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Wednesday, April 16, 2014
- 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. 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.
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.
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.