I. TEXTILES INTRODUCTION
“Oh my dear heart! How ardent is my wish to have you weave on the landing of my stairs.
How I wish to have you to weave silk at the foot of the loom,
Having you weave an ikat sinh, and feed silk worms at my house.
O, My dear young man! Going with you I dare not
Because I don’t know how to weave “khid” pattern fabrics for you to sell,
I cannot weave horse blankets for you to sit on
As you ride on your trade expeditions
– A Traditional Courtship Song, Legends in the Weaving
“Most of the cloth woven in Laos is for personal use rather than commercial gain. Women weave their lives, hopes and aspirations into textiles. Dreams of a good husband, many children, fertile fields, and protection from harm and ill fortune are all reflected in their cloths. To weave powerful motifs on to a cloth is a reflection of the weaver’s belief that these motifs will do more than merely decorate the cloth, writes Mary Connors in Lao Textiles and Traditions.
The textiles of Laos once conformed to cultural expectations and sent silent signals of caring and nurturing, love and courtship, wealth and status, loyalty to groups and tradition, and represented generations of accumulated beliefs, knowledge and wisdom. During the unrest of the 1970s many families left Laos and sought asylum in other countries. Traditional weaving came to a stand still and families sold off their heirloom textiles to raise money to survive. With the lifting of the bamboo curtain in the 1980s, western style of clothing became more popular, especially with the younger generation and synthetic yarns began to be introduced into traditional weaves. Unspoken yet clear ethnic markers of motifs, design, colour in textiles and dress began to be ignored and an intermingling of styles was seen. The sacred cloth that was once produced with love and care become slowly commercial.
“When officials of the UNIFEM program were asked how many skilled weavers exist in the country the answer was ‘potentially half the population or some two million women since most daughters are still taught to weave by their mothers”, write Cameron Brohman and Nick Pigott in their unpublished article, Identification of Market Development Needs for the Silk & Wood Handicraft sectors in Lao PDR.
Young girls learn weaving and embroidery from about the age of ten, from their grandmothers and mothers. They not only learn the secrets of weaving and dyeing but also imbibe the oral traditions that are passed down from generation to generation – stories, poems and proverbs, beliefs and culture that come to life in the woven motifs and cloth.
Most women can judge the quality of a textile at a glance. An expert dyer and weaver, with mastery over the differing weaving techniques indicates that the weaver is from a good family and has had plenty of time to develop her skills, probably has had a skilled mentor, and a range of heirloom textiles to use as a reference.
In the emerging commercial industry, the master weaver has become the hub who uses the market information – patterns, export requirements and orders – and creates patterns that are stored using the vertical heddle – a template that is then transferred to the villages and inserted into the loom.
Commercialization and the blurring of group distinctions have resulted in young weavers borrowing designs and motifs, colours and yarns across group distinctions. Change is also seen in the costumes of all groups. Waist bands, hem bands have become wider and/or narrower with the times. Head cloths, shoulder cloths, and decorated jackets that were once an integral part of daily wear are now used only for ceremonial occasions only.
“Even though the clack of the Loom beater is still heard more loudly than at any other time in history there is no
guarantee that clothes and fabric and household items made by traditional Lao weavers will be worn and used in the future.”
II. MATERIALS, MOTIFS AND PROCESSES
All looms are made of bamboo and/or wood. Men take care when constructing the loom, especially the main column which is called the soul column. String that has been blessed is tied around this column during the construction. Tongue and groove joints are used so that the loom can be dismantled when not in use. In southern Laos, both the loom and the spinning-wheel are some-times decorated with the head of a naga or the river dragon/serpent, a protective motif.
Two types of looms are used commonly in Laos – the floor and back-strap.
The floor loom with a vertical heddle is used all over the country by women of Lao Loum. This loom consists of a wooden frame loom with a horizontal warp. The threads are stretched to form the base and width of the woven fabric. Each thread is passed through a primary heddle, which raises and lowers alternating warp threads through foot treadles. Designs are stored in a secondary set of vertical heddles. The loom is able to memorize patterns through the use of these heddles and can weave the
same pattern over and over again. The patterns are never thrown but stored and used again later. Among the Mon Khmer ethnic groups the back-strap or tension loom is commonly used. This is the oldest weaving technique employed the world over. The textiles produced have simple motifs in limited colours. Weaving in this area has grown out of wickerwork techniques used by the men who produce high quality cane products.
Lao weavers use several techniques, some of them quite complex. While the earliest weaving decoration in the region was predominantly warp oriented – warp stripes and warp-banded designs, warp ikat, and supplementary and complementary warp weaving – weft decoration such as supplementary weft weaving and weft ikat are commonly employed as well.
The complexity of the pattern to be woven and the frequency of the changes will determine the time required for setting up the loom and the pattern rods before the weaving can commence. A complex pattern could take up to a month to set up. By and large an experienced weaver is familiar with the patterns and knows them by heart.
Dta Muk or continuous supplementary warp technique comes in various forms and combinations like for example muko – a combination of the muk, mat mi and choktechniques. Heddles are used to raise the supplementary warp yarn and various patterns are created like the dok chan or the red sandalwood flower, dok keo or jasmine, nak or the river dragon. Many Lao groups use supplementary warp techniques to decorate their textiles, especially the ceremonial skirts and waist bands. They appear as narrow, raised, horizontal bands on the cloth woven.
