basic needs met. We cannot help but notice that the vast majority of the diverse peoples we meet are kind and generous, and they are eager to connect not just with the tools of modernity, but with the hearts of the people of the world. The family unit is still strong, and mutual respect and cooperation is treasured.
While we can find myself sometimes caught up in the arguments of politics, such ventures reminds us that what is most vital for our daily lives is found in our personal relationships, the respect we share with and for others, and the gratefulness we should treasure for having food on the table, the comfort of a warm home, and the affection of family and friends.
This weaver, before meeting us, had never seen white people outside of television and other media. While still very remote, the region is modernizing at rapid pace.
Our schedule is now set for the 2017 year (visit www.hilltribeart.com/events), and soon we will be crowing more loudly about our upcoming book (available this Fall) published through Thrums Books: Silk Weavers of Hilltribe Laos.
Maren and Josh share some time with a 72 yea0-old Akha elder in the far NW Laos. The red of her lips is from chewing betel, a jungle nut. Her clothing is made of locally-raised, handspan, hand-woven cotton. Her head-dress is of silver.
Our ethic for our 10 years as Above the Fray has always been to minimize our impact as to what the weavers of the region choose as design, preferring that they reach into their creative talent and traditions as opposed to chase what they may think will sell well in a western-style market that they have not met.
Two of Maren’s good friends: Phout on the left, and Souksakone on the right. Both are leading textile weavers, dyers and designers in Houaphon Province
This last year we broke that rule, and we’re glad we did!
Phout, a master-weaver and dyer who lives in Houaphon Province, Laos, had woven several gorgeous all-silk “man-woman” healing cloths some years ago. We have found this traditional style of shaman’s shawl (in Lao, phaa sabai) to be uniquely attractive.
The “man-woman” phaa sabai is a complex silk of three contiguous panels: the two end panels are woven in the discontinuous supplemental weft style with the center panel left in plain-weave with no supplemental decoration. The two end panels are of identical design, yet one side has received a full spectrum of supplemental colors to highlight the motif-patterns, while the other side is left in only two muted colors that seem to hide the design. The weavers smile when they tell us that the vibrant, complex side represents the spirit of the female, while the “simple” side represents the spirit of the male.
Phout models one of the 100% silk man-woman phaa sabai we had ordered. The silk is locally-raised, and Phout did the natural-dye work herself.
A local healer would traditionally use such a cloth as a tool to gain access to the “spirit world” to perform a healing, whether the injury were physical, mental or spiritual. The “man-woman” expression is symbolic of the need for humans to have spiritual balance within themselves; a lack of well-being would be a confirmation that one’s “life-force” is in need of repair.
Phout had indicated that this complex design was not finding a niche in the marketplace, and that a weaver’s time was better spent on other designs that the tourist markets were finding more profitable (phaa sabai cloths require a lot of hand-reeled silk and time on the loom).
Another “man-woman” healing cloth from the same region; the weaver is the model.
“But they are so beautiful, and traditional,” blurted out Maren. Phout rolled her eyes. But the truth is obvious: if it doesn’t sell, then it cannot take up the valuable time of the weaving experts.
So we ended up “ordering” that she ask one of her finest weavers to weave an older man-woman healing cloth design Phout has in her archives, in three different ground colors.
They are stunning! Even Phout was excited about how they came out. Yes, we paid a bit of a premium for the “special order,” but we believe they will sell well in the emerging international market, and perhaps create some momentum for this style of traditional cloth to remain relevant in the styles of cloth that the master-weavers perceive the market will support.
Phout is a wonderful energy and loves to laugh, and she and Maren have a sister-like affection for each other. Every time we get together we soak in each other’s company and, thanks to our translator Mai (who is a childhood friend of Phout’s), we can share thoughts and stories.
Another 100% natural-dyed silk “man-woman” healing cloth modeled by the weaver.
Here is the tale, appropriate perhaps for the political season, of Phout finally learning how to pronounce my name:
“Djozhhh,” Phout strained.
“Yes, ‘Josh’,” I affirmed in English, adding a quick “Chou, chou.” (Yes, yes.)
Again I pushed my lips into an open pucker, and slowly rolled as long a “j” sound as the consonant can have in English, followed by a quick “ah,” and ending with the soft extended “shhhhhh,” of a librarian. Then said slowly again: “J- j-o-shhhhhhhh.”
I paused a brief second, then pushed my name out a bit faster: “Josh.”
Phout focused. She started with a buzzing “dzzzz” and then puckered to an English “j.” She held the sound and rolled her eyes towards me for confirmation.
