Weaving and textiles

Weaving and textiles

Luang Prabang is a hub for textiles

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Laos is renowned for its tradition of weaving and Luang Prabang has become a hub for textiles—read on for a primer on how to learn more about the craft along with recommendations for reputable outlets to buy from.

Travelfish says:

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.

A world of weaving awaits in Luang Prabang. : Cindy Fan.
A world of weaving awaits in Luang Prabang. Photo: Cindy Fan

SEE
Visitors can observe weavers at work and of course, buy products at Ban Xieng Lek and Ban Xang Khong, also known as the paper and weaving villages. Untouched by tourism this place is not, however the dual villages retain a rural air, it’s a low-key experience and there’s variety—not just silk scarves but also cotton rugs, tapestries and shawls of good quality. To get there cross the bamboo bridge at the tip of the peninsula (available in dry season from around November to June). Or cross the motorbike bridge and turn left, continuing on this road along the Mekong for 2.5 kilometres, about 15 minutes by bicycle or 30 minutes walk, a pleasant trip when it’s not too hot.

LEARN
Get hands on. Ock Pop Tok offers workshops at their Living Crafts Centre two kilometres from town on the banks of the Mekong river. Try a half-day natural dyes session (416,000 kip/US$52), a full-day silk weaving or Hmong batik class (starting from 552,000 kip/US$69). 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.

Indigo leaves are used in dyeing threads blue, green or black. : Cindy Fan.
Indigo leaves are used in dyeing threads blue, green or black. Photo: Cindy Fan

Fair trade Lao handicraft shop Ma Te Sai do a natural dyes workshop in an ethnic Tai Lue village off the beaten track, in the agriculturally rich Nam Bak district of Luang Prabang Province. The workshop takes place right in the village led by masters of cotton weaving and natural dyes like indigo. See those duvet covers, bags and slippers with applique embroidery in the night market? That’s a Hmong speciality and those who love a little needlework can learn the Hmong reverse embroidery technique. Ma Te Sai offers a two-hour class taught by a local at their shop in Ban Aphai.

A different kind of weaving but weaving nonetheless, bamboo weaving is an integral part of life in Laos. The Khmu are particularly well known for their skills, transforming strips of bamboo into a simple mat, the wall of a house, a fish trap or an elaborate basket. Learn how to make your own basket at TAEC. The 2.5 hr workshop is just US$12.

Chemical or natural dye? Whatever you like is what’s best. : Cindy Fan.
Chemical or natural dye? Whatever you like is what’s best. Photo: Cindy Fan

HOW AND WHERE TO BUY
The quality of textiles at the night market is average at best, with quality sacrificed for speed and cheaper threads. There is nothing wrong with that if you find something you like. Simple scarves can be as low as 25,000 kip. The best time to visit the night market is as they are setting up the stalls, around 16:30-17:00. In daylight it is easier to see the colour, detail and any imperfections. And as the lucky first sale of the business day, the vendor may give a great deal.

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

At the night market. : Cindy Fan.
At the night market. Photo: Cindy Fan

Natural dye or chemical dye? Silk or cotton? It’s all a matter of preference. The more intricate the pattern and the larger the textile, the more raw material, skill and hours on the loom so it will be priced accordingly.

The bulk of the Luang Prabang-woven textiles sold in the night market come from Ban Phanom, about five kilometres from the town centre. Unlike the paper and weaving village, it’s not a place to go watch weavers work, however, Ban Phanom has set up an indoor marketplace, a popular shopping stop with tour groups. The better quality stuff is sold here while the lesser goods are designated for the night market, so head here if looking for something a cut above a night market find.

The following shops have high quality products from Laos. Prices are fixed—no bargaining. We’ve included the price of a basic scarf to give an idea of pricing.

Caruso Lao specialises in home accessories but also has superb, high-priced 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

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.

Ma Té Sai is a member of Fair Trade Laos and they support and work with rural villages throughout the country. Natural-dye cotton scarf, 100,000 kip.
Ban Aphai; T: (071) 260654; http://matesai.com

The majority of scarves in Ock Pop Tok were woven by weavers employed at their Living Crafts Centre. They have several locations in town. Silk scarf in every colour imaginable, from 320,000 kip.
Main street across from Zurich Bakery or beside 3 Nagas T: (071) 253 219; Mo–Su: 08:00-20:00. http://ockpoptok.com

Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre have a shop at the museum and on the main street, the products showcasing the country’s diversity. Natural-dye cotton scarf, 120,000 kip.
Sakkaline Road across from Villa Santi Hotel; T: (071) 253 364; http://taeclaos.org

Reviewed by

Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.

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