Mat Mi also known as ikat in many parts of the world. The weft yarns are resist-tied and dyed to form a specific pattern, before they are woven. Working out the design, tying and dyeing the yarn according to the pattern, the reeling of the dyed yarn on to bobbins, and then weaving the yarn into a fabric require concentrated and pain staking work. As the weaver weaves the design emerges – the dyed weft yarn with the plain warp. Constant checks are required to ensure that no distortion of the pattern takes place.
The quality of mat mi is judged by the density of the pattern (the size, type and placement of the motifs), the number of colours used, and the clarity of the pattern. Each additional color requires retying and dyeing of the yarn. Carelessly tied knots can result in distorted patterns.
Many Lao groups use this technique to make textiles, especially skirts. Many variations of this basic mat mi pattern exist – the Tai Daeng and Tai Kao make and wear the sin muk which consists of narrow vertical bands of mat mi and patterned supplementary weft with intersecting bands of supplementary warp, creating an intricate checkerboard patterning.
Lai Chok is a discontinuous supplementary weft technique that is comparable to weaving and embroidering simultaneously. The weaver uses a stick to carefully place extra threads, after each weft weave, which are then woven into incredibly intricate patterns. These supplementary weft threads pass back and forth only in the area where the individual motif is desired, and not across the full width of the fabric being woven. The supplementary threads can be seen more clearly when looking at the reverse side of the fabric. Chok is used in selected areas only and most commonly found on textiles from Northern Laos.
Lai Kit is a continuous supplementary weft technique, where the supplementary thread passes form from one end or selvedge of the fabric to the other, while creating patterns across the entire length of the fabric, usually at repeated intervals. String heddles are often very complicated for lai kit and are never dismantled – they can be bought and sold.
Ghot is a tapestry weave technique. The tapestry yarns are not supplementary but actually form the weft of the fabric. However, like the discontinuous supplementary weft technique the weft threads do not necessarily extend across the full width of the material. Each coloured band is woven independently. Variations in the width of the coloured bands and the intricacy of the pattern being created can make the technique easy to do or extremely demanding. The northern groups use bands of tapestry in their skirts.
Embroidery is used by many groups to decorate their clothing.
The Hmong are particularly known for their embroidery, using a weave stitch, appliqué and batik. Lao Mien or Yao women do not weave; they buy unbleached white cloth and dye, embroider and stitch the clothing for the entire family, endeavouring to produce a new set for each member of the family at the New Year. The most decorated garments are the pants, which have the most extraordinary embroidery on them and take the maximum time to make. They, also, most clearly record the changes that have taken place in the embroidery. The embroidery thread, usually yellow, orange or white, is over spun to make it tight and strong, before being used. Patterns are inspired by local plants, animals, religious beliefs and shared with the other hill tribes. Out of respect, when an older member dies, men do not write and the women do not use the needle, until the funeral is over. Another method employed by some of the ethnic groups is couching. Here decorative multi-coloured threads are arranged on the surface of a woven cloth or garment, to form patterns, and are stitched on to it as decoration. This method is used particularly in the Luang Prabang area to decorate clothing and other ceremonial objects. Women’s and men’s skirt cloths have patterns couched directly on to the cloth. Bands to be attached to the fronts of jackets or collars of blouses are couched separately and then stitched on. Pure gold and silver are sometimes wrapped around the when the garments are used for ceremonial purposes or by the royal family.
Natural fibres such as jute, hemp, cotton, and animal hair, silk are all used for the production of textiles. Traditionally, weavers spun and dyed their own yarn, with berries, bark, and leaves to produce hand woven textiles. Commercial textiles are now being woven with the less expensive synthetic yarns that are dyed chemically. This method is cheaper and quicker and yields brighter, more popular colours. In the rural areas, however, locally produced fibres and natural dyes are still commonly used.
Silk textiles indicated special occasions such as weddings, religious events, and funerals and are often indicators of wealth and royalty.
Hand-woven silk textiles produced on manually operated looms go through several stages, all done by hand –
The three areas are known for silk production: In the South – Pakse, Savannakhet, and Saravane and in the Central Provinces – ientiane are known for their fine, light-coloured silk. In the North – Phongsaly, Luang Namtha, Houa Phan, and Oudomsay soft, thick, yellow silk is produced.
The silk sector is growing rapidly as the beauty of the Laos hand-woven, natural dyed textiles is being discovered. CHAI LAO, a Japanese assisted programme, to upgrade the Lao silk textiles sector to meet Japanese standards – including testing of dyes, consumer labeling, design of products to appeal to Japanese aesthetics – is one such programme towards the commercialization of textile production.
Cotton is grown to meet the need for cloth, all over Laos, and more so in the Vientiane area. It is planted during the rainy season and takes six to seven months before the cotton balls can be harvested. Once harvested, the cotton-bolls are dried in the sun and then deseeded. A large seed variety of cotton is preferred as the seeds can be extracted, by hand, using a mangle, otherwise a gin is required. The cotton is then carded with a beater or a bow and rolled into long cigar shaped rolls, with the hands and shaped with a fine bamboo stick. The spinning can then commence on hand operated spinning wheels. Cotton is wound into large spools made from bamboo or wood. Yarn is then transferred from the spool into wooden frames and is ready for the weaving. The number of warp threads and hence the width of the fabric is related to the beater used in weaving. On the first full moon after the cotton has been harvested, a ceremony takes place in the evening, which flags off the weaving period. Women and young girls gather in the village house and fluff up the first batch of ginned cotton as a token, asking for the blessings of the village spirits for good quality cotton with long fibres and uniform thickness.
