Photographs of the textiles and the weaving studio
in the following two sections were taken at Lao Textiles in Vientiane.
Its founder, Carol Cassidy, is a designer and an accomplished weaver
who creates contemporary woven art based on traditional Lao patterns.
A wall hanging with diamond and Naga motifs.
(LEFT) Detail from a wall hanging with complex motifs. (RIGHT) A wall panel with diamond and Naga motifs.
Historically, textiles are very important to the Laotian people. These cloths were designed to convey cultural identities, weaving techniques and spiritual beliefs.
Intricate designs depict way of life, ethnic affiliation and religious beliefs. The Lao women’s ankle-long tubular skirt (sinh) is the most vivid example. This popular women’s custom conveys their marital status and age, and the weaving styles, colors and patterns vary according to ethnic group. The sinh is made of three parts, the waist is called the head (Houa Sinh), the main part is called the body (Phune Sinh) and hem is referred to as the feet (Tin Sinh).
Young girls first learn weaving by making the waist of a sinh. Traditionally, Lao women wove for their personal use, not for a commercial market, and it was an honor to be a skilled weaver. Other textiles used for daily life or rituals -- such as wall hangings, pillows, bed covers, headcloths, funeral cloths-- convey stories of myths and religions. When young women weave their dowry, they make many different and intricate patterns to show their weaving skills. When these women get married, they take their handwoven cloths to their new home. The dowry usually includes woven blankets, pillows, mattresses, door curtains and mosquito net bands.
Dyed silk yarn wound onto a bobbin for Ikat pattern weaving.
An example of ikat motifs.
In Laos, there are 48 different weaving techniques. And amongst the most popular traditional weaving techniques, the following three can be either used separately or combined to produce a single piece.
Ikat (Mat Mii), is the technique of resist-tying and dyeing a pre-determined pattern on the weft yarn prior to weaving. The dyed yarn is wound onto a bobbin that is placed into a shuttle and woven on a plain color warp. The preparation of the yarn is the most difficult part. A continuous silk yarn is wrapped around a frame, the width of the weft. The weft is separated into sections for tying; the pattern is established by wrapping plastic raffia around the bundles of threads that will resist the dye. Once the silk has been dyed, it is left to dry in the sun. The plastic string is removed and the dyed yarn is wound on a skein winder, then reeled into bobbins.
Continuous Brocade (Kit) and Supplementary Weft (Chok) are largely used in Laos to create a wide range of complex patterns and designs with various colors. Kit, Chok and Tapestry weave technique are popular among the Tai-Lue people of Northern Laos. They are traditional techniques used to make the sinh.
Traditionally, silk and cotton yarns are colored with natural dyes made from plants, roots, bark, fruits, flowers and lac insect. The most common colors are blue (indigo), red, black, yellow, green and brown.
In Laos, handwoven textiles intertwine closely with its social and spiritual life. In rural communities still deeply rooted in tradition, young girls must be accomplished weavers before they can marry. Young men have their own rite of passage, too, as they are expected to be ordained as novices in the Buddhist order for a fixed period prior to marriage. Typically, Laotian boys are ordained between the ages of 10 and 20-years-old and live at the wat (temple) for three months. The women weave the silk clothes the boys will wear during the three-day ordination ceremony. They also weave a few items such as sheets and towels the boys will need during their short stay at the wat.
There are three primary branches or vehicles of Buddhism: Theravada (small vehicle), Mahayana (great vehicle) and Vajrayana (diamond vehicle). Theravada Buddhism (based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha) has been the predominant religion for centuries in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. In the 14th century, King Fa Ngum declared Theravada Buddhism as the state religion to unify the various ethnic groups who lived in the Lao Kingdom.
Today, Lao culture and society remain strongly influenced by Theravada Buddhism. In rural villages, temples are the main center for social and religious activities. Mythical creatures with supernatural powers depicted in Buddhist epics play a big role in Lao legends, arts and architecture.
The water serpent Naga in Sankrit or Nak in Laos is often represented in temples, protecting the Buddha with its hood, or standing on steps and roofs as the link between men and the gods. In Buddhist mythology, the Naga King Mucalinda sheltered Buddha from a great storm when he was meditating. The Naga is a powerful mythical river creature and a protective symbol for the home. This popular motif appears on sinhs, headcloths, household textiles and ceremonials textiles.
The Siho from the legend of Sinxay, a half-lion, half-elephant mythical creature, is a symbol of strength and fertility. This motif is unique to Laos and very popular with the Lao-Tai people in the north. The Siho often has a figure riding on its back, with small figures woven inside its belly.
The diamond shape is found in many ancient cultures and has diverse interpretations. The lozenge shape (or lantern) is woven on shamans’ cloths to guide their way in the afterworld. In Buddhist tradition, the lozenge is seen as a diamond symbolizing the third eye. This powerful symbol is traditionally woven on baby carriers and dowry textiles.
Although Buddhism is the primary religion of the largest ethnic groups (Lao Lum and some Lao Theung), animist beliefs remain very important to all the Laotian people. Animism is the belief that everything on earth has a spirit (khouan) that must be tended to with great care. Khouan is made of 32 spirits and when one or more of these spirits leaves the body, the individual falls ill.
A baci ceremony in Vientiane.
A ceremony (baci) is performed by a shaman to bring back the khouan and to restore the well-being of the individual. This ritual is also performed after recovery from an illness or for a wedding ceremony. Phis are both good and malevolent spirits who live in the villages, the forests and rice fields. When death or disease occur, a ceremony is held to appease the spirits. The shaman, either a man or woman, wears and uses specific shawls to perform the healing rituals. These cloths vary according to ethnic groups and depend on the spirits called.
In addition to mythical creatures, weavers incorporate living animals (butterflies, birds, monkeys, lions, ducks, chickens, crabs, lizards), plants or trees, geometric patterns, and motifs representing water, clouds and stars into their works.
Anne Laure Camilleri is a freelance photographer based in Paris. She studied Film Making at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma Français and worked as a post-production supervisor before shifting to photography. Combining her passion for arts, journalism and cultural preservation into her features, she explores the spiritual values that permeate traditional craftsmanship and maintain cultural resilience. Her features have appeared in various media outlets including Selvedge, Embroidery, Inspirations, Handwoven and Pèlerin.
PHOTOS & TEXT: COPYRIGHT © ANNE LAURE CAMILLERI. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.