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Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos
Textiles, Tradition, and Well-Being
By Joshua Hirschstein
Thrums BooksCopyright © 2017 Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck
All rights reserved.
Welcome to Xam Tai