This high-fibre yielding hemp plant is cultivated and used by the Hmong, to meet their needs for cloth.
Silver and Gold Yarns
Lao weavers use locally produced cotton and silk yarns. However, imported silk and silver-and gold-wrapped yarns have been used for many years by the wealthy lowland Lao as a status symbol and are predominantly in their bridal skirts and shoulder cloths. Some of the upland Lao groups, such as the Tai Daeng and Tai Kao, also occasionally use silver yarns to accentuate the patterns in ceremonial cloths.
DESIGN AND MOTIFS
Motifs are the decorative and design elements of a cloth, but usually, in addition, have a special significance or interpretation that they convey. They are worked in an immense variety of techniques and are an expression of the creator’s skill, imagination and ability.
The use of colours and motifs on hand-woven textiles and their placement and combination are all ethnic markers and serve traditionally to distinguish textile of one group from another. As ancient beliefs have been absorbed into Buddhist traditions many symbols have more than one interpretation like the rhombus or lozenge pattern seen on many ancient textiles.
Designs and motifs on textiles take their inspiration from nature, mythology and ritual practices and include the
Living creatures – small and large elephants, horses, lions, snakes, deer, oxen, buffaloes, birds, hamsa or goose, crabs, fish, earthworms, snails and even humans. Auspicious motifs which appear on ceremonial and house hold cloths include the peacock, butterfly, deer, and the rooster.
Nature and the surrounding environment – motifs include the sun, stars, streams, clouds, mountain ranges, paddy fields, plants and plant parts like vines, stems, flowers, petals, leaves, seeds.
Mythological creatures such as lion-elephants, horse-deer, magical snakes are important motifs seen on many textiles.
Dragon or powerful serpent the dragon design (naga)
One of the most dominant symbols woven in Lao textiles, the naga takes on more than thirty variations and is said to represent a variety of serpents, ranging from eels to the mythological naga or dragon and is created with respect and imagination. It is considered a protective motif – for it is believed that the naga is their ancestor. Artistically created with imagination and respect the naga motif appears on wide variety of cloths, ranging from blankets and baby carriers to clothing.
Red is the colour of the Naga’s crest and in many parts of Laos people will avoid weaving red clothes or sinh and red headscarves or waistbands, when crossing a river out of fear and respect for the naga
Siho or Elephant-lion– The elephant-lion is an important motif of the Lao-Tai people in the north. It is called elephant – lion because it has an elephant head with tusks and the body of a lion. This pattern is woven in continuous and discontinuous supplementary weft.
Mom or Magical Horse Based on mythological and other stories where flying horses are magical animals transport the hero; these motifs are known as mom.
Mythical beasts based on stories and created from the imagination. On one half of the indigo-based Tai-Nuea pha biang are mythical beasts done in dense white silk brocade, with eyes in bright discontinuous silk thread.
Objects like stupas, ships and small boats, airplanes are also a part of the textile iconography of the hill-dwellers in Laos and can be found on many Tai shawls in the bands that surround the central design.
Yantra designs in powerful geometrical shapes, drawn from Buddhist, Hindu and sometimes more ancient beliefs. Many of these designs, such as the mandala and the rhombus, serve as vehicles for meditation, detachment and spiritual discipline.
Rhombus: The diamond, rhombus or the mystical lozenge shape, known as douang tda (star eye or third eye) is an important, powerful shape. It has several interpretations that link it to ancient beliefs and other cultures and has taken on additional meanings over time. The douang tda is done in supplementary weft weavings of the Tai Nuea and Tai Lue of Laos. The pha biang displaying this yantra is wrapped around the shaman’s head so that the centre of the diamond section (or third eye) falls mid-forehead, at the annual Tai-Nuea spirit-healing ceremony. The diamond is also popular on baby carriers and wedding curtains. In the Tai Designs the central diamond is decorated with stylized creatures and ancient cross-hatching and key ornamentation including hooks, spirals.
The harvesting of materials and preparation of dye is a time-consuming and laborious process and usually kept a secret within the family. To produce the richest colours possible enhances family prestige. Like most traditional societies many superstitions surround the dye process. When women prepare certain dyes they do so in a corner of the village to avoid the possibility of monks, menstruating women, or newly pregnant women passing by and affecting the strength of the dye. While some plants and shrubs are grown in home gardens for the purpose of obtaining dyes, others are found only in the forests. Dyes are obtained from the bark, leaves, berries, seeds, flowers, roots of trees and plants. The dye sources are harvested only at certain times of the day and year in order to maximize the strength of the dye and the dye yielding properties – some leaves must be picked and crushed when they are young while others are allowed to grow. These days it is possible to buy dyestuffs that have been harvested from forests for sale to weavers.
In all cases, natural materials has be harvested in huge quantities, and then processed – by chopping, boiling, pounding, fermenting, evaporating, and adding caustic substances, such as lime, to fix the dyes, and speed up the process of dye production. Cloth is well soaked and pounded before dyeing – for cotton a preliminary dip is made in the grey dye pot of ebony wood to ensure fastness. Some weavers dip silk into the yellow dye pot for the same reason. With the exception of indigo which is fermented all other dyes are boiled. When the colour is dark enough the cloth is removed and soaked in a solution of alum for about 30 minutes and then rinsed and dried. This acts as a mordant.