Phout’s aunt, Sukkhavit, dons a shaman’s traditional healing cloth; this one is not of the “man-woman” style, but is equally stunning.
I tried to infuse some optimism into her by widening my eyes, and I offered a quick “jo-” sound, to indicate that our “j” sound needs to jump straight to the “ah”, and that the consonant cannot be “buzzed” like the “z” in “azure.”
Phout jumped off her “dz,” shot across a long “ahhhh” and landed back on the “dz” sound again. “Dz-aah- dzzzz.” she enunciated in a fizzle. “Dj-dj-aaaah-zhhhhhh,” she echoed again, nearly begging for approval.
It was our friend Bounkeo, smiling at Phout’s side, who came to the rescue. “Djahshh,” he blurted to her matter-of-factly. She then she repeated after him a shorter, closer “Djahshh.”
Bounkeo threw out his version again, and Phout again repeated it.
“Chou, chou,” Bounkeo smiled. “Djahshh.” and he raised his eyebrows, and he paused a beat: “uh…. Djahshh Buzhhhh.”
Phout laughed with the insight. “Chou, chou… Djahshh Buszhhh – Am-er-i-ca! Chou, chou. Djahshh Buzhhh.”
Here Phout dons another style of a “shaman’s shawl.” Her design and dye work is some of the finest in the world. She has 50 weavers who work under her direction.
The Kim Mun Lanten people plant their cotton in the forests and alongside their rice paddies. Our week-long visit in summer, unfortunately, did not coincide with the harvest and ginning season (December and January), but cotton spinning and textile dyeing and weaving are year-round activities in some local villages, and we were eager to explore what we could of the local textile traditions. After all, seeking out people making traditional, village-use items nearly always leads to an adventure.
Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.
The day after our Akha spinning lesson, Tui guided us to a village of the Kim Mun Lanten ethnic group, a people renowned for their cotton spinning and weaving. The locals of the village were very surprised to see Western visitors, and perhaps thirty or forty women and children crowded closely (the men were working in the rice fields). It took a few minutes to get used to the closeness of the people and the seeming infringement on what we feel is our “personal space.” However, the shared smiles and nods and Tui’s cheerful demeanor and explanation quickly melted any awkwardness.
The women of the Lanten village wore loose-fitting handspun cotton tunics that wrapped and tied across the chest and loose-legged knee-length pants, all dyed to a rich, deep blue with locally harvested indigo. The outfits were modest and, from a distance, unadorned. Upon closer inspection, however, each jacket had a thin strip of color at the collar, cuff, or edging. From a frog closure on her neck, each adult woman wore white or pink streamers of silk (or acrylic), which they constantly threw over their shoulders when doing handwork, and a shorter tassel of silk on each end of a thin woven-cotton waist-belt. Several wore handmade earrings and hair clips of silver or “white bronze,” an inexpensive alloy made of copper, tin and zinc.
A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.
When Tui explained that we were searching for local textile traditions, one forward woman grabbed Maren tightly around her arm and marched the whole parade of us through the village to her home. She opened up a fast conversation with Maren as if Maren could understand every word. Tui gave up trying to interrupt with a translation. However, Maren, undaunted, smiled and eventually responded with equal enthusiasm, albeit in English, about our desire to see their art. Neither understood the other’s vocabulary, but they shared a sense of curiosity and opportunity. They both laughed and leaned on each other as they walked up the dirt slope.
Her village-built spinning wheel was in the breezeway of her modest wood home. Maren gestured for the woman to sit on the low stool and demonstrate her technique. The woman sat down and picked out a 6-inch (15 cm) tube of clean unspun cotton. In a previous process, Tui translated, the ginned, fluffed cotton had been gently rolled onto bamboo sticks, and then the smooth stick had been extracted to leave these snakelike cocoons tubes of cotton.
A Lanten woman spins cotton.
Holding the soft cotton in her left hand, the woman cranked the wooden spinning wheel deftly with her right. The cotton fiber was hooked onto the end of a horizontal spindle, and as the bobbin spun, she smoothly pulled back her left hand, letting the spindle efficiently twist the fiber. When the twisting yarn reached an arm’s length, she leaned forward and the fiber dropped from the hook; the spindle then hungrily zipped up the length of yarn onto the shaft. The smooth-motioned dance of creating a fine yarn was repeated, repeated, and repeated again, her bobbin growing with a small pulse following each inward reach.
