Photo: A beautiful classic Lao weaving.

Weaving and textiles

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Laos is renowned for its tradition of weaving and Luang Prabang has become a hub for textiles. Weaving is an art and skill that has been passed on between generations. What begins as a silkworm, a bud of cotton or a hemp plant is transformed into a cloth that tells a story about the weaver, her village, her tribe and ethnicity: Hmong, Tai Lue, Tai Dam, Lanten and Katu, just to name a few. Textiles are a fascinating way to connect with the culture of Laos and through them you can discover the country’s astounding diversity.



SEE
Ban Phanom is a popular stop with tour groups. Visitors can observe the silk-making process, see weavers at work and of course, buy products at this weaving village about five kilometres from the town centre. It’s a very touristy place and this village supplies many of the woven textiles for sale at the night market, often sacrificing quality for speed.

A world of weaving awaits at the Luang Prabang night market.

A world of weaving awaits in Luang Prabang.

Instead, we recommend Ban Xieng Lek and Ban Xangkong, also known as the paper and weaving villages. It’s a low-key experience, with much more variety – not just silk scarves but also cotton rugs, tapestries and shawls – and better quality too. To get there cross the bamboo bridge (available in dry season, from November to June) to Dyen Sabai Restaurant, or cross the motorbike bridge and turn left. Just continue on this road along the Mekong for 2.5 kilometres, about 15 minutes by bicycle, or 30 minutes’ walk. It’s a pleasant trip when it’s not too hot.

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At work.

LEARN
Get hands on. Ock Pop Tok has classes at their Living Crafts Centre two kilometres from town. Try a half-day natural dyes session (464,000 kip or US$59), a full-day silk weaving or Hmong batik class (starting from 605,000 kip or US$77). Enthusiasts can partake in a two- or three-day workshop with master weavers. The full-day class includes a Lao lunch and free shuttle from the town centre. Ock Pop Tok also do weekly informative “Shop Talks” at their two boutiques in town. Presentations have covered a range of cultural topics, such as the traditional Lao sinh (skirt) and understanding animal motifs. Admission is free. See their Facebook page for schedule.

Banana Boat Laos, in conjunction with handicraft shop Ma Te Sai, do a three-day trip to Nong Khiaw that includes a stop at a weaving village on the Nam Ou river and a half-day visit to a Tai Lue village that specialises in cotton weaving. Located in the agriculturally rich Nam Bak district of Luang Prabang province, the trip will get you off the beaten track to experience true village life. You will meet the weavers and see the indigo dyeing process.

Indigo leaves are used to dye fabrics a distinctive blue, green or black.

Indigo leaves are used in dyeing threads blue, green or black.

You can also buy this Tai Lue village’s cushions, shawls, baby blankets and jackets at Ma Te Sai. Buy fabric for a sinh and the shop can help you get a traditional skirt tailor made. Sinh fabric is priced at 450,000 kip and up.

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Cotton indigo-dyed and woven by the Tai Lue people, ready to be made into a woman’s Sinh.

HOW AND WHERE TO BUY
The quality at the night market is average at best, but there is nothing wrong with that if you find something you like. Simple scarves can be priced as low as 25,000 kip. Visit the night market as they are setting up the stalls, around 16:30-17:00. With the daylight you can see the colour, detail and any imperfections. And as the lucky first sale of the business day, the women may give you a great deal.

Cheap machine-woven scarves from China and Vietnam have found their way into the night market and for the average person it will be difficult to identify or find out. Sometimes the machine’s weave has purposely been made loose, to look hand done. If it looks cheap, it probably is. If you have your heart set on buying an authentic one-of-a-kind piece, buy direct from the village or visit the shops we’ve listed below. Better retailers should be able to give you accurate information on where the product came from and who made it.

Natural dyed or chemical dyed? Silk or cotton? It’s all a matter of preference. Expect to pay more for a natural-dyed, hand-woven piece. The more intricate the pattern and the larger the textile, the more raw material, skill and hours on the loom it took so it will be priced accordingly.

Chemical or natural dye? It’s a matter of preference.

Chemical or natural dye? Whatever you like is what’s best.

The following shops have high quality products from Laos. Prices are fixed – no bargaining. We’ve created “the scarf index” – the price of a basic scarf – as the benchmark for pricing.

Caruso Lao specialises in home accessories but also has superb, very pricey hand-woven silks and brocades. Silk scarf, 400,000 kip and up. (60 Sakkaline Road, Ban Wat Sene, on the main street across from Primary School; T: (071) 254574; http://www.carusolao.com)

Ma Té Sai is a member of Fair Trade Laos and they support and buy from villages. Cotton scarf, 100,000 kip. (Ban Aphai, opposite the Aussie Bar; T: (071) 260654; http://matesai.com)

Kop Noi has a range of made-in-Laos clothes and pretty accessories. Silk scarf, from 250,000 kip. (Ban Aphai, beside Ma Te Sai; T: (071) 260 248; http://kopnoi.com)

In addition to stunning Asian antiques, Le Pavillon de Jade has exquisite silks of the highest quality in tones that you won’t see anywhere else in town. It will have you fawning then gasping at the price tag. Silk scarves from 1,200,000 kip. (41 Sakkaline Road, Ban Wat Sene, on main street across from Primary School.)

In July 2014 the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre opened a retail shop on the main street. The museum’s products showcase the country’s diversity. Cotton scarf, 120,000 kip. (Sakkaline Road across from Villa Santi Hotel; T: (071) 253 364; http://taeclaos.org)

While the majority of scarves you see in Ock Pop Tok were woven by weavers employed at their Living Crafts Centre, they do carry items made in other parts of Laos. Silk scarf in every colour imaginable, from 320,000 kip. (Ban Vat Nong, beside L’Elephant Restaurant; T: (0)71 212 597; http://ockpoptok.com)


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What next?

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