Textile Stories in Laos
The Lao traditionally did not orate or write the stories of their history and culture, they wove it. Strand by strand, Lao stories are woven in the intricate dense patterns and motifs of textiles. Yet the story-depictions—religious, mythical, legendary, and even stories about personal aspirations and histories—are so elaborately fantastic, and the motifs so esoteric, that in many cases only the weaver can accurately interpret the story. Most diverse of these stories are the ones woven into a sihn—the Lao women’s ankle-long skirt whose form is immutable but whose patterns are unique to each skirt. The skirt is simple yet elegant, and traditionally every woman in Laos used to weave (and most still do) all the sihns she would wear throughout her lifetime, using recognizable folk icons to express personal outlooks or projections. This is often accomplished by symbolist totems from the inanimate or animate world—crabs for resourcefulness, snakes for fertility, butterflies for beauty, birds for success, and so on.
Other forms of textiles—such as wall hangings, sarongs, pillow covers, bags, bed covers, and so on—mostly tell stories of myth and religion, and take on such auspiciousness that their placement and use in home décor can determine success or failure, or the difference between luck and disaster. Take the funerary cloth, for example, which is spread on the coffin prior to cremation. Its colors are often shades of reds and purples, its patterns geometrical and stripy, and it is woven early in life; people cannot marry before they possess a funerary cloth, and then they cannot ever unfold it before the actual death as doing so would upset the spirits.
Fabrics taking on such magical portent—eligious auspiciousness, ritual significance, spiritual omens—have made Laos a country of weavers. So important is weaving that traditionally a man seeking a potential wife would assess her weaving first. Does her ability to weave, and the salient narrative depicted in her sihn, make her worthy of wifehood? Now, with the advent of tourism, Lao textiles have become famous for their beauty and diversity, and most holiday-makers in Laos end up filling an extra bag with Lao textiles for personal attire and home décor.
The greatest diversity is found in Luang Prabang, partly because the surrounding mountains are home to almost a dozen ethnic groups whose textiles have evolved into different manifestations. Luang Prabang is also the cultural and intellectual fount of Laos—the place where the Lao nation was born in 1394—a town that has developed stylistic distinctiveness in various cultural expressions, ranging from architecture to cuisine. It’s now a World Heritage Site, described by UNESCO as “the best preserved town in Southeast Asia”—a town full of Buddhist monasteries that have the best dharma (Buddhist teachings) schools in Laos, and an urban architectural fabric that is a deliciously unique mix of Lao and French architecture styles.
It’s also Laos’ prime tourist destination—it has the best hotels and the best restaurants—and it has a market that is solely dedicated to Lao textiles. Called the Night Market, appearing daily between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., it has more than a hundred stalls sprawling along the main street. You can decorate your entire house with booty from the Night Market—all kinds of wall hangings, pillow covers, bedspreads, table cloths, and any other kind of imaginable cloth that you need in home décor.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cloth has symbolic meaning—mostly Naga representation,” told me Joanna Smith, an Englishwoman who co-founded the textile gallery called Ock Pop Tok. “There are hundreds of different forms and motifs of the Naga that is woven in Lao textiles.” The Naga is the gigantic mythical serpent that is said to live in the Mekong River, which flows past Luang Prabang; in the epics of Theravada Buddhism the Naga was the prime protector and guardian of Buddha.
Ock Pop Tok—which means East Meets West—is one of the largest textile outfits in Luang Prabang run by young women: Joanna, who has lived in Luang Prabang for seven years, is the marketing brain while her Lao colleagues oversee the rest of the operation.
Lao textiles are produced by three main weaving techniques. There’s ikat, or tie-dye in English, which produces fringy colors and patterns. Chok, meanwhile, produces dense raised patterns, like brocade, creating complex fabrics with many intermeshed and variegated colors. Then there is tapestry, the third weaving technique, which incorporates some of the techniques of chok yet has a smooth, flat finish on the its outside face.
“Tapestry hails from Northern Laos, and it is the traditional technique that was used to make the sihn, or the skirt,” Joanna told me. “And Chok was invented by the Tai ethnic group of people, and it’s now considered a quintessential Lao technique.”
Traditionally, all colors were derived from natural dyes. Red, for example, can be derived from the wax of an insect as well as the bark of a tree. Pink is extracted from the husk of coconuts or the skin of mangostine, yellow-orange comes from turmeric, green from indigo leaves; black from the seeds of ebony, blue from particular leaves soaked in water and limestone, and brown from a variety of ingredients such as the leaves of teak trees. Other in-between colors are then produced by altering the quantities of different ingredients, or mixing different ingredients or different colors.
Now most producers, particularly the ones making textiles for sale to tourists, work with artificial dyes, thus eliminating the messy and labor-intensive process of making natural dyes. Likewise, in terms of styles and motifs, tourists’ preferences have greatly affected the textiles that are produced. The Night Market is now full of alien motifs such as simple representations of elephants, clean geometric or spiral designs, and depictions of Buddhist epics copied from friezes in the temples. Tourists perceive these as quintessential Lao representations—and these catch tourists’ fancy partly because there are simple, minimalist themes that they can understand instead of the dense traditional patterns that are incomprehensible.
“Some years ago we took pictures of the depictions found in the temple walls and then reproduced those in our textiles,” Joanna told me. “We have an ongoing debate about traditional-versus-modern patterns. I’m always arguing that we should focus on traditional Lao patterns, but my colleagues want to experiment with newer products. They tell me, “I’m Lao, so any new thing I produce is a ‘Lao’ design.’”
Perhaps—but it’s a Lao design influenced by tastes and whims of foreign tourists. Yet this is an arcane debate for tourists who cannot tell the difference between alien ideas or vernacular constructions. The stories or metaphors in traditional textiles are so abstract to non-Lao that it is like trying to decipher the script of an ancient civilization. The good news, however, is that textiles faithful to traditional narratives are still a substantial part of the booty, whether in the Night Market or in shops, and that is a boon for discerning, informed travelers as well as for the preservation of traditional Lao textiles.