Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
This paper examines the development of silk textile production in Laos (Lao People's Democratic Republic). Silk textiles have important socio-cultural 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).
Textile Production in Laos
Lao women also practice sericulture. As with cotton production and other steps in producing textiles, women raise silkworms, meticulously feeding and cleaning the worms and then reeling the silk off of the cocoons. The silkworms may be kept in baskets and stored underneath the house near the loom or in the kitchen (see Photo 2). Mulberry leaves are fed to the worms several times a day and are chopped finely during the first days of the silkworms' existence (see Photo 3).
Women are also the primary producers of textiles in Laos. Lao girls begin to leam how to weave at the age of 5 or 6 years old. Their teachers are their mothers and other female relatives such as grandmothers and aunts. Girls begin to weave their own clothing, cloth for use by their family, and for the future. A young girl must begin to prepare textiles for her future marriage, including clothing, bedding, blankets, and gifts for her future in-laws and other family members. If the village is Buddhist, young girls and woman also provide textiles for religious purposes such as offerings of robes and bedding to the monks and ceremonial textiles to place in the temples. A Lao girl's weaving skill traditionally is a measure of her ability to be a good wife and member of society. Once a young woman could weave an extremely difficult technique, she is ready for marriage (Gittinger and Lefferts, 1992). Silk textiles are reserved for special occasions such as weddings, religious festivals, and traditionally as tribute paid to the royalty, and generally as a display of status and wealth. Silk and other textiles have been traded with other ethnic groups living in Laos and in regional trade. Chinese silk thread and cloth continues to be imported into Laos.
A major component of traditional dress of Lao women is the untailored tubeskirt or sin. The sin may be long enough to cover and wrap around the breasts while ending at the ankles. The motifs and the colors of the sin serve as ethnic identity markers. Other identity markers of dress include the head cloth and shoulder cloth. Some Tai groups wear a blouse similar to the Chinese and worn over the sin wrapped around the chest. The Lao royalty incorporated Chinese aspects of dress into their own clothing repertoire since Chinese silk and clothing was a valuable commodity.