In the back of the Lao Textiles on Setthathirath Road, (an old French colonial mansion that has been transformed into a weaving haven), over a dozen women sit at the loom, weaving intricate patterns from threads of pure silk. From the awnings of their looms hang huge bunches of threads — in deep blues, vibrant oranges and sedated creams — they have chosen from the silk thread storeroom, which holds host to the biggest spectrum of colors I have ever seen. Carol Cassidy, an American who has been weaving since she was 17 years old and who moved to Laos in 1989, walked us past each weaver, pointing out traditional patterns, different types of wool — some use raw silk — in one of the first commercial weaving workshops in Laos. She points to a corner where one woman sits separating strands, with bunches of threads hanging from the wall, where parts of the bunch have been covered with tape lines; these, she says, when dyed, will form a pattern all on their own as the threads covered with tape will not absorb the color.
The shop by the entrance sells some scarves of this type, a looser pattern of one color with white, which varies slightly between each individual scarf. There are also huge shawls as well as ribbon scarves of one pure color, made from raw silk, which get softer with each wash. They already feel gentle against the skin and Carol advises us to take them outside in the sunlight to see their real colors. Silk wall hangings go for large sums of money in the shop, though this is to be expected after seeing the meticulous fashion in which they were woven by these Lao women. Silk hangings often take over four months to complete and sometimes each day brings only two new centimeters of pattern. The Lao weavers use hybrid looms, designed by Carol.
Though the Lao Textile shop is somewhat concealed from view unless you know it is there, silk scarves are not hidden in Laos. In fact, at the Conference tables, a group is selling beautiful scarves woven by physically handicapped Lao women and men. The program is run by the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center, which has developed several sewing, weaving and recycled paper projects, including tablecloths, mats and tea coasters. Each purchase at this table benefits the disabled and gets put in a handcrafted bag made from recycled newspapers. This is the group responsible for weaving the badges that everyone at the Convention wears around their necks. These Lao weavers have graduated from a LDWDC training program, which teaches traditional Lao patterns and color matching — there is hardly a pattern they cannot create!
Having purchased far more scarves that I have people to give them to, I am in awe of the patterns these women can create as well as the scope of vibrant colors silk can absorb. The professionalism of these programs reminds us that something as traditional as weaving can help inspire people who have faced much hardship and help them rebuild their lives through the discovery of a new — or the rediscovery of an old — talent.