History of Lao Cotton

Cotton has been grown in Laos for centuries, mostly on a small scale for direct consumption by the households who transform the fiber into cloth material and objects of daily use.

Most farmers in Laos cannot afford expensive chemical fertilizers and continue to grow their cotton on small land holdings, interspersed with other crops for natural resistance to pests. Although the cotton sourced by Saoban is not certified organic, the producers and growers tell us they do not use chemicals.

Cotton is planted by hand and watered by the monsoon rains. It takes eight months for the plant to produce the cotton flower, then it is picked by hand, ginned by hand (a difficult and tedious activity), and then spun into yarn by hand. Traditional wood and bamboo looms are used by weavers to transform the cotton fiber into cotton cloth.

To this day, most cotton is dyed with natural, plant-based dyes, and although chemical dyes are becoming more popular, Saoban aims to preserve and promote the tradition of natural textile dyes in Laos.

Natural Dyeing: A Demanding Art

Traditional Lao weavers use natural dyes derived from seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, fruits, bark, and insect resin. Master dyers know which substance, or combination of substances, will yield specific colors, and have expert control over the results. The process requires great skill: the yarn must be dipped in dye and dried several times in succession to achieve the desired degree of evenness and color intensity. The process may take two days to a week, not counting the time needed to collect, dry, and shred the roots, leaves, or fruits and then boil, ferment and rest them to create dyes: these processes can take months. Accordingly, naturally dyed yarn and woven products generally command higher prices than products made from chemically dyed yarn.

Making indigo dye is an ancient art and steeped in myths.  Menstruating women are kept away from the indigo jars for fear of upsetting the “indigo spirit” and rendering the dye useless.

Indigo dye is made from the leaves and shoots of the “kharm” plant, which grows in many areas in Laos. Getting the raw materials for indigo may be easy, but making it is an art.  It involves fermentation of the “kharm” and keeping the mixture in air-tight jars at the required temperature. Natural indigo contains no chemicals or toxic metals and wearing fabrics dyed with indigo is believed to be good for the skin.

Most Saoban products use natural dyes. The weaving groups which are new to silkworm cultivation and dye production use a mixture of Lao silk and Vietnamese and Chinese silk and chemically dyed yarn. To help these groups transition to natural dyes, Saoban facilitates learning exchanges, enabling weavers and dyers to share techniques, skills and information. In the future Saoban hopes to produce and sell naturally dyed products exclusively.