Our Artisans

 

Handmade direct from the villages, using traditional skills...

Saoban works with hundreds of artisans across ten provinces in Laos. Many of our artisans lived through the American War and Secret War of the 1960s, and experienced firsthand the upheaval of the revolution in 1975. In rural areas and among various ethnic groups, craft making provided a source of income and stability. Their stories demonstrate individuals and communities with remarkable talent and resilience.

saoban artisan Kong

Ms. Kong

Master silk weaver and head of weaving group
Vientiane Province
Age 31

“I have always loved to weave and I don’t mind sitting for hours at my loom weaving the intricate motifs for the sinh and scarves.”


Like the textiles she weaves, the life of master-weaver Kong of Thaphosay Village is colorful, intriguing, and complex. Like so many rural Tai Deang women of her generation, Kong has experienced great upheavals and hardships. Her knowledge, skills and passion in weaving has provided her some sort of constancy and link to her culture and heritage. It has also been her main source of economic survival. Like so many of her generation, Kong’s family no longer lives in their ancestral province of Houaphan in northern Laos. Her grandparents were the first to make the move, abandoning their home and fields in the 1960s to escape the bombing by American B-52s during the Vietnam War which also engulfed Laos. The family first settled in Muong Mek in northern Vientiane Province. Thirty years later in 1993, Kong’s father again found it untenable to stay put. He had to pack up his family and move again; this time to escape the fighting between Lao government soldiers and insurgent groups operating near his home town. The family found refuge further south in Thaphosay Village.

Only sixteen years old at the time, young Kong had to set aside her dreams of finishing school. Instead, she stoically took up the burden to help her parents raise and feed the family of ten by farming and weaving. “I have always loved to weave and I don’t mind sitting for hours at my loom weaving the intricate motifs for the sinh and scarves,” she says. But it was difficult for Kong to earn money from weaving as the village is far from the main silk markets.

In 1999, Kong, together with four other girls in the village, decided to leave Thaphosay and come to Vientiane Capital to look for work. With help from a relative, Kong and her friends found work at a large weaving workshop in Vientiane which produces high-end silk scarves and textiles for sale domestically and for export. Here Kong expanded her repertoire of designs and quickly learned the need to produce products to meet the ever-changing taste of consumers.

A year later, after repeated pleas from her mother to return home, Kong once more found herself back in Thaphosay. By then, her father had abandoned the family, and her mother relied on Kong to help with the farm and raise the family. Taking on the role of the main breadwinner of the family, Kong turned to her experience and skill in weaving. She kept her link with her previous employer and also drew upon her weaving networks in Vientiane Capital to get small weaving contracts.

However many of the contracts were for weaving of low quality and low-priced scarves which did not give her much satisfaction or much income. Kong’s ambition is to set up her own weaving business in Thaphosay and produce higher-quality and higher-priced silk products. She also wanted to help other women weavers like herself in the village to be able to make a better living using their weaving skills. But such an ambition is not easy to fulfill for a young village woman without much capital or business expertise.
saoban artisan Sang

Ms. Sang

Silk weaver of Phiengdi Village
Bolikhan District, Bolikhamxay Province
Age 34

“All the girls in our village knew how to weave. I learned how to weave from my mother at age 5. My daughter has been weaving since she was six.”


“We came to Phiengdi Village with Khampha, a relative of my husband,” says Ms Sang. “My village in Xam Tai district of Houaphan province is even more difficult to reach than Khampha’s village. There are no proper roads, and there are no schools or clinics,” Sang adds. Married at 18 to Saitong, Sang wanted a better life and a better place to raise their children, and Phiengdi seemed to offer better prospects to the young family. Sang now has 4 children, ranging from 4-17 years old. All attend school near the village.

Sang is a good weaver, a common trait among women of the Tai Deang ethnic group from Houaphan who have been passing this ancient skill from mother to daughter for generations. “All the girls in our village knew how to weave. I learned how to weave from my mother at age 5. My daughter now has been weaving since she was six,” Sang explains, showing off a beautiful skirt-border with deer and flower motif woven by her daughter Lah.

Sang’s life in Phiengdi village revolves mainly helping her husband grow rice and other food crops mainly for subsistence. To earn cash for daily expenses, she depends on the sale of her woven products.

Two years ago, she joined the weaving group that works with Saoban. “Joining the group was a good thing. We share weaving knowledge and marketing information. We also learn to help and support one another,” Sang explains. “Another benefit is that we get training on use of natural dyes and about designs and colors which are in demand. We now understand the importance of making sure that the quality of the weaving is good and consistent,” she adds.

“In the past I could not make much money from weaving because there were not many buyers nearby. After joining the weaver’s group, things have gotten better,” Sang says. “We have more places to sell our weaving. This is because Saoban links us to more buyers and we now get more orders”, she continues.

With her income now averaging about 900,000 kip per month, Sang is hopeful that she can keep all her children until they finish high school and good jobs. “I hope their lives will be easier than mine.” sighs Sang. Her next wish is that she can build a new house. Looking around her modest house made mainly of woven bamboo, she badly wants to build a bigger and better house.

Sang is already working hard to make her dream come true. Pointing to a pile of wooden planks under her house, Sang says, “I am slowly accumulating wood and I hope that in another two years, we will be able to build a better house.” Her husband Saithong nods in agreement.
saoban artisan Mae

Ms. Mae Mai

Cotton artisan and indigo dye expert
Savannakhet Province
Age 48


Ms. Mae Mai is an expert on all aspects of cotton processing – from ginning to spinning, indigo dyeing, and “mutmee” – a tie-dye weaving technique that is so special to her people of the Phu-Tai ethnic group.

Mae Mai learned to make indigo and use it as a dye at age 15 years. Today, the 48 year-old mother of four is a valuable resource to her community and loves passing her skills on to the younger generations.

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.
saoban artisan Bounthavee

Ms. Bounthavee "Joy"

Leader of Cotton Artisan Group
Savannakhet Province
Age 46

“I am so happy when I see young people wearing our traditional clothes, it looks so beautiful.”


Ms. Joy is a high school mathematics teacher and a prominent figure in her village community. Cotton handcrafts are an important income supplement for the enterprising 46 year old. She is able to earn more money producing cotton products than her full time job as a teacher, a job that gives her great satisfaction and happiness.

Proud of her cultural heritage, Joy loves to wear the indigo ikat cotton clothing that is hand made in her home village. “I am so happy when I see young people wearing our traditional clothes, it looks so beautiful,” she says.

Joy is a highly skilled artisan. “I like preparing the complex ‘mutmee’ ikat designs and dyeing with natural indigo,” she explains. ‘Mut mee’ is an ikat tie-dye weaving technique that is so special to her people of the Phu-Tai ethnic group.

To the customers that buy her cotton products, Joy says, “Thank you for your support. Please show your friends our products and tell them about Saoban. And finally, if you have any ideas for product design and development, please give us feedback so we can continue to improve our work.”
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!