Listed below are some sources of natural dyes and the colours they yield:
|TREES NATURAL SOURCE||PART OF THE TREE||COLOUR||OTHER USES|
|Kapok||Seed pods the ash from its bark||fluffy fibre for stuffing mattresses and pillows makes lye, an integral part of
|Wild lime trees||seeds
(fruit) and wood
|orange||also used as foodstuff|
|Areca palm||nuts||wood for dye||‘betel nut’ chew|
|Ebony||seeds and wood||black|
|Indian trumpet tree||bark||khaki|
|Jackfruit and Breadfruit||wood||gold|
|resinous secretions or lac of the insect||red|
III. MINORITY GROUPS AND CLOTHING
MINORITY GROUPS AND WEAVING
Clothing allows for instant recognition of the differences between one ethnic group or subgroup and another. Each ethnic group displays its identity in the use of different types of looms, weaving techniques employed, the materials, motifs and colours used in the production of textile. These differences were to be important indicators of identity and ethnic groups, but less and less so. All groups do resist dyeing of yarns as well as brocade weaving. While some specializes in weaving with silk, all use cotton yarn to weave cloth for everyday use. Most Lao weavers freely borrow motifs and design elements from other groups.
Today weaving and dyeing are primarily practiced among the Tai speaking groups, while the Tibeto Burman and Hmong Yao groups are famous for their embroidery and sewing skills, creating some of the most colourful and magnificent costumes.
Lao – Tai
Loom: Use an upright/floor loom to weave both wide and narrow weft textiles.
Raw Materials: The main raw materials used are cotton and silk. The rich use silver and gold the strands, are woven into the fabrics for special effect.
Techniques: including mat-mee, continuous and discontinuous supplementary weft and tapestry. Large diamond patterns are common. The weavers tend to combine different techniques and patterns. They are also skilled in the use of natural dyes and make all the essential colours such as black, red, green, yellow, orange, purple and indigo.
Khmu and other Mon-Khmer
Loom: Use the body tension or back-strap loom.
Raw Materials: Mainly use cotton and hemp.
Techniques: Weaving method appears to have been developed from wicker weaving of rattan or bamboo. Patterns are made throughout the length of the wrap threads by means of mat-mee and heddle lifting. Most of patterns are geometrical shapes.
Colours: Dark, deep colours like black, red, and orange are used. Sashes worn by the administrative class are decorated with stone beads, which are interlaced into the woven fabrics at specific intervals.
Loom: Use the upright loom with a narrow weft.
Raw Materials: Raw materials used are cotton, jute and hemp.
Techniques: Patterns and motifs are done in white batik on an indigo background. They also embroider their clothes with colorful silk threads.
Colours: Bright colors such as bright green, red, purple and yellow-green are used for embroidery on indigo dyed cloth.
Loom: Use floor looms and weave with a narrow weft.
Raw Materials: Raw materials are mainly cotton with indigo dye.
Techniques: The woven cloth is decorated with embroidery, colorful cloth pieces, and silver or plastic buttons.
Northern Laos – Luang Prabang area
Loom: Frame looms are more popular
Raw Materials: cottons, silks and brocades
Techniques: Gold and Silver brocades, intricate patterns in supplementary weft using raw silk and natural dyes in combination with cotton yarn.
Southern Weavers – Pakse
Loom: Use body tension rather than frame looms
Raw Materials: Silk weaving with Mat mi, occasional beadwork
Motifs: Temple and Elephant motifs.
Central Laos – Vientiane
Techniques: Mixture of techniques – Indigo dyed cotton, Mat mi or ikat, minimal weft brocade
TEXTILES IN DAILY LIFE
Textiles produced by traditional societies can be classified as either secular or sacred. Their use ranges from everyday wear
and to ritual and ceremonial usage.
Historically, the power of the chief of a Muang (roughly a state) was measured not by the amount of wealth or land that he owned but by the number of people he could call upon for contributing labour, paying taxes and/or for armed support. The people, used textiles and clothing, to express their desire to belong to certain communities or show allegiance to a particular chief. When people relocated they changed their clothing accordingly. Thus textiles and clothing were an important declaration of a person’s loyalties and served to identify their groups and ethnicities. Most Lao groups use cotton to weave clothing for daily wear. Silk is usually reserved for skirts and shoulder cloths intended form ceremonial occasions. Jackets are generally woven using cotton and head cloths in a blend of cotton and silk.
With her costume, a Lao woman can show her age, group affiliation, place within the group, and marital status. The length of the skirt, the width of the decorative border, and even its placement in the skirt vary from group to group.
Sinh or Skirts
Long, straight, tube or cylindrical skirts are worn by the majority of the ethnic groups. There are regional variations in materials, weaves, colours, motifs and embroidery. Majority of the skirts are made with a separate waistbands and hem pieces attached to a narrow, main skirt piece. The colour and woven pattern often reflect the wearer’s age – older women wear sober colours and smaller patterns, while young women wear more vibrant tones and larger patterns. The Lao believe an individual’s power is transferred to the clothing s/he wears. A woman’s skirts are considered to have immense protective powers and often amulets or small charms, made of a strip of cloth taken from a woman’s skirt, are worn around the neck, to ward off illness or injury.
Skirts have different names according to the type and arrangement of patterns that vary from one ethnic group or region to another; over 100 patterns have been recorded. The name also varies according to the weaving technique, colour, overall shape and structure.
