A History of Lao Silk

 

Silk weaving, for daily use and for rituals, has been an integral part of life and culture in Laos for centuries. Most Lao village women learned the art of weaving and the traditional designs from their mothers when they were little girls.

“In the old days we used silk for everything, even as diapers for babies. Every household in our village raised silkworms and produced silk. The women produced silk sinh in various mutmee (tie-dye) designs, silk blouses, silk sarongs for men, silk pillowcases, silk cushion covers, and silk cradle cloths.”
Grandma Tu, Savannakhet Province

Reviving a Traditional Craft

For more than 40 years following World War II, the centuries-old arts of Lao silk cultivation, dyeing, and weaving fell into decline and nearly disappeared. Only the Tai Dam, Tai Deang, Tai Moei, and Tai Phuan ethnic groups in northern and central Laos kept the traditions alive.

The tide began to shift in the mid-1990s, when Laos adopted a more open policy toward trade and tourism and demand for Lao silk and Lao woven products grew.

A Lao non-governmental organization, PADETC (Participatory Development Training Centre), which specializes in rural development, recognized that silk production and weaving could alleviate poverty among poor rural women, and it added silk production and export to its rural development projects. Saoban evolved from PADETC’s pioneering work with village artisans.

Silk in Lao History and Culture

Natural silk is produced by silkworms that spin fine filaments into cocoons. More than 3,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered that silk could be harvested and woven; the knowledge later spread along the Silk Route to other parts of the world. Silk was introduced to Laos when the Tai-Lao peoples migrated from their ancestral lands in Southern China into present-day Laos, bringing with them the knowledge of silk cultivation, dyeing, and weaving on upright wooden looms.

In Laos, the Tai-Lao encountered the indigenous Mon-Khmer people, who used back-strap or body-tension looms to weave other types of fabric, mainly from raw cotton and hemp. This cultural contact has given Lao textiles the diversity and intricacy of designs that make them stand out today.

Silk Production and Processing

Production and processing of handwoven silk require great skill and patience. The process begins with feeding silkworms mulberry leaves. As silkworms die if the weather is too wet or too cold, silkworm cultivation is best done between March and June and between September and November.

It takes 24 days for a silkworm to mature from egg to cocoon. To extract the silk the cocoons are plunged into pots of boiling water to soften the silk. The work must be done within five to seven days after the cocoon is formed; otherwise the moth inside will chew through the silk.

After being drawn, silk is spun into yarn and graded according to its fineness. The yarn is then boiled in a lye solution to remove the natural resin that adheres to the cocoon.

Finally the yarn is dyed and woven. In the past–and even today in some remote rural communities–this entire process was often done by a single person. Today, weavers who don’t own mulberry fields usually buy processed silk.