Indigo and the Hennaed Heroine

Once forced by unhappy circumstance to maintain their traditional textile crafts just to clothe themselves and their families, today the women of the Mekong have been able to turn necessity into a valuable cottage industry.  Patterns, and recipes for colours that have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations, are now being recreated, and sometimes updated, to be sold at markets outside the home.

Old Lao Sin  (traditional skirt) cotton brocade and silk ikat

The range of patterns and techniques employed is amazing.  From rich, intricate brocades, threaded beadwork and ikat, elaborate ribbon work and batik, to plain hand-dyed cotton textiles – each is a reflection of local culture and tradition.  Spearheaded by a handful of entrepreneurial women and co-ordinated by women’s co-operatives, these small cottage industries are now bringing new life and vitality to once cash-strapped villages.  Some collectives are even harnessing the marketing (and market knowledge), of weavers from across the globe to create fabrics and garments for sale in the international arena – particularly in silk.

Indigo – which, amazingly,  can create pink, mauve, yellow, green and brown, in addition to the archetypal blue – is the most prevalent dye used to produce cotton cloth.

The colours of indigo.

A wide variety of other natural materials – including lac (a resin produced by trees to ward off certain insect attack), petals, barks, seeds, seed-pods and roots, even mud containing certain mineral deposits – are harnessed to the dyer’s art.  All are grown, or gathered and brought back to the village for processing:  petals and seeds dried, leaves soaked and fermented, resin dried, pulverised and stored.  Some dyeing works looked more like a witch’s coven than a chemistry lab, but the process was the same – the creation of a chemical reaction, usually by the use of heat, to produce a range of colours which will remain fast in the finished fabric.

In almost any village in Lao, and along the Mekong in Cambodia, one sees women working at their looms.  In some villages they set up operations in the cool space under the house – with baby’s cradle suspended from the rafters – while in others, women sit in shady doorways, weaving on foot or strap looms.

I was encouraged to learn that at least seventeen families benefit from the processes involved in the production of the raw materials used to create woven fabric for sale on the open market.  And, fittingly, the weavers themselves are earning about 20% more than most Lao factory workers.

After years of war and destruction, Ban Lahanam Thong (a village sprawled along the high banks of the Mekong in Savannakhet Province in southern Lao) has reinvented itself thanks to the efforts of a family of weavers.  The people of the village specialise in  the production and manufacture of organic cotton, for sale on the open market.  From Granddad keeping an eye on the little ones, to Madame commuting back and forth to the city, everyone in the village is in one way or another involved in growing cotton, picking, ginning, spinning and weaving cotton, growing, gathering and processing dye materials, building looms and shuttles, creating new designs, growing markets.

That’s not to say the village women hadn’t also made the most luscious vegetable patches I saw, or that pigs, cows and chickens weren’t raised in abundance, that rice paddies weren’t maintained in readiness for the ‘season’, that children didn’t travel to school – on a new all-weather road – in the nearest town.

The village was ‘rich’ from its endeavours, and full of confidence.  They had even built a community centre, and basic facilities to accommodate small groups of foreigners for an overnight homestay.  Many houses were of concrete, all were receiving supplies of new thatch for fresh roofing in preparation for the rains, and many had televisions (a subject I’ll write about later!).

As we were a group of weavers, many villagers turned out to greet us, and a traditional orchestra performed for us in the communal meeting place.  Later that evening, after being guests of honour at a baci  (thread-tying) ceremony and a sumptuous communal meal, the orchestra joined us for a party.  It must be said they had stiff competition from a heavily amplified Lao Pop band, but even the young people stopped to listen and applaud our diva’s traditional songs – sultry and lyrical, like improvisational jazz.  Young and old, everyone danced the Lamvong in a great circle on a cleared space beside the headman’s house.


Since only six people saw this early post, I’ve changed the curatorial emphasis toward the glorious indigo blue so typical of Lao cottons, and re-blogged it in response to Marianne’s CBBH Challenge for November – “Blue”.  Some of you may recall seeing a couple of other photographs from this trip, particularly The Indigo Dyer (representing ‘Blue’ for The World in Five Colours) – if you haven’t, I urge you to because it is by far one of the two best shots I captured of the weavers of Lao!

It is customary when responding to Marianne’s monthly challenges to propose two bloggers whose work we admire and would recommend to you.  If you don’t know the uproarious Steve at Backpackology, or meditative Christine at Dadirridreaming, pop over and say hello.

