Lao textiles are such an important part of Lao cultural diversity, but times are changing and its now that we need to secure the place for Lao textiles on the world platform.
Traditionally the preparation of dyes and the actual dyeing is done by women and it is women that most often proudly wear the cloths that they make.
From Hmong hemp grown in the cool mountain air and silk made from ravenous worms munching mulberry, to the organic fields of cotton that produce yarns for soft cloths, materials are home grown.
Laos is a landlocked country with a population of 6.3 million people, the country consists of 49 officially recognised ethnic groups.
*Katu, Akha, Lanten, Lisu, and other minority groups (2005 census)
Hemp comes from the cannabis sativa plant, just one of several different varieties of cannabis. Most people are familiar with the rasta and indica varieties which are known universally as marijuana, derived from the Mexican slang. Both these varieties are high (all puns intended) in THC, the active ingredient needed to get ‘high’. Cannabis varieties that contain THC are illegal in Laos and many other countries.
Hemp does not contain THC. It has been cultivated the world over for more than 12,000 years. The latin name for hemp, sativa, means useful. Hemp can be used for many things such as fuel, cloth, paper, food, oil, rope and sail canvas. It is widely regarded as the crop for the future because it has such a low environmental impact. It can be grown and processed without any chemical treatments and yields three times more raw fibre as cotton. Oil made from the seeds can be burned as fuel and has fewer emissions than petroleum.
What is hemp used for?
- Daily Clothing – trousers, shirts, jackets, head scarves, hats, protective leggings, belts and shoes.
- Household Items – Blankets, bags, string.
- Ceremonial Use – Funeral clothing, and new year’s clothing: highly decorative jackets, skirts, trousers, sashes and shoes. Strips of fabric as banners in shamanic practices.
The Hmong are thought to originate from the plains of Tibet and Mongolia.
Records indicate they started migrating to Lao in the early 19th Century. Their language called Hmong, is classified as a Miao-Yien language in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, and until recently had no written text. There are a three sub groups; the Hmong Dao, “White”, Hmong Du “Blue”, and Hmong Djua “Striped” distinguishable by their clothing.
Villages are traditionally found high in the mountains. Their one storey houses have low sloping grass roofs. It is common for more than one generation to live together in one house. Hmong are well known for their farming and livestock skills, they practice swidden agriculture, a system that rests the land with a fallow period. Hmong culture is strong, even when they move down to the lowlands their village systems remain intact. There are many Hmong communities around LuangPrabang, Xieng Khouang, Xam Nua and Oudomxai.
Hmong Du and Djua practice indigo resist batik; their skirts are decorated with this fabric. Traditionally Hmong Djua have bands of fabric stitched on the sleeves of jackets. Hmong Dao don‚Äôt practice batik, their skirts contain plain white bands of hemp on which they embroider, they are renown for their needle skills.
The Tai can be traced back to the Yunnan area of China, where they were known as Tai-Kadai-Kam-Sui. In 8 A.D due to expanding Chinese dynasties they started migrating southwards into Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. ¬†With them they brought the arts of silk making and weaving. Weavers work on floor standing looms, they use a 2 shaft system with a supplementary heddle. The subgroup known as the “Tai Daeng” excel in the use of this supplementary pattern heddle, weaving intricate weft motifs.
Tai means “people of”, so the word following usually states which area they are from. Nowadays one will often hear Lao people refer to themselves as Tai-Vieng for example meaning they are from Vientiane. In Huaphanh Province there are many communities of Tai Daeng and Tai Dam, meaning red and black respectively. Their origins can be traced to the Red and Black Rivers in Yunnan that flow southwards towards Vietnam. Other subgroups include: Tai Phuan, Tai Lue, Tai Moei, Tai Waat, Tai Nuea and Tai Khang.
The Lao-Tai are traditionally shamanic people with a strong belief in the afterworld. Nowadays Buddhism is becoming more popular and links to animism or shamanism are looked upon as old-fashioned, thus Buddhist beliefs are increasingly used to interpret icons. Usually textiles depict stories of ancestors’ spirits travelling to the afterworld, stories of Nagas and their influences on life around them, Siho, the half lion half elephant figure and motifs inspired by nature and daily life. These motifs appear in various forms of the many different sub ethnic groups of the Lao-Tai and using a number of techniques.
Girls weave items as a dowry, giving her groom’s family the items. Traditionally the woman would move to the man’s family house. A weaver in Muong Vien told us that she wove fabric for 40 floor cushions, 12 matresses, 2 blankets, 2 long pillows, and a curtain to separate the newly weds space in the house. This took her 12 months to complete.
Pha khan mon; Girls would also weave small items and give them to boys they sought the attention of. The most common form of love gift was a small handkerchief; in some areas girls wove and made red bags. During the American/Vietnam war, girls wove small pieces and gave them to soldiers for good luck.
Sihn are still worn on a daily basis. The fabric is tailored with a waistband and darts are added. Lao women are very proud to wear these skirts. The patterns vary according to ethnic group, for example: Tai-Lue wear sihn with horizontal stripes, ikat and tapestry.
Motifs in Lao textiles are deeply symbolic. Anthropologists can determine: ethnic group, marital status, region and function from looking at textiles. Some motifs are mythical creatures of legends and folktales such as siho; half lion half elephant.
Others are inspired by the natural environment; trees, flowers, clouds, water, lightning, birds and animals. Religious beliefs play an integral role in the textile design often depicted are ancestor spirits, the afterworld, temples and stupas. Animal and mythical creature motifs are frequently used in the arts in Lao. This is partly because animals are thought to have special powers, many are the animals from the zodiac. Another reason is because of the important role animals played in the epics that accompanied the introduction of Buddhism into Lao. The Naga motif is perhaps the most frequently used.