Exploring the Vibrant World of Lao Textiles at the Museum
Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated by fashion and the handiwork that comes with it. For me, it has always been part of my identity to express my personality through my choice of clothing; what styles I wear and the ones I do not wear – and why. As for fashion as an artform, silk obviously is worth to take a closer look at: the many steps required in the production process, the cultural heritage, and influence it has on Asian and especially Lao culture make it more than just a fabric or an expensive piece of clothing.
Therfore, there were many reasons why a visit to the Lao Textile Museum was on my To-Do-List as soon the first members of Team XII got their measurements taken for a custom-made Sinh. A few days after Patricia and Antonia told me about this, we headed off for a visit at the Lao Textile Museum, Vientiane. Here is the story.
Not only were we excited about the museum itself – the rainy Sunday afternoon just asked for a trip to the museum – but also for the tie dye1 class we signed up for, which is also offered by the Lao Textile Museum. Apart from some DIY (do it yourself) attempts years ago at children’s birthday parties, all of us were absolute beginners.
When we arrived at the place in Chantabouly District, north of the city center, we immediately were drawn in by the space. The museum’s grounds are not large but yet feel spacious and – as we called it – at peace. Bamboo and huge palm trees, frangipani blossoms everywhere, and the green lawn leading up to the three wooden buildings made it seem more like a spa than a museum. The local at the ticket counter greeted us in the typical warm Lao fashion and led us to an open, airy space (the Indigo Studio) where we met our two tie-dye instructors.
The first part of our tie-dye class was a brief introduction on how the actual dye is made. The traditional process consists of five steps:
- Leaves of the indigo plant are put into a ceramic barrel. Water is added, the leaves sit for 24 hours. Fermentation starts, and the water starts turning into a blue/greenish color.
- The bundles of leaves are taken out, calcium hydroxide, Ca(OH)2, is added.
- Now, the mixture needs to oxidize: Using a bowl, it is getting poured in and out of the barrel for about 30 minutes. Due to the oxidation, the liquid turns blue.
- An indigo-colored foam floats on top of the barrel. To create the indigo paste used for dyeing, the foam is collected. Together with the precipitated bits which sank down overnight, it is pressed through a cotton cloth. The smooth paste can be stored up or used for dyeing.
- The paste gets mixed with water and ashes. It needs to get stirred regularly in order to keep the fermentation process going (see video!)
This barrel of indigo dye can be used for up to 10 years!
After having learned about the chemical process behind the dye itself, Antonia and Patricia decided to dye a scarf and my plan was to create a T-Shirt. We were explained how to fold and form our piece into small packages by our instructor by using rubber bands and/or little stones – depending on the pattern you want to create, there are thousands of ways to do so. In Antonia’s words “I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m just hoping it turns out okay”, Patricia and I followed this motto.
Now, the actual dying would take place. Therefore, the pieces got soaked in fresh water first. We all slipped into some nice aprons, put on some rubber gloves, and got to work. And with work, I mean a proper triceps training: Each of us sat behind one of the huge dye barrels and squeezed their cotton package for about 20 minutes in the blue/greenish mixture. Patricia and Antonia were quickly reminded of their last laundry session at the VEDI apartment, I got reminded of my non-existent arm muscles (and learned to appreciate the washing machine at Sunshine School on a whole new level).
As the still wrapped and tied up bundles were put on a bamboo stick for the cotton to absorb the dye, we were surprised by a cup of hot pea flower tea. It was served with a piece of lime, which caused the natural blue tea to turn purple as you squeezed it in. This was when I realized everything in this place was not only about textiles and fabrics, but also about the colours of nature.
Afterwards, we got to the final part of our tie-dye class: the leftover dye needed to get washed out. Therefore, several big pots filled with fresh water had been prepared. Some more squeezing and massaging was required before we finally took off the rubber bands and unfolded the two scarves and the shirt. We got a first look at our creations and, against our expectations, were surprised by the outcomes – in a good way!
While waiting for them to dry (spoiler alert: of course 82% humidity did not work in our favour, they were still dripping wet when we went home two hours later), we strolled around the museum2 and learned about traditional Lao fabrics; most importantly, silk.
Learning about silk
In a lot of detail, this section of the museum explained the process how silk is produced using the cocoons of the silkworm larvae in its metamorphosis into a silk moth. After the silk of the cocoons has been collected, spun, and dyed, it is used for weaving traditional Lao garments like the Sinh, Salon (the traditional Lao costume for men) or scarves. The museum exhibits several weaving chairs, which give you a glimpse of how much work goes into this craft traditionally carried out by women. This was also experienced by Lena of Team III whose story of her experience of a weaving class in Luang Prabang you can read here.
The art of weaving is traditionally acquired by girls and handed down by their mothers and grandmothers. They not only learn a life skill which will allow them to earn money in the future and make them financially more independent. Learning to weave is also a tradition that preserves culture, since tales, proverbs and beliefs are being passed on from one generation to the next: both orally and through the hundreds of patterns that are woven into the silk or cotton, all of which tell a different story. Thus, these women become co-authors of Lao culture. However, the blurring of Lao ethnic groups as well as commercialization have caused changes in motifs and designs, specific pieces like head or shoulder cloths that were once part of a Lao woman’s daily wardrobe are now used for ceremonial or official occasions only.