61 thoughts on “Indigo and the Hennaed Heroine

  1. This was a wonderful visit with the weavers. The colours and fabric beg to be touched. I’m glad you went back to this and shared more. Thank you.

    • Thank you for that feedback Michelle – it’s hard to know whether one should dredge up from the past but it was so appropriate, and as I said, only six people saw it so I thought it might be ok.

      The fabrics were unbelievable (I spent a fortune!), and more, it was a tremendous way to see a country – focusing on one major issue.

  2. I´m so glad you re-blogged this post, Meredith because it´s perfect for this month´s CBBH Photo Challenge theme. Who knew that so many colours came from indigo? Not me, that´s for sure.

    I can well understand why you spent so much money buying different fabrics.

    Thanks for introducing us to two links that you enjoy visiting. This is one of my favourite parts of this challenge – to get the chance to visit other blogs personally recommended to us.

    Well done 🙂

    • Thank you for your lovely comments last week Marianne – I seem to have overlooked a whole stash of comments from last week. I’m glad I reposted it too, and updated it with a few more ‘blue’ pictures because it was, as you said, just perfect for this month’s theme, albeit a bit wordy for a photo challenge! 🙂

  3. What a tribute to these enterprising, resourceful villagers.Had no idea indigo created other colors other than blue. I’m glad you posted this again, cultural feast in so many ways.

  4. I had no idea this was part of a challenge till I got to the end, Meredith, when it finally clicked. You’ve caught me out before, and I like it. (the post too)

    • it was fascinating! i noticed when I got home that i’d taken hardly any shots of the weavers, so intent had I been on watching them setting up the patterns – I just kept forgetting to take out the camera 🙂

  5. You convey the depth and colour in a world not always accessible by us ordinarily, via all your posts but for the “Blue” them you take it further with pattern, culture and life interwoven 🙂

    • I’m really enjoying this blogging Ella – and sharing not just photos, but the occasional good news story and travelogue. It’s so great that others are enjoying it too – thanks for letting me know 🙂

  6. I’ve often thought we miss some of the best posts because we don’t often catch bloggers in their earliest days. And yet that’s when our creativity and enthusiasm are likely at their highest. Thanks for sharing the early post of yours because both the photos and story are great!

    • The old sin, Debra, or the new ikat? i tell you, if you’re into fabrics, Lao (and Cambodia too) is heaven. There is a festival in Siem Reap every year showcasing the work of local weavers – especially in silk since it has the most export potential. The year I saw it, it was incredible.

  7. Most of us are so far removed from ‘village’ enterprise in our industrialised worlds. Your photos portray endeavour and age old traditions … .. so much more to be prized than the cost of mass production.

    • I was fascinated, and so glad to see how traditional crafts had been turned into useful tools to help these women equip their families in the ‘modern’ world. I also loved the fact that one weaver provided employment opportunities for so many others in the village and beyond. It seems very productive, though I’m sure the same is true for our more industrialised societies – it’s just not so apparent – though perhaps it is, now we’ve seen the contraction of industries in the past few years, and the disastrous flow on effect that’s had.

    • You’re right – I only encountered one winging woman the whole time i was visiting these weaving villages – amazing! Goes to show what self-respect and opportunity will do for a person.

      Speaking of which, hope you’re doing ok back home and haven’t succumbed to the clean-up pail?

  8. This is gorgeous. The photographs are beautiful and it is such an uplifting story of women’s empowerment… I am going to share this with a good friend, who is a textile artist!

    • I’m flattered petchary – and yes, it is a good news story about women’s empowerment. In fact, I was amazed at how strongly committed – and effective – these co-operatives were in Lao. What they achieved was so noticeable I suppose because of the low benchmark they were working against, but it made me feel very optimistic for the future of the country.

  9. A wonderful post that merits a wider audience.
    Isn’t it amazing how so many ethnic textiles from Peru, Jordan, North Eastern India and South East Asia have similar geometric patterns and weaves? The differences are very subtle in some cases! But none that I have seen have blues as intense as these! The indigo dyer is one of my favourite photos on here 🙂

    • I’m wondering if the similarity in geometric patterns of the ancient weavers were as a result of technical constraints or a link back to more basic beliefs and symbols? Oh dear, another topic to research when I’ve got some time (and a reliable internet connection!).

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