Maren smiled and nodded emphatically as the woman demonstrated her efficient motions with the handbuilt device (which could also function as a skein winder, hence the wide Ferris wheel shape). The spinner looked at Maren and then pointed to a plastic bag full of cotton rolls. Maren laughed and stretched out her arms to indicate the amount of cotton and length of time the present project would require. The woman smiled broadly, then squared her shoulders and turned back to again demonstrate the process.
Soon, Maren took a turn with the spinning, and then Tui wanted to try—Hah! A man spinning cotton! Tui posed as a pompous spinner and flippantly spun the wheel. The women, the kids, and Maren and I laughed so hard we nearly fell over.
Hah! A man spinning cotton!!
Five minutes later we were at a neighbor’s home, around in the back under a tin roof. Here sat a full floor loom, complete with a handmade bamboo comb in a teak frame, a substantial timeworn shuttle, and what seemed like an acre of half-meter-wide handspun cotton cloth rolled onto the loom’s front bar. A woman sat at the loom and worked the two wooden treadles. Tui translated her explanation of the Lanten weaving technique. She then allowed us to photograph the loom; she herself, like many others, asked not to be photographed.
Two plastic pitchers of water appeared. A nine- or ten-year-old girl, presumably a daughter or niece, filled the single glass and offered it first to Maren, who thanked her and then raised the glass to the surrounding community. “Kop chai lai lai,” Maren said in Lao. “Thank you very much.” She finished the glass quickly and passed it back, and then we each in turn had a moment with the glass and a chance to share a word or nod.
Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!
Before we left, several women brought to us cotton yardage they wished to sell, some plain white and some deeply dyed in their traditional indigo. As in most of rural Laos, prices were set; these savvy spinners and dyers were not in the least naïve about the quality or value of their time, effort, and product.
As for us—we could not have had a richer day.
(This article has been published in Spin-Off Magazine, Summer 2016)
The muddy path was literally steaming. The brief monsoon downpour had been followed by the re-emergence of the close, tropical sun, and all three of us – Maren, our local guide Tui, and I – wiped our brows as we trudged up the hill to the small Akha-Puli village. It was only a one-kilometer walk from the sealed road, but the slippery path and inescapable humidity were quickly wearing us down.
The Akha-Puli spinner.
We rounded one last corner and welcomed the sight of the first thatched-roof homes of the village. Tui smiled and waved to a woman sitting on the bamboo porch of the first home. As we approached, Tui greeted her: “Udu-tamah.” She squinted and then smiled at the unusual sight of two 50-something westerners negotiating the slick slope in their flip-flops and a non-Akha guide speaking Akha (albeit, Tui admits, with a heavy accent). We could see she had a wooden spindle in her hands, but she laid it down as we approached.
The woman wore her traditional silver-decorated headdress and a well-worn, handspun, indigo-dyed cotton skirt. A commercial acrylic scarf wrapped over her shoulder and around her back to hold an infant.
The Akha-Puli woman winds her spindle
She excused herself for a moment, disappeared into her home, and re-emerged wearing a sleeveless factory-made spaghetti-strap shirt to cover her bare chest. She swung the small child around onto her back again and wrapped a printed towel around the both of them. We sat in silence for a few moments catching our breath. We smiled and nodded toward the spindle, encouraging her to continue with her work. She pointed one hand at Maren and the other at me and then placed her hands together, inquiring if we were “together.” We confirmed we were a couple and had two sons, now grown. Through Tui, we learned that she had 6 children, two boys and four girls, the youngest of whom was on her back. We told her we were Americans visiting the beauty of their village and that we were enthusiasts about traditional textiles. She nodded with every careful word Tui translated.
She adjusted her headdress and picked up the thin, wooden center-whorl spindle she had earlier set aside. With her left fingers, she stretched the white fiber she was working with up and away from her standing body. She adjusted the floss-like material between the fingers of her right hand, and then hooked it onto a notch cut into the top of the spindle. With her right hand, she pressed the pencil-thin spindle against her skirt with her palm and rolled the spindle downward against her thigh; the elegant spindle dropped and danced an inch from the ground in perfect vertical balance, twisting the fiber suspended from her left hand. After a few seconds of spin, she reached down and grabbed the spindle with her right fingers, one finger deftly knocking the fiber out of the notch and then manually wound the new-spun material onto the spindle.
Maren takes her turn.