The commonest and best known are the sinh mi (‘ikat’ skirt), the sinh chok (broken weft skirt) and the sinh khid – the name coming from its main pattern. The sinh mi is woven with alternating vertical bands of mut mi and supplementary weft designs, with an added border. Skirts with horizontal stripes are known as sinh muk. They are difficult to weave as they incorporate both, supplementary weft and supplementary warp decorations, and weft, and sometimes warp, mut mi. It tests the skill of the weaver and only a master weaver can create it. This skirt is often given by a mother-in-law to her new daughter-in-law, with the understanding that it will be worn at her funeral. The muk fa-sadeuang-muong is a famous weave and refers to the skirt worn by the most beautiful girl – often the daughter of the Chao Muang – at the ceremonies dedicated to the spirit of the city.
Shawls, Shoulder Cloths and Head Cloths
Shawls, shoulder cloths and head cloths – rectangular cloth of differing length and width, but often used interchangeably is designed and woven in a variety of ways, depending on the purpose and use. For ceremonial use, a narrow shoulder cloth or pha biang is worn. A slightly wider version is often folded to become the pha biang.
Quite often the pattern on the shoulder cloths, head cloths, and shawls is not symmetrical – the motifs used at each end are of differing widths with the centre left undecorated. Broader and longer than pha biang are the shawls worn for ritual or ceremonial occasion.
Some Ethnic Variations in brief
A married Tai Daeng woman wears a head cloth of dark blue or black colour. For ceremonial occasions, each end of the headscarf is decorated with bands of supplementary weft weave, usually in a non-figurative design, in a bright colour like turquoise. The cloths are folded three or four times into a narrow band and wrapped tightly around the head. The head cloth worn by Tai Dam women is a black rectangular cotton cloth woven with a few thin lines of colour in the body of the cloth and a bright rectangular decorative patch woven or embroidered on one or both ends. The way the head cloth is worn reveals the marital status of the wearer – a married woman wraps the cloth to expose her face fully, while an unmarried girl wears it hanging lower on her forehead.
The Tai Kao head cloth is woven using dark indigo or black yarn with both ends decorated. The ends are meant to be seen when folded and wrapped is a highly decorated rectangle patterned with geometrics and stylized mythical animals. Lue head cloths for daily wear are made of plain white cotton while ceremonial head cloths are dyed indigo and embellished with supplementary weft decorations at the ends.
Tops and Jackets
There are different styles for men and women’s’ jackets – these signal differences in age and social status as well. Most groups have a variety of special jackets and tops or shirts which they wear for different occasions. The Tai Dam have a variety of tops- plain coloured and fastened in front with silver buttons, often in the shape of butterflies. In Luang Prabang women wear fitted tops for formal occasions, which intricate designs couched in gold and silver yarn. The Phuan wear a black blouse trimmed with red and white for daily wear. For ceremonies, they wear a plain black jacket. The Lue women wear a fitted top with diagonal front fastening like the Chinese. The Tai Daeng women wear a long-sleeved, fitted jacket for ceremonial occasions.
Cloth bands are used by many groups. They are usually of a bright colour according to the colour tradition of the group and embellished in different ways. Often they indicate the marital and social status of a woman. For example, a married Tai Daeng woman wears a white sash woven with cotton or silk yarn in a plain weave whereas an unmarried Tai Daeng girl wears red head cloths with supplementary weft decoration; and a red waistband.
This women’s dress is worn by the Sino-Tibetan groups: Hmong, Yao and Akha.
Trousers are generally worn by men of all groups, but also the women particularly the Austro-Asiatic (Mon Khmer) and certain Lao Tai groups. Yao women wear pants that are beautifully embroidered.
Pha Sarong and Pha khoma and Langoutis
Throughout Lao, men wear pha sarong at home the colour varying with age. Young, virile males wear bright plaids, while older men wear sober blue, black, or brown plaids. The striped pha khoma was originally a loin cloth; it is now used as an all purpose cloth serving as a head wrap to being used as a baby carrier. The langoutis similar to an Indian dhoti is a kind of long cloth worn by the older generations and once formed an indispensable part of traditional ceremonies. The Tai Dam often wear a long cloth woven in silk for weddings. It is usually woven in solid colours with a band of gold as border.
Shoulder Bags Neither the pha sarong nor the pants worn by village men have pockets. Instead men carry shoulder bags, elaborately woven and decorated with supplementary weft decoration, in bright colours.
Mother weaves and embroiders the cradle cloth father plaits the bamboo frame of the cradle.
Textiles woven for everyday use are also decorated. The amount of decoration and the type of motif indicate the purpose of the cloth. Household items made as part of a dowry or reserved for special guests are woven and decorated with much more care, using motifs that are believed to be auspicious or protective.
Pillows and Cushions: Pillows and cushions are made for a variety of purposes other than sleeping. Beautifully woven and decorated triangular and oblong pillows are made to serve as armrests. A newborn baby is given a special pillow as bedding. Buddhist monks use special pillows to sit and lean on during ceremonies to ensure that their heads are higher than those of other people present.
Ceiling Cloth and Wall Hangings: Hanging cloths are hung at home and in temples and are used for many purposes – they may be used to enclose a special area for monks to shield them from the lay believers while they are chanting, to indicate where an honoured guest is to sit, to serve as contemplative vehicles etc..
Women weave a wide variety of multi purpose rectangular cloths in both silk and cotton yarns, decorated with supplementary weft patterns. They can be used as
Matresses The Lao cotton homespun mattress is filled with kapok natural fibre. Usually the cover is dyed with dark blue indigo and trimmed in red. When not in use, the matress is rolled up and stored in a corner of the room. Some weavers attach a separately woven decorative panel which is seen when the mattress is rolled up.
