Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


This paper examines the development of silk textile production in Laos (Lao People's Democratic Republic). Silk textiles have important sociocultural roles in Lao society, as markers of identity and wealth in contemporary Lao society as they had in the past. The various Tai ethnic groups, including the Lao, who have been the political majority of Laos since the 14th century CE, are the producers of silk textiles in Laos. Women are historically the producers of textiles for domestic consumption and exchange at the village level and beyond. Silk textiles signify special occasions such as weddings, religious events, and funerals and also represent wealth. The production of silk continues in contemporary Laos, but has evolved to become a commercial enterprise. Village women still weave silk textiles for domestic use but also for sale at the local market. Women living in urban areas have returned to weaving to produce textiles for the markets too. High-ranking government officials and foreigners who come to Laos either as tourists or diplomats have become the new patrons of elaborate silk textiles since the abolition of the monarchy. As long as the demand for Lao silk exists, the production of silk will continue even as Laos slowly modernizes.


Laos is a developing country in mainland Southeast Asia sharing borders with Vietnam, China, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. In this country with a landmass half the size of France, the terrain is mountainous and intersected by numerous waterways. The rugged terrain has hindered but not excluded trade and communication, but these hindrances have assisted in changes to occur slowly.

Laos has a population of approximately 5.5 million people. The political majority, the Lao and other Tai ethnic groups, constitute two-thirds of the population. The Lao ethnic group is a member of the Tai-Kadai ethnolinguistic family. Tai groups inhabit parts of eastern India, southern China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Other members of this group include the Thai of Thailand, the Shan or Tai Yai of Burma, and other groups such as the Black Tai, Phuan, and Tai Lue. Other Tai groups living in Laos include the Black Tai, Red Tai, White Tai, Phu Tai, Phuan, and Tai Lue. The Lao and other Tai groups living in Laos are primarily agriculturalists, practicing wet rice cultivation, and living in the lowlands or river valleys with good access the water. To supplement their diet, they also grow other crops such as fruits and vegetables in separate garden plots next to the house. Lao women also cultivate cotton in plots outside the village.

The homes of the Lao and other Tai groups share similar architecture. The houses are elevated from the ground traditionally on wood pillars, which are now sometimes replaced with concrete. The loom and other household and farming tools are in this area underneath the house. Weaving for non-commercial production and other activities related to the weaving process may take place when the daily chores are completed in the late afternoon or evening. There appears to be more time for these activities during the dry season after then harvest, usually from January to April (See Chazee, 1999:27-49 for more information on general Tai characteristics).