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Ladies of Laos

February 26, 2005

Deb McClintock

Deb McClintock Photo by Terry Henley

How many times before Saturday February 26 have I wondered about how the beautiful fabrics from Southeast Asia are made? How many times have I wondered where this artistry and knowledge shown by these finished products existed? Does it still exist? Is this craft still being practiced? How is it executed? What kinds of yarns are used? Where do they come from? What are the dyes and the methods of dyeing? The texture, color and the design are altogether awe-inspiring. So it was with great enthusiasm that I came to this Guild program which announced that Deb McClintock who, between 2000 and 2004 had spent a great deal of time weaving with the ladies of Laos, was going to share her experiences with us.

Deb McClintock was born in Texas. She has been weaving rugs for twenty-three years. She started on a rigid heddle loom with a pickup. She was astonished on finding that the shaft looms can be so limited. She became interested in finding the way to store pickup i.e. how supplementary shafts can be used and how Ikat is used to produce the patterns on Laos silk.

There are different indigenous peoples among the Laos. They used to be more isolated from one another but now things have changed. The government has taken the language of the preferred group and is insisting that this is the only one to be taught in schools. However there is more movement among the peoples so that now they are exchanging ideas on weaving and using each other's patterns. The Laos are also exchanging more with their neighbors, the Chinese and the Japanese. They are now using Chinese silk for the warp and using the Laos silk for the inlay because the Laos silk can be bumpy.

Many of the Laos are very poor; their income is derived mainly from the rice fields. Deb is doing two things to help them. She asks for donations of old glasses that she brings to them. In many places the lighting is very poor and then they can't afford the glasses when they need them. For instance it is impossible to weave black silk at night under a lamp without corrective lenses if you need them. She also sells some of the equipment and sends the money to the vocational schools that the government has opened so that more of those girls who live far away in the mountains can come to the city and learn. Later they can go back to their own town and marry and stay at home with their children and weave at home.

Weaving is considered an honored vocation in Laos. Little girls begin at the age of four even to learn from their mothers or grandmothers. In the cities some people wear Western clothes. In 1975 the government mandated that all women have to wear handwoven skirts for any appearance that is even remotely connected with official business. So then all were working together to train the women to weave and to be able to market their goods. Deb said that there was a very noticeable difference in the villages. In 2000 the women each had their own pieces and were happy to sell one. Now that their market has moved to the outside they are there in 2004 with a pad taking orders. There are three levels at work; the gallery, which produces fine art, the workshop with a bamboo roof and a dirt floor and the sweatshops with all the looms, tied side by side on a straw floor. The girls who work in the sweatshops either stay on or go to factories or they return to their native village and help their kin. They make skirt borders, skirt panels and long shawls. All clothing is made from cotton or cotton and silk or silk on silk. The patterns are very old; some are symbols of their culture and others are historical reproductions. The men seem to adopt the dress of those in power which means western styles.

At this point in her talk, Deb picked up, one at a time, one of these lovely things that she had brought along and talked about it in detail. The first one was a skirt border of white and yellow decorated with a deer. It is a cotton warp with a silk inlay. For dress up it would be a silk warp and a silk inlay. The border is woven as a length and it is put horizontally around on the skirt bottom. The next piece was a skirt panel with ancestor figures. It is also woven as a length. Then it is sewn together at the end. Then there is a snap at the waist. It is then folded over and there is another closure over the front, making three layers of cloth at the front; this will be very warm in the winter. In one case the border is woven separately and attached later. Other skirts are made with the reeds sleyed differently in various sections so that in the end there is one pattern for the skirt and a different one for the border but they are woven at the same time and finish as one piece.

She commented that to her knowledge, these very old techniques of weaving have not been documented with step-by-step directions. She said that a similar situation exists in the USA; she is interested in getting all this knowledge which exists among people in both countries documented in detail so that they will not be lost but will be available to anyone who wishes to understand and use them.

Deb said that the technique is essentially very simple in that a supplementary warp is used with a pickup which allows for a great variation and intricacy in the patterns; this means that there results a much greater variety than is possible with shaft looms. Deb has put the innards from a loom like those used in Laos into her loom here at home and uses it successfully. She explained that there are two threads that come through every dent; they are then separated so that one goes through one shaft and the second goes through another shaft. After that they meet together again at the third or pattern shed. This produces a plain weave ground first and then combines with the supplementary warp and pattern shed to make designs. Reversing the pickup or changing the inlay also makes different designs.

Next came the slide show in which we learned more about the country and about the weaving. Deb's group hired a van with a driver and a translator. They wouldn't ride the bus because the buses are so piled high with all kinds of goods; they are not modern and comfortable. In some places there are roads, in others not. Once the travelers found themselves just behind a bulldozer that was trailblazing and had to wait a long time before they could go forward. The Buddhist temples are most beautiful with water dragons embossed on their doors. Otherwise we saw frame houses with thatched roofs. Most people who live in the mountains harvest rice. They need to be very watchful over the fields since mines still explode which were dropped during the war; sometimes the farmer will start a fire during the night in the hopes that any land mines will explode when there is no danger of anyone being there. Travelers can go by bus, motorcycle or automobile. Visitors can take one or two day workshops with the weavers. Advice is given that in some places there might be rebels. As an example of how poor the people are, our travelers once slept in a construction camp with the children. The next morning they were awakened by the daylight as they saw the front of the building, made of wooden planks, being taken down to form counters and other daytime necessities. We saw people making straw brooms.

For the women in the village who weave, the market vendors supply the silk, the patterns and special equipment. Then they come about once a month to collect the goods and bring them to market.

There is one person in the village that provides the worms, cares for the cocoons and grows the silk. This person will harvest it and bring the silk to the women who weave. One of the problems here is the existence of both Malaria and Diphtheria; what happens is that spraying these insects also destroys the silkworms. We saw, on the slides, the silkworm cocoons and we saw how the silk was being harvested. The basket of cocoons are separated by types and then put on the reels. Dyeing is done in big pots over a log fire; controlling the heat is done by adding a log or removing a log from underneath the pot.

Then we saw slides of the looms. They are counterbalance looms that are often near the livestock; sometimes they are actually part of the barn frame. The warp chain is tied over the weaver's head and in front. The father of the house often makes the loom. The beams are square so they are turned by turning a right angle to let out the warp. During the rainy season there is often a fire under the warp to prevent the silk from getting wet and expanding too much. There can be two pickups. Pickup can be done in front of the reed or it can be passed back behind the reed. Pits are also used for bigger pickup storage. They also use a warping board and a cross and make a warp chain. The warp chain can be taken straight to the loom. There can be 50 to 90 ends per inch that are threaded in groups of ten. Rice paste can act like sizing. Deb McClintock will give lessons or if you bring in a loom she can show how it can be set up for this kind of weaving. It is very important that the women can stay at home and earn money by weaving. The average income for a family is about $200 - $300 per year.

The crowning touches were the slides of a fashion show at the end. Here we could see the women dressed in their finery, the men too. These clothes, so carefully and beautifully made, of fine quality materials evoked in us respect and appreciation for our unknown neighbors in Laos. We want to be their friends. We want to learn from them.

Deb, can you imagine that some of us might even want to go with you to Laos on your next trip? Can you send our greetings and thanks to the ladies of Laos for the inspiration that we received from them and their work through you.

--Sara Briggs


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