Blankets are often woven in long, narrow lengths and then joined together in the centre for the requisite width. Blankets are decorated using many different weaves – the quality and sizes of the decoration indicating its use. The Tai Daeng and the other northern Lao groups decorate one end of the blanket with a distinctive red border using continuous and discontinuous decorative weaves. For ceremonial use, a wide, elaborately patterned border will be woven. A ceremonial blanket will be filled with a beautiful silk brocade weave in a variety of colours and designs. For normal household use blankets are likely to be woven using a thick cotton yarn with decorations in supplementary weft patterns in colours, such as indigo. Interlocking swastika, and ancient symbol of well-being, is a popular pattern. Some groups, such as the Lue, use a twill weave to create a thicker, warmer blanket in bright colours, such as red. The Phuan and Phu Tai weave beautiful ceremonial blankets using cotton and/or silk yarns in bright orange, yellow, purple and green, with decorative bands.
Carpet weaving, a tradition of the Middle East, is now being combined with the Lao silk weaving tradition. These carpets use
high quality hand-spun silk yarn are locally dyed with natural dyes.
IV. HMONG WEAVING, BATIK, EMBROIDERY AND APPLIQUE
The Hmong can be easily identified from other groups by their clothing – the embroidery, appliqué and batik that are used to create and decorate each garment. The subgroups among the Hmong – the White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb), Blue/Green Hmong (Hmoob Ntsuab), Black Hmong (Hmoob Dub), Red Hmong (Hmoob Liab) – each have their own traditional dress, motifs and variations of embroidery and decoration. Ceremonial hangings with bold red, black and white diamond and triangular borders done in appliqué, blue indigo hemp skirts decorated with white batik designs, appliqué and traditional weaving stitch in bright silk threads – yellow, pink and white, are all characteristic of the Hmong.
Cloth and clothing is an important indicator of wealth and status – the number of skirts that a young girl takes with her as part of her dowry is indicative of the affluence and importance of her family and the skill of the creator and the amount of time she has spent on weaving and related activities. Traditionally, a young girl was expected to weave a complete set of traditional clothing for each of her parents. This formed an important part of the death ceremonies and was put on the corpse of the parent, at the time of death. The skirt that she wove for her mother had to be wholly or partly made of hemp, the cloth of her ancestors. This skirt was given in exchange for one of the skirts woven by her mother, for her, as part of her marriage dowry. The daughter wore this on her own deathbed, so that when she died, her mother could identify her and finally be reunited with her. When an older member of the family dies, men are not allowed to write and women are not allowed to use the needle until the funeral is over. Thread is used to connect the real world to the spirit world.
Not only are the women, responsible for the weaving and embroidery but are also adept at growing, preparing, spinning and weaving the hemp fibre that is used to provide clothing and bedding for the entire family These arts are mastered by the women from a very young age. Young girls learn embroidery, appliqué and batik while working alongside the older women in the family, graduating slowly from copying patterns and helping the older women to working on decorative appliqué and batik panels themselves.
Cannabis gigantea or high-fibre yielding hemp plant is cultivated by the Hmong, to meet their needs for cloth. It grows in fertile red or black soil at an altitude of between 1,200 and 2,000 metres. The seeds are sown in the month of April, and it takes about three months for the plant to flower. The long, straight stalks are then cut and stripped off their leaves, and then thoroughly dried in the sun, before they yield the fibre. The bark is then peeled from the stalks to get the fibre. Peeling the bark is hard on the hands as it is done without any tools. To make the process somewhat easier the bark is often softened by leaving it out at night, in the damp of the dew. Fibres are joined to each other by twisting the ends together, to make a continuous long yarn. The colour of the thread at this stage is pale green, the colour of the bark. This thread is then repeatedly boiled in water and wood ash and washed and beaten until it turns white. The thread is finally spun to give it strength, before it is ready for weaving.
The indigo plant is cultivated and used for making dyes. In September, basket loads of indigo are gathered and soaked in large wooden troughs. The decomposition of the plant is checked daily – old leaves are removed and new ones added to the mixture, to get the best colour. Limestone is added to this mixture and forms a white residue at the bottom and on the sides of the trough, which eventually becomes the dye. The residue is transferred into a bucket and left to stand for a few days, during which time it thickens and turns a deep, dark colour. The water is drained off and the dye saved for use. The dye can be used wet, immediately, or dried and saved for future use.
Traditionally, the Hmong women wear a narrow-sleeved jacket, a head dress, and a knee-length skirt, which is open in the front. The opening was covered by a narrow apron with a long sash, which was tied around the waist twice over. Different headgears are worn by different age groups and sexes – babies and small children wear elaborate, colourful hats. Small children are carried on the back in a cloth tied like a backpack. This is the only other piece of clothing that is decorated with batik, apart from a woman’s skirt. The belief is that the intricate batik designs and appliqué work will enclose, trap and confuse the baby’s soul and not allow it to wander away from the infant, thus causing disease or death.
The heavy Hmong batik skirts are made of three horizontal panels of hemp cloth: the top hip panel usually plain, the central panel worked with batik, and the embroidered hem panel. The upper or hip panel is made of plain white or indigo dyed cloth. The central batik panel, which extends to the knee, is decorated with intricate batik. The hem panel, traditionally narrow, extends to just below the wearer’s knee. It is beautifully embroidered in colourful silk threads. Over time the hem panels have become wider and have come to be regarded as an indicator of family wealth and status. The average length of an adult skirt is about four to five metres, and it takes almost a year for a woman to make a single skirt.
