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.
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.
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.