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LAOS: The New Silk Road

Melody Kemp

VIENTIANE, Jul 9 2009 (IPS) - At the age of 13, Kommaly Chantavong, now 64, walked over 600 kms to Vientiane from her home in Lao’s northern province of Huaphan. She walked through the buzzing war with the French in bare feet. All she took were heirloom pieces of woven silk, legacies from her grandmothers.

Kommaly Chantavong reels silk. This is still done using utensils and methods that are hundreds of years old  Credit: Melody Kemp/IPS

Kommaly Chantavong reels silk. This is still done using utensils and methods that are hundreds of years old Credit: Melody Kemp/IPS

When the later war between the U.S. and the Vietnamese, which engulfed Laos, ended in 1975, refugees, many of them women, plied the streets of Vientiane. Chantavong used money earned by nursing to buy looms. She hoped that by rekindling the interest in weaving, refugee women could make money.

In a radical policy reversal in the late 1980's, the revolutionary Lao President, Kaysone Phomvihan, granted her 40 hectares of land in Xieng Khouang, significant for its silk history. Previously the hard-line Pathet Lao had labeled silk weaving as bourgeoise. Women had to hide their looms or weave cotton. But silk never died.

Women would dream of silk while they wove proletariat kapok, cotton-like fibre from a tree of the same name. Silk went underground, women weaving at night to maintain skills and to remember patterns. They feared jail or destruction of their looms. Small shops were closed, silk confiscated.

Weaving and Women

Long time observations by the American sociologist Carol Doolittle and her colleagues found that women in the weaving industry earn 20-40 percent more than their sisters labouring in factories.

Lao's national minimum wage has not shifted much beyond 43 U.S. dollars per month, despite inflation. Women weavers are paid by the piece or by the metre, and enjoy flexible working arrangements impossible in the industrial sector. "Independent weavers can sell a skirt for 30-80 dollars; significantly more than they earn making t-shirts," Doolittle told IPS earlier this year.

Weaving is intensely social. Women can elect to work in a 'factory' with other weavers or stay at home. Young women usually prefer the city weaving silk houses. They recruit sisters or other female relatives from the village.

On the other hand married women with children like to be able to earn at home while keeping an eye on the kids and chatting with friends while they work. Weaving is not burdened by loud noise, safety hazards or the need to wear special clothing. You can get up and leave the loom without fearing supervisors or losing pay.

In pre-import days, the robes that Buddhist novices wore to enter the temple were woven usually by an "auntie", who gained merit for herself and the family by allowing the boy to be ordained. Lao men still rely on women to weave ceremonial regalia.

Secular western consultants often fail to recognise the nuanced power and influence women gain by their spiritual and attendant material activities such as weaving, where sacred images like dragons are transferred onto living textiles.

Phonevikeo gave up weaving to work in the export processing zone in Savannakhet in southern Laos.

"I thought I would earn more money, but I had to pay for transport to the factory and food. In March the orders stopped and now I have no work. The factory closed and no wages for two months. My children have to go to school. I was not a good weaver so people would not buy my textiles. If I could learn to improve it would be better," she says.

In the mid 1980's silk reappeared, being allowed for some ceremonies, but women were still wary. On the outskirts of the capital Vientiane, women went back to silk work, hoping to survive out of the direct sightline of the party apparachiks.

Chantavong began to build; breeding to combine tough Lao natural silk with the length of Thai and Japanese filaments, and tempered with softness. She researched natural dyes and planted a dye garden and walked for six to eight hours per day to villages teaching, encouraging and buying.


She set up weaving and silk houses where young Lao, both men and women turned out beautifully crafted organic silk fabric of the type that underpins Lao culture and pride.

The New York and LA Times credited American entrepreneur Carol Cassidy with reviving the Lao silk industry. The accolade really belongs to Chantavong who trained those who later worked for Cassidy. Their hand-woven pieces sell for thousands of dollars in the ateliers of New York, belying the claim that there is no money in handcrafts.

Eco-textiles are taking the world by storm, the environmental and public health costs of conventional textiles having been recognised. Creative industries are recognised internationally as being a profitable part of the economy.

In the midst of financial depression of the 1930's, some remember the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stimulating the U.S. economy by, amongst other things, giving a boost to the creative sector. Almost 80 years later, Shi Meng Ng, a Singaporean sociologist told me, the majority of rural villagers in Laos still get most of their reliable household cash from textile products.

But the international development juggernaut trundles on, oblivious to the potential under its very nose. Little if any policy attention much less funding is given to support an industry that already exists, is environmentally neutral and embedded in the culture. While this story concerns Laos, the issue is broader.

Chantavong, a humble woman who has won two UNESCO craft awards, receives a modicum of support from non governmental groups. In the absence of serious overseas connections and production advice, Chantavong’s business, upon which the lives and wellbeing of literally hundreds of Laos depend, is still just getting by.

Her only design input is from her daughters and the odd traveller who stays at the sericulture farm. "I need to be able to fix colours naturally to guarantee our products," she tells me.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) nominated 2009 as its year of natural fibres. Lao should be awash with activities, but there was no response to enquiries at the FAO office in Vientiane.

FAO has not been in touch with Anoumone Kittirath, deputy director-general of Lao's Ministry of Industry and Commerce. She did not know of any activities planned nor did Somsanouk Mixay of the Lao Handcrafts Association (LHA).

This is a country that celebrates natural fibres every day. Its elegant men and women wear silk as a matter of course. Silk has fostered trade with its neighbours for centuries and is as Lao as sticky rice and unexploded bombs.

Khampheng Phonehome has a new motorcycle. It's a gleaming red with a basket on the front. Already sitting on the bike is his 8-year-old daughter who he is about to take to school 6 km away.

"My wife bought this motorbike by weaving and selling pha sinhs (traditional Lao skirt) to passing traders," he told me. "I am just a farmer. The bike helps me take chickens to market."

Women set up cooperatives to make silk products and seek loans "They vet the woman getting the loan. To make sure her husband does not gamble or drink," says Shui Meng Ng. "But unless its International Women’s Day or the annual handcraft festival, creative activities get only lip service."

Rassanikone Nanong known as Nikone of the LHA dreams of a design centre with visiting artists to advise and build local skills and knowledge. "Silk and our natural products have so many applications," she sighs.

Instead of designers and textile technicians, Lao entices engineers to build dams and mines; export processing zones expand. Environmental consultants and gender specialist arrive to fix up the mess and to make sure women participate in this transformation. But they are there all the time, quietly weaving.

 
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