Seamlessly, the woman reached down with her left hand and grabbed another strand of material. With her right, she split the now-spun material with her fingernail, making an “eye-hole” about two inches from the fiber’s end. The new strip slipped precisely through the hole. With her right thumb and forefinger, and using a quick one-two motion, she rubbed the new material and the right side of the eyehole together and then reversed the spin, winding the half-strip and the full new strip back over the left side of the original thread. The material was spliced tightly. She pulled the clingy new length out and away from her body, and then repeated the leg rub, the drop of the spindle, and the tidy wrap.
Our eyes wandered to the source of this white fiber: it appeared to be coming out of a stained 50-kilo plastic rice bag that lay on the bamboo-slat decking. Maren reached down to open the bag.
She stopped, then smiled. The fiber, indeed, was the bag, and she was expertly spinning the 3 foot (1 m) long fiberglass threads. Maren laughed. The woman nodded and laughed with her.
The Akha-Puli woman spins her “thread.”
”What are you making?” we asked through Tui. The two exchanged words, and then Tui turned to us.
“She is making a carrying bag.” And, of course, we had a flood of other questions. Yes, they still spun cotton, when it was in season, but not as much as before. Pre-made clothing was readily and cheaply available, as evidenced by her knit shirt and the children’s commercially-made clothing. But yes, her own skirt was spun and then woven of locally-grown cotton that had been indigo-dyed.
A few years ago, she explained, she would have used the wild-grown piat vine as material for this current project, but it took a long time to find, strip and splice the wild vine before then hand-knotting its threads into a purse. These “pre-shaped” plastic strips were free, available … and even waterproof! She reached into a plastic bag set on the ground and handed Maren a ball of expertly-spun fiberglass stripping.
“Harder than it looks.”
The woman proudly stepped forward and handed Maren the spindle. She said some words, which we assumed meant: “It’s your turn.”
To the delight of the family, Tui and the growing group of curious children, Maren spent the next few minutes learning the fine art of spinning and splicing fiberglass the Akha-Puli way. Everyone laughed at her initial awkwardness – Maren most of all – but the woman patiently helped her with splicing the fiber, rolling the spindle against her leg to get the quick spin, and then letting the spindle fall and twirl at just the right height. A moment’s pause – then the quick hand-winding to a tidy bundle. Everyone cheered when success was finally achieved, and Maren took a formal bow.
The woman reached up and grabbed Maren’s shoulder and laughed an outpouring of words. Tui smiled: “She says now you are an Akha woman!” And we all laughed again.
Souksakone, Xam Tai’s leading master-dyer, template designer, and weaver.
The Traditional Silk Artists of Xam Tai, Laos
In the remote Annamite Mountains of NE Laos, and most notably in the Xam Tai District of Houaphon Province, the rich, cooperative, silk-weaving traditions of the Lao Loum and Tai Daeng ethnic groups still thrives, much in the way it has for millennia. Our family (mom, dad, and our now 22 and 19 year-old sons) has had the great privilege and opportunity to nurture friendships and forge textile-based business relationships with Xam Tai’s artists for the last 10 years. Their art, traditions and warmth have nourished us and opened up worlds of personal insight.
The silk weaving arts of the region are born from both Buddhist (the Lao Loum ethnic group) and animist (Tai Daeng and other Tai groups) traditions that are focused on healing and maintaining the strength of both the individuals and the community itself. The silk-raising and textile-creation processes have been central to beliefs and spiritual health and have also provided an economic foundation for countless generations. Not to diminish the essential building and farming roles of the men (all villagers participate with planting and harvesting), the women’s historical central role in textile creation has supported both core cultural beliefs and access to the cash-based trade-economy of the outside world. Because of this, women have been, on the whole, equally empowered and valued within the culture.
A weaver models her newly-woven shaman’s shawl. The silk is locally-raised and naturally-dyed.
Local tradition holds that these complex weavings grant healers access to the spirits that affect health, both of the individual and of the community. Ancient motifs are woven into the textiles forming the geometric complexity; river-serpents (ngeuk) emblematic of female power, elephants (saang) that uphold political power, “hong” birds that represent male power, ancestor spirits, and fierce giant spirits (phii nak). These spirits can be invoked by shamans to heal a person from an injury or fever, protect an infant, revitalize an underperforming rice-field, or generate luck for a business venture.
An 8-year old silk weaver with a “sample-sized” silk, affectionately called a “love token.”
Even today in the shade of the thatched-roof homes in Xam Tai, silk shaman, healing and other ritual and household textiles are still woven for economic support as well as actual village use. However, the textile’s role of accessing spiritual and ancestral power for healing is diminishing as their world increasingly overlaps the modern 21st century.
