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See tours coming up in 2020

to Galapagos, Ecuador, Peru and Japan

Textiles of Laos with Valerie Kirk 2020 – See the best of Lao Textiles

16 Days | 16-31 January, 2020

$AUD5852 per person, joining in Chiang Mai, concluding in Luang Prabang. 


“I invite you to join with me as we travel from the cultural centre of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, across the Mekong into the beautiful country of Laos, the home for many minority people who still produce traditional textiles and new fabrics for the international market.”

Lao Textiles – Travelling to Learn Through Experience

Travelling to Laos one or two times each year for over 20 years I have witnessed remarkable changes in the textile field. As tourism developed, new markets opened up and designers came from U.S.A., Europe, Japan and Australia to work with local weavers introducing new ideas, designs, materials and processes. Then, when the global financial crisis hit, many businesses scaled back their production, produced cheaper items and engaged more with visitors from neighbouring counties. Over time there have been many new ventures, small factories opening up and partnerships established internationally.

However, many people in Laos still live in remote areas, far from the main centres, continuing traditions and adapting to new influences and availability of materials. They have to survive through self-sufficient lifestyles so making products to sell brings a valuable income to families for education, and health. Small co-operatives and businesses have developed to pool resources, share equipment and facilities and make larger quantities of work to sell in the cities and to export. They embrace renewed interest in natural dyes and fibre because of environment/sustainability issues. Seeds, leaves, roots, bark and flowers used to make subtle dye colours are gathered from surrounding areas or deep in the forests but because of increasing demand it is difficult to source enough plant material for specific dyes in some places.

Many businesses now operate out of the urban centres with workshops/galleries/museums run by enterprising Lao people and foreigners.

Australian Emi Weir left her travel career in Sydney to set up Ma Té Sai, which means “where is it from”? As a member of the organisation Fair Trade Laos, Ma Té Sai only sells Lao products sourced from individual makers and small businesses in villages around the country. Acknowledging the makers through labelling and signage is important and their stories give buyers an insight into traditions and culture, plants grown and processed and skills used. Ma Té Sai buys directly from the village artisans and small organisations, increasing their income and standard of life.

Passa-paa, (meaning the language of cloth) is British textile designer, Heather Smith’s forward looking textile design and screen print studio in Luang Prabang. It focuses on production of stylish bags, wallets, scarves and hand bound notebooks for our modern world. The designs are inspired by the patterns in H’Mong traditional embroidery, applique and batik - the marks of the stitch, shapes of applied fabrics and the rhythms of batik are re-interpreted to create new designs. By changing the colour palette, scale, density of pattern and relationship of forms to background the fabric designs have been transformed into a modern idiom.

There are also training centres for disadvantaged and disabled people as craft provides a means of income generation and self-support.

Some traditions were almost lost after the abolition of the royal family as they were seen to be ostentatious and irrelevant to the ideals of the new government.  The metallic thread weaving and embroidery has been revived and is now sought after for wedding dress/ceremonial objects. Nithakhong Somsanith learned the courtly art of gold and silver thread embroidery, Silapa pak dinh from his grandmother when sumptuous costumes were woven and embroidered for the royal family invested with symbols of status, power and spiritual meaning. He now designs and produces his own artwork in gold/silver embroidery and the most sophisticated, embellished garments.

Contemporary Lao textiles tick all the boxes for modern ideals:  ecologically friendly production, sustainable practices, growing small business and working with minority people. The fabrics confidently bridge traditions and contemporary innovation, past and present, national and international – reaching out to a forward looking world.

In this rapidly changing country, the traditions, skills and creativity of textiles could easily loose out to commercialism but as long as Lao people value their heritage and traditions and visitors buy textiles to take home with their treasured memories, the textile makers of Laos will be empowered and can continue to contributed to their local economy.

Valerie Kirk

Artist and Tapestry Weaver

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