This week I've been reading a beautiful new book from Thrums Books, Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition, and Well-Being. It is written by Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck with photographs by Joe Coca.
The book is framed by the story of Josh and Maren along with their two sons Ari and Zall and their many trips to Laos. With memories of travels in Asia when they were younger, Josh and Maren returned to Asia in 2005 for a six-week backpack-type trip and then went to Houaphan Province, Laos in 2006. They decided to start a business selling textiles they found in the region hoping to fund their trips. You can see some of them at Above the Fray, http://www.hilltribeart.com/. You can also purchase the book from them.
Over ten years, they developed deep relationships with the weavers, dyers, and artisans of Xam Tai and bought many naturally dyed, hand-reeled silk textiles from this part of Laos. Their sons grew up and went to college and Josh and Maren continue to visit, meet weavers, purchase textiles, and learn about the culture in this remote area of Laos.
The book presents stories of many different artists with photos and descriptions of weaving techniques, equipment, and materials production. Silk is raised, reeled, and naturally dyed in the region and the descriptions of these processes alone give you a great respect for the textiles produced. Joe Coca's outstanding photographs detail everything from looms to silk reeling as well as highlighting his talent for portrait photography. The people in the book seem so nearby.
It also speaks to a life well-lived. The authors speak of this for themselves, but they also speak to the importance of living a valued life from the perspective of the people from Houaphan Province. The "weaving way of life" supports many families economically. It is one occupation that can be followed at home and provides as good an income as an "office job." Most textile creators are female which creates a certain status among women in these communities and the economic value of weaving means that the men do more work at home to free up weaving time for the women.
The textiles seem to be mostly rectangular in shape and include cloth for skirts, shawls, shaman cloths, blankets, and shoulder cloths. Silkworms are raised and the cocoons reeled to make the silk which is dyed. The dye is traditionally natural. They use lac for red and indigo for blues along with other plants for various yellows and greens. They do also raise and weave cotton which used to be used for every-day textiles and was usually dyed with indigo. These days with the exception of the women's sinh (skirt), most people wear western clothing.
The particular way these patterns are woven was fascinating to me as a weaver. The looms are very simple boxed frames with the warp running horizontally from a front bar upon which the woven textile is wrapped to the back and then returning over a set of bars to be tied above the weaver's head. There are two shafts controlled by treadles for the plain weave parts of the textile as well as a reed. The patterns are controlled by a template that can be used over and over. There is another set of heddles behind the plain weave shafts that are much longer. Strings are used to mark each pick of the pattern. The pattern string is taken from above and used to open the shed in the correct way. The string is then placed below to preserve the pattern for another use. These heddle systems called khao nyeung can be used over and over. Master designers create new patterns which can be used by other weavers. This system works very much like a drawloom without all the complicated bits.
I did have to look up a YouTube video to completely understand this process. I couldn't figure out how the pattern string got from the top to the bottom of the loom with the warp in between. The answer was, it doesn't. The string comes out after the heddles are spread apart and then is put in the same "shed" below the warp to be used again later. Patterns are often mirrored by reversing the strings and taking them from the bottom and moving them back to the top. This video shows the process. In the video, the weaver is using "memory sticks" instead of string to hold her khao nyeung pattern. String allows for a much more complex design.
I loved this book. It skillfully weaves together threads* about culture, place, weaving technique, economics, and the nature of a people living far from the nearest city. The whole thing is threaded with a story about one family's wish to travel to heal their own personal and cultural challenges and it ends with some thoughts about the direction of Xam Tai's collective future as artisans. I highly recommend it.
Also, Joshua and Maren keep a blog on their website and THIS post about traditional textile creation in a shrinking world is very interesting. They talk about traditions shifting to meet the market demand and ask, how does the modern world influence cultures and what they make?
For further reading, consider all of Thrums books. My experience of the ones I've read including Traditional Weavers of Guatemala (reviewed HERE) give you a feel for the place, the culture, and the people, and describe fiber techniques enough that I can understand on a basic level how the textiles are made. Thrums is devoted to the stories of textile makers around the world. And if you hadn't made the connection, their publisher is Linda Ligon.
Have you visited Laos? Do you have a favorite textile tradition you collect, follow, practice, or love? Tell us about it in the comments!
* See what I did there? Ever notice all the ways weaving terminology is used to talk about culture, movement, and the way life is constructed?