The traditional silk-weaving process in Xam Tai has six distinct roles:
The seri-culturist, who raises the worms from tiny egg to fuzzy cocoon, all in the shade of their village home, taking great care to avoid disease and predators.
The reeler, who nurtures the warmed silk strands through her fingertips, pull by pull, pacing her work to match the cooling rate of the silk’s sticky seracin.
A weaver works at her village-made loom.
The dye-master, who pride herself on using only natural dyes created from what the jungle provides. A scale-bugs secretion, lac, forms the traditional foundation of red that is integral to so many of their textiles, but nearly every hue can be generated and fixed to silk.
A young weaver (and her baby) models her temple-cloth. Both Buddhists and animists in this region create and use textiles in their traditional ceremonies.
The pattern-template maker, who is likely also an expert weaver with highly-developed visual skills. The floor loom’s pattern-template (khao ti dai) contains the instructions for the weaver for the textile’s line-by-line creation as the weaver concentrates on her weaving precision and effective use of supplemental colors. A khao ti dai is saved for re-use, allowing certain effective, desirable patterns to be re-woven through the generations.
The weaver (of whom there are several hundred in the Xam Tai region, age 7 to 80), who sit at their large floor looms and deftly and miraculously create the most intricate and vibrant traditional silks in the world. The region is most famous for its discontinuous supplemental weft patterns, but one also finds superb samples of tapestry weave, ikat and supplemental warp patterning. A singe large masterpiece shaman’s cloth (phaa phii mon) may take a woman 4 months to create at the loom. For many families, weaving is the sole source of income, keeping a high level of interest among women with the skill, patience and talent.
A 13-year-old weaver works on a silk healing cloth.
The businessperson, who gets the silk to the marketplace (assuming that’s its destination). This vital role, which requires both economic savvy and outside contacts, is often managed by the dyer.
The design of the template-pattern can be clearly seen on this loom. After each horizontal memory-thread, which represents a line of pattern in the weft, is used, it is moved from the template’s top to the bottom; later, the memory threads will be moved from bottom to top, creating the traditional mirror-image motifs in the design-work.
While factory-spun silk, analine dyes and synthetic fibers are all readily available in local markets in Laos, the ethic of the silk-artist community of Xam Tai demands that the traditional processes be maintained. This cultural ethic has, for hundreds of generations, supported a cooperative and healthy lifestyle and economy that has allowed their traditional way of life to endure into the 21st Century. Their recent efforts to reach larger outside markets, as through our business, will be essential if these traditions are to continue to remain vital and attractive to future generations of Xam Tai’s cultural silk artists.
The beautiful and remote Xam Tai valley in Houaphon Province in NE Laos.
Maren and Josh study a textile with the Xam Tai weavers.
The elderly woman, intently concentrating on the narrow weaving set on the full frame loom in front of her, chewed on her gums as her thin, brittle fingers deliberately tied the supplemental colors onto a row of silk weft. Her hands, knuckles slightly swollen with arthritis, reached automatically for the shuttle and she deftly tapped the shuttle across the top of the weft threads, adding another silk-thin length to the narrow skirt border she was weaving. The 5-inch wide strip, upon completion, would be sewn onto the bottom of a Lao skirt (phaa sinh) for colorful decoration and as protection of the larger skirt body during wear.
Me Tai Lu (Grandmother Lu) proudly displaying the sinh she wove.
She glanced up at our faces briefly, and I held up my small camera with raised eyebrows in a silent appeal for permission to film. She gave a quick nod and then, with her concentration seemingly doubled, she sharpened her posture and returned to the methodical and creative task of turning nature’s silkworm thread into beauty and spirit. I pushed the start button and began to archive her talent.
She licked her lips and set a firm and consistent pace as the camera studied her deliberate and smooth motions. Her deep moist eyes measured every finger’s measured movement.
This is a loom set up like Me Tai Lu’s loom. The black warp threads are primary; the white warp threads is the supplemental warp. The vertical tan threads are the pattern template (khao ti dai)..
The woman was working with the silk raised in the village where she lived, which is known for its sericulture. Her pattern template (khao ti dai), the web of “instructions” that assured every weft line was accurately formed, was made of a coarser string, no doubt because it was easier to feel and manipulate with her worn fingers. The design required surprisingly intricate finger motions in applying the supplemental colors, and the shapes of the textile’s woven motifs were knife-edge precise. She worked her fingers in an even rhythm. Perhaps her fingers were a little slower than that of a nimble 20-year-old, but her measured precision, molded by 70 or more years of practice, revealed an adept efficiency that was a pleasure to watch. She wove for 3 minutes in focused silence as I filmed her from a variety of angles and zoomed in on her patient, trained finger-work.
