Vuy, a mother of four, spends hours each day hand weaving beautiful skirts, shawls, scarfs, table clothes, etc. Photo by Mark Nonkes, World Vision<
It’s seen resurgence in North America and parts of Europe. But the traditional art of weaving has also reappeared in a forest village in the south of Laos.
“It’s the tradition from generation to generation,” explains Sogaa, a 42-year-old mother of four.
Sogaa is among a group of grandmothers in one community of southern Laos who use weaving as their means to escape the clutches of poverty.
Every day, these five women sit in front of a loom and carefully entwine thread, resulting in intricate handwoven fabric that will later be transformed into skirts, shawls, table clothes or wall hangings.
“I can’t count how many hours I work on it,” says 52-year-old Kamghut, although she says she creates about 15 pieces of fabric a month.
Many of the women in this World Vision weaving group learned to weave as children, watching their mothers and trying it for themselves.
“The first time I tried to weave, I broke part of the machine and jammed it up. I was fooling around with it while my mum was away. I was afraid my mum would be angry. But she wasn’t,” Kamghut says.
Kongkham, a 62-year-old grandmother with 10 children and 18 grandchildren, remembers handpicking cotton and spinning it to produce the material. She recalls how they used to make the threads colourful by grinding up leaves and seeds from the forest.
“To get the dark brown colour, we used buffalo dung and tree leaves and ground them up,” she remembers, laughing.
Weaving stalled and was nearly lost during the Vietnam War. Called the Hidden War, Laos was heavily bombed from 1964 to 1975 by the American military who suspected the country of hiding Vietnamese communists. Kongkham remembers hiding as a girl in hand-dug holes with her parents to shield themselves from the heavy explosives falling from the sky.
When she became a young mother herself, she says she had no choice but to flee. “They burned all the houses. I had three young children at the time. We had to leave,” she remembers.
For 15 years, Kongkham lived in a camp for internally displaced people in the nearest city. It was a state of absolute desperation, she says, but at least they were safe. It was there she had three more children.
“In the camp, we couldn’t earn any money. We just received food and clothes,” she shares.
“In 1975, we got to come home,” Kongkham says.
The house that she was born in, the one she had inherited from her parents after they died, was gone. The jungle had started to reclaim the neglected village.
But Kongkham and the hundred or so families in this village dedicated themselves to rebuilding. They planted rice. They hunted in the jungle. They fished in the stream.
The families here built small rooms on stilts in order to avoid flooding and slowly expanded. But life was a struggle.
As for weaving, although looms were rebuilt, there was rarely enough time to do anything beyond surviving. Because the process of collecting cotton, gathering the plants and waste to dye the thread and then, finally, weaving with the looms was so time-consuming, it was a rare day when the women had enough spare time to do it.
The craft was being lost.
Ten years ago, a road was finally built to the village. Electricity followed two years later. No longer were families isolated from the outside world. The new road brought visitors, and one of those groups of visitors was World Vision.
Together, World Vision and the local government authority helped set up water pumps. The organisation then started to help farming families improve their annual income – new rice seeds for better harvests, a fund to buy goats and animal vaccinations. The action improved incomes and allowed people to have some free time.
World Vision also put out a call for women interested in weaving. Five women volunteered: four grandmothers and Khamghut, a childless, married woman raising her niece. The organisation provided equipment to repair the looms and stock – cotton, dye and other necessary materials – for the women to restart. To improve the quality of work, they took the women on a field trip to one of the country’s leading weaving centres.
“When I heard the announcement that they were looking for women to do a weaving project, I said ‘I can do it’. Before, there was no one helping us. But now I was interested because there were people to join us and help,” says Kongkham.
Khamphoun, a mother of five, says, “We’re close because of this World Vision project. We have a chance to share ideas with each other. There are both informal and formal meetings. We talk together when someone doesn’t really understand something.”
On average, the women weave 15 skirts per month or several metres of fabric, depending on how detailed the design is.
“We sell the fabric and sinhs [skirts] to villagers and make custom orders. We sell some to tailoring shops,” says Khamphoun, the leader of the group.
The average skirt sells for 8-10 US dollars, allowing the women to feel economically empowered.
“Now, things have changed with my husband. He has nothing negative to say now. Because if he does, I say that I weave, I earn money, so why are you mad at me? Now, he doesn’t get mad or complain anymore,” Khamphoun says.
The revival has also allowed the next generation to jump back into the art of weaving. The women talk about daughters and nieces who help and have started creating their own fabrics on their looms.
Khamghut explains, “My niece has learned to weave and because my eyes aren’t very good, she continues weaving what I started that day after she is finished with school.”
And for her niece, 15-year-old Kitsaana, it’s unleashed a creative outlet. “I saw my aunt doing it [weaving] and it seemed like a lot of fun so I just learned,” she shares. “I like making fabric. I find it quite easy. I love designs that are pink, yellow or orange.”
“I’ll do it forever,” says the eighth grader. “Women have to wear the Lao skirt. It’s our tradition.”