Making the Batik Panel
The design on the central panel is created by applying a resist of hot beeswax to the hemp cloth using a bamboo stick. The skirt length is divided into a series of large squares – a typical skirt has about twenty-five to thirty squares. These large squares are filled in with traditional patterns, according to the creator’s imagination and applied directly in wax. The patterns range from ancient geometric motifs to things from the natural environment like pumpkin flowers, mountains; shells etc and usually have significance. Water snails are always found in pairs and are usually made on clothing worn on the New Year. Skirts of young women with the water buffalo pattern indicate the desire of the young woman to attract strong suitors. The appliqué design of fallen leaves is often used on funeral garments. Once the final design is complete the cloth is ready for dyeing.
Dyeing the batik Panel
Dyeing is normally done in a large copper cauldron – as this enhances and brightens the colour. The wax was first removed by dipping the fabric in hot water. The fabric is then re-dipped in the cold dye, producing a pale blue pattern on a dark blue background. Another method that is followed is more complicated and time consuming. Here the wax is removed, and then the skirt is re-waxed in two thin lines on the white pattern, before re-dyeing and re-dipping the cloth in hot water, thus highlighting the centre and outlining the white pattern on the dark blue ground. This requires skillful handling and is very time consuming. It is done only on special ceremonial skirts or baby carrier panels.
Hmong batik is often enhanced with a cross stitch embroidery and patchwork appliqué. Bright silk threads are used to enhance the look of skirts, pants, head-dresses of indigo cotton or hemp fabric. The original weaving-stitch has been replaced by cross-stitch in the last few decades. The intricacy of the hem panel not only showed the skill of the embroiderer but more importantly the regional affiliations and family wealth. The number of colours used and the fineness of the work reflected the amount of money and time spent on it. Traditional embroidery on Hmong garments – especially women’s garments – is rich in complex designs. The Hmong women use
two methods of embroidery
The first consists of embroidering designs directly on to the cloth using brightly coloured threads (red, green, yellow, white and black) in either a weaving stitch or a cross-stitch. Each stitch of the pattern is embroidered by counting the warp and weft threads. The second consists of embroidering rectangular, square or triangular-shaped pieces of material, in bright colours like red, white, black or other colours. These pieces are then sewn on to the clothing or decorative cloths, depending on the subgroup or region.
The White Hmong specialize in reverse appliqué. Here the pattern is cut in a piece of material, and the edges of the cuts are turned under and stitched down to a fabric of contrasting color, so that the background material shows through the appliquéd material.
Traditional clothing habits have changed and it is only in the remoter regions that the older women still wear the traditional dress. The skills of growing hemp and traditional weaving are slowly disappearing. Hmong women today have opted for more commercial avenues, embroidering attractive decorative designs not just on clothes but also on sheets, aprons, pillow-cases, bags and rugs.
V. TEXTILES USED IN RITES OF PASSAGE
Textiles Used in Rites of Passage
In Laos, textiles play a major role in a person’s life. Not only do they indicate group affiliation and social position, but also age and marital status and form an important part of life at each stage.
At birth a baby is often wrapped up in his/her mother’s old skirts for the Lao believe that a women’s clothing, especially their skirts, have protective powers and will keep the baby safe. Pregnant women do not weave for their babies as they believe that the new clothes will attract malevolent spirits and bring harm to the infant. Babies are carried for the first few months in a special shawl, by groups like the Tai Dam. Others use the pha khoma or the all-purpose long cloth to do this. In addition, a taleo is placed on the house to ward off evil. The star pattern is one of the most common protective patterns in the Lao repertoire.
The beautifully woven costumes worn by a woman at festivals and ceremonies are an advertisement of her skills as a weaver and show her suitability as a life partner. Young women also advertise their weaving skills and therefore their suitability as a bride by preparing gifts of cloth for the young men they fancy. For instance, a young Phauan girl may weave and offer a red shoulder bag to a young man to show that she is interested in him. A Tai Dam girl will weave and embroider a piece of white cloth the size of a large handkerchief and give it to the person she admires. In northern Laos, a young Lue girl will weave small Buddhist banners which will be hung in highly visible places around the temple, thus not only making merit for her and her family, but advertising her skills as a weaver. A lowland Lao girl will often weave a warp’s length of pillows – each design different from the other and complex in nature, to show her mastery of weaving.
A girl’s dowry will include hand-woven covers, sheets, blankets, flat pillows, curtains to separate the newlywed’s area, and a mosquito-net with a specially woven decorative band. The number and quality of dowry items brought into the home by the girl indicate not only her weaving skills but the wealth and status of her family. As part of the dowry a Pue Tai makes a wide shawl for her prospective mother-in-law. This shawl is worn as a shoulder cloth for ceremonial occasions, and eventually used to cover her coffin when she dies. A Tai Daeng mother weaves specials skirt to give to her daughter in law. The young woman wears this skirt at the funeral of her mother-in-law. The bride in turn brings presents of textiles for her in-laws – sinh for the women and pha sarong for the men. How elaborate a wedding dress is will vary from group to group and family to family. The traditions are different as are the auspicious colours. A young bride typically wears a skirt and matching shoulder cloth of the finest material. The border of the skirt and shoulder cloth could be decorated with sliver or gold yarns using supplementary weft techniques. The groom wears a long cloth made of fine cloth with a wide hem of supplementary weft woven in possibly gold threads and a ceremonial jacket and shoulder cloth worn over the left shoulder. The long cloth is usually a family heirloom, handed down among male members of the family and may eventually be used as a coffin cloth at a man’s death. A Tai Dam and Tai Daeng groom is generally dressed in indigo-dyed cotton clothing because black is considered more auspicious than white. Pidan cloths are used as wall-hangings in the house during marriage celebrations. Banners or tung are flown in connection with death rituals. These could be plain white on which the name of the deceased and the donor are embroidered or beautifully woven family heirlooms. The anniversary of the death of a respected member of a clan is usually marked by the flying of banners and merit-making donation of clothing to the monks at the local temple.