An initiative working against this process in order to sustain these traditions is Her Works – a business led by women in Vientiane with the sole purpose of unveiling “the beauty and delicacy of the art and handicraft works of the lesser-known ethnic minority groups” (HerWoks, 2023) of Laos. Their flagship store in Vientiane sells shoes, accessoires and clothing made by women of ethnic minority groups to promote their economic growth in rural areas, guranteeing fair salaries and environmentally friendly and natural materials and processes.
The exhibition on the upper level of the building explained, among other things, the meaning of the various details woven into the different fabrics like elephants, deer, or tigers, but more interestingly how weaving has always been and still is closely linked to the daily life (not only) of Lao ethnic groups. In an interview Ms Khamsee Thanbounhueang, a teacher-tandem partner at Ban Phang Heng Lower Secondary School, explains to Maleen and Natalie from Team VII about her very own weavings at home, with a weaving chair built by her father.
The museum also explained that “in some ethnic groups, when an elderly member of the household died, no weaving is observed for months. (…) Weaving and other practices are also not practiced [at] the Buddhist holy day that is the last day of lunar [New Moon]. (…) The majority of ethnic Lao would not weave, reel or spin silk thread, or go into the forest to find food” (Lao Textile Museum, 2023).
We also learned that it is forbidden to talk ill of someone whenever a new batch of indigo color is being prepared, as it is believed that the dye would smell bad and will be spoiled. And: Menstruating women should rather not dye fabrics since the fabric would turn red.
In Laos, silk is considered as the fabric of friendship. The Lao National Museum explains it like this:
“[People] are likely to share the same aspirations: wanting peace, hating death by war. All want to have a good life, wealth, and to be free from poverty. They rather coexist in peace and enjoy mutual friendship. This theme of human’s aspiration is depicted on Lao silk fabrics” (ibid.).
Lao textiles and fabrics are a symbol for friendship, womanhood, and a connection to nature. It is fascinating to me, how fashion, everywhere in the world, holds such a symbolic place in the heart of any culture: How it evolves with and around it, creates jobs, passes on values and is as individual as the person who gets to wear it (just like Antonia and Patricia who now proudly wear their Sinhs as teachers at the VEDI). At Sunshine School, I was given the freedom to wear what I feel comfortable in, without any pressure of having to adapt to local traditions. I leave the Lao textiles to my female colleagues (simply because skirts have just never been my style) and we have fun exchanging ideas and appreciation for fashion in between classes – which is what I have always enjoyed most: finding that you and other cultures, especially women of those other cultures, have more things in common than you might think.
While I genuinly enjoyed learning about all the steps required to produce natural silk, there was one thing I could not get my mind off after my visit to the museum: The explanatory sign, which described how exactly silk is produced, only explained how the caterpillars’ cocoons are used to spin the silk. However, there was no mention of what happens to the animals inside the cocoon, which made me think. I went online and learned that the silk production is actually harmful to the silk moths, that the worms and caterpillars do feel pain, and a lot of them die within the harvesting process. If you are interested in this and the ethical reasoning of animal rights’ protectors, check this website. This is why I personally would not wear natural silk, since it does not represent my ethical values. I had and still have to come to terms with the fact that there will always be issues I simply cannot look past in order to decolonize my mind. I was confronted with my pro-animal welfare mindset in Laos many times. I had to learn that this mindset stems from my (Western) luxury of having the choice to actively decide for the wellbeing of an animal over concerns of traditional customs or economic profit and is not “superior” per se. My German upper-middle-class upbringing and privileged educational background planted the seed for those values, enabled them to grow and take roots which I now cannot or do not want to shake off. With this realization, I have met my first boundary when it comes to decolonizing myself and letting go of my binary judgement.
However, I warmly recommend a visit to the Lao Textile Museum to everyone. The green space calms you down from the busy streets in the city center and the meditative character of their tie-dye class gives you a chance to slow down. And, as for me, it initiated a major thought process within my individual journey of decolonizing myself.
Text & photos by M. Pogerth
1 “Tie-dye” is called “tie-die” because parts of the fabric are tied off in seperate parts to create a unique pattern. Orginally, this is done by using cotton thread; however, we used rubber bands to do so.
2 Our tie-dye class took place on the grounds of the Lao Textile Museum. The exhibition part of the place was in different buildings than where our handiwork was taking place.
Kummetz, Ariane (2018). Lao weaving as cultural heritage – a cross-curricular storytelling project for primary school. 117 pp., with Appendix: Glossary, Didactic material, interviews 26 pp. (summary forthcoming in new series “Language education and global citizenship“, 2019)
The Lao Textile Museum, 2023
Ban Nongtha-tai, Chanthabouly District, Vientiane, Lao P.D.R.