I clicked off the camera and casually bowed my head with my hands together under my chin as a traditional “Thank you.”
A young woman intently watches Maren and Me Tai Lu chat.
“She is the oldest woman in the village.” Mai’s voice surprised me – I had no idea she had crept up on us. Mai, our friend and translator, had grown up in a nearby town, and she had relatives in this village and had known this woman, at least casually, for over 40 years. (Mai seems to have relatives in just about every village in Houaphon Province!)
“Her name is Lu. We call her Me Tau Lu, Grandmother Lu,” said Mai and she turned and asked a question of the old woman. The elder stopped her concentration, smiled toothlessly at us, and returned a sentence.
“She says she is over eighty year old,” Mai continued. “She does not know exactly how old, but she can remember back longer than anyone else. She wonders if you would like to see a piece she has finished. Perhaps you would like to buy it?”
Maren and Zall in the village in Houaphon Province, Laos where Me Tau Lu has lived her 80+ years.
“Of course we would like to see your finished piece.” Maren answered. The elder turned to a young boy who had been watching and gave sharp directions. He dashed off, only to appear a moment later with a tidily folded sinh, or Lao skirt, held flat in his hands.
Through Mai, we learned that this skirt had been made a few years ago, back when her fingers were more nimble and her eyesight sharper. Given the sinh’s size and intricacy, it took two or more months to weave.
She stood up from her worn wooden loom-bench and took the fabric from the boy’s outstretched arms. She shuffled into the sunshine and, after again straightening her posture, she wrapped the skirt tightly across her belly to show off the intricate pattern.
And indeed it was, and is, a stunning 100% silk sinh woven from silk that had been raised, and naturally-dyed, in this very village. The pattern – seen in the photo – was an older style and a less common skirt form, especially for its vertical stripes. (Most skirts resemble the design worn by the woman in the background of the photo.) The central motif of her sinh was also less common: the crab, which lives (and is hunted) in the clear freshwater rivers.
Our friend and translator Mai (in the green) and a seri-culture expert looking at the silkworm cocoons that are attached to the board. The worms are in the stage where they are actually making the precious silk.
“Did she spend her childhood here?” Maren asked through Mai.
“Yes,” Me Tai Lu answered as she posed. “I was born in this village, and I raised my children and grandchildren and now their children here, too.”
“What else do you remember?”
“I remember the French [who occupied the region until 1953], when they visited us here. They came a couple of times, and were very nice – and tall, too. They walked down the street and shook the hands of the men. I thought they were very kind.”
“Do you remember the war?”
“Oh, yes. I remember the bombs and the sounds that they made. We had to move our entire home into some caves that are over that way,” and she waved her hand toward the lush limestone hills. “We worked the fields at night then, planting and harvesting the rice.” Her voice was firm, and she looked directly at us as she spoke. “I had young children then. Now they are grown up and old, too” she laughed. “Two of them now live in Vientiane (Laos’ capital), and one lives here.”
The cocoons are put into boiling water for about a minute before the silk is hand-reeled.
Maren eyes Me Tau Lu’s skirt, still stretched across her waist, and says to the woman in Lao, “Sinh, nyam lai.” Skirt, very beautiful. The woman turned towards me, pointed to my camera and stiffened herself. She held a firm face for the photo; smiles are reserved for present, shared moments, not moments frozen in time. I snapped the shot you see here.
The woman flipped a quick few words to Mai, who smiled. “Mae Tau Lu asks if you want to buy this sinh. It is for sale.”
“Chou, chou!” Maren blurts out, turning directly to the weaver. “Um … Me Tau Lu, sinh to dai?” Skirt how much?
The elder offered Maren a big grin and nodded her head up and down. The two of them took perhaps 15 seconds to agree to a price. Maren does know her Lao numbers well.
Perhaps the price was just a little high for the “going rate” in the region, but, on the other hand, this silk carries a certain provenance knowing it represents a culmination of a lifetime of skill and effort and participation. Its very manifestation harbors an element of her precious uniqueness, her vital and relevant breath. Each unique, handwoven textile does carry the spirit of its creator.
We paid the proud weaver in cash, as always. She counted the bills carefully and folded them into the waistband at the top of her own faded sinh.
The woman looked directly at Maren and tossed out another line.
Mai laughed. “She wants to now if you want to see another phaa (silk textile) she wove.”