Textiles for Religious and Ritual Use
The whole village is involved in the ordination of young men into the Buddhist order – the event forms part of the festivities in the village held during this time. The textiles, several sets, to be worn by the boy during the ceremonies are woven by the women of the house. They also weave the items the young monk will require at the wat such as a mattresses, pillows, bedding and towels. Women make merit by giving sons to the Sangha or priesthood, by offering food to the monks, and by preparing cloth to be used by the monks or in the temple.
Cloth for the Temples
Women weave elaborate pillows for the monks to sit and lean on while praying and cloths to adorn images of the Buddha. The pidan are cloths are used as wall-hangings and ceiling-cloths in Buddhist temples and monasteries. They are presented to temples and monasteries to gain merit. Ceremonial fans, which serve as screens between the monk and the congregation, are also made by the women; they are decorated with religious scenes. In Luang Prabang, the scared Pra Bang image of the Buddha is surrounded by beautifully embroidered panels, woven by various queens and their daughters. The assembly hall where the monks chant prayers and give sermons has the main images of the Buddha. This image is often draped in orange-coloured cloth and orange banners are hung above the main image. Banners or tung of diverse sizes and shapes, and decorated with a variety of motifs, are hung in and around temples. They may be made of a simple plain weave or elaborately embroidered, in solid bright or white colours and flown outside a temple – in memoriam, to announce a festival etc. In Laos, religious and other texts are recorded on manuscripts made of palm leaves. These are wrapped in manuscript wrapping cloth and then stored in wooden caskets to keep them safe and preserve them. There are two kinds of manuscript wrapping cloth – fascicle manuscript wrapping cloth and palm-leaf wrapping cloth. A fascicle is a booklet consisting of 7 to 30 palm leaves is called a fascicle. Monks use a fascicle wrapping cloth to cover the fascicle every time they read a fascicle. This cloth is used on a daily basis. When weaving this kind of cloth, a 1 cm wide flat piece of bamboo is inserted and the cloth stiffed so as to maintain the shape of the palm leaves. The palm leaf wrapping cloth is a large piece of cloth, which wraps sets of 10-25 fascicles. When tied together these sets are usually 20-25 cm wide. Therefore, their wrapping is a large piece of cloth made of cotton or silk, and is woven with various colorful patterns, depending on the ethnic group. While men help preserve manuscripts by copying them, women make beautiful cloths for wrapping them, thus making merit jointly. Designs and colours for the scripture cloths are similar to the textiles produced in the region. In Savannakhet there are cloths with Mat mi in cotton and silk and all kinds of sinh motifs. In Luang Prabang, silk cloths woven with a discontinuous supplementary web of different colors. People often donated unused pha sarong or sinh of their young sons or daughters who had died to produce palm-leaf manuscripts to make merit for their dead children, in the hope that in the next life they would live long enough to wear plenty of these clothes.
Healing ceremonies are very elaborate affairs and usually involve the participation of not just the immediate family but sometimes the entire village. Special clothing and costumes are worn by the family as well as the shamans for healing and propitiating ceremonies. The costume/s worn by the shaman reflects the spirit being called. When calling the spirits of the ancestors’ shamans dress in spirit skirts and other distinctive items of clothing to enable the ancestor spirits to recognize and accept them. Red is powerful colour and extensively used in many of the healing ceremonies. For some ceremonies; red shawls or healing cloths are worn on the head and as a shoulder cover. For example, a Tai Daeng shaman wears a deep red silk cloth, as a head wrap at the annual spirit-appeasing ceremony. At one end of the shawl is a dramatic diamond/rhombus, in red and white, woven into the cloth using supplementary weft yarns. This is worn positioned on the fore-head. The diamond pattern is enclosed by bands of indigo-coloured stylized animal motifs. The centre of the shawl is in plain weave and bright red in colour, while the other end is patterned in bands of traditional motifs, such as nak and other mythological figures. A Phauan medium wears a fringed sash with broad bands of coloured motifs woven on a red base cloth. One of the motifs woven of these head cloths is the phi yak or temple guardian. At other places, the medium wears, an indigo-coloured head cloth, a rectangular piece, with a fringe added to each end. The Tai-Dam shaman, costumes comprise long black coats decorated with special appliquéd bands or colour and a special red hat. A coloured sash is tied around the waist. Customs and costumes vary with each group. At the healing ceremonies of the Tai Daeng the wife of the head of the household could wear up to nine layers of exquisitely woven skirts, depending on the sacrifice being made and ceremony conducted.
The amount of effort that goes into the dyeing and weaving of a cloth further shows its importance. Inside the home where the ceremony takes place, wall hangings with powerful symbols and motifs such as the nak are hung to mark the ceremonial space and to ward off evil spirits. Ritual symbols such as the nak, mom, siho, ancestor figures, star, diamond, swastika, and hamsa or hongs are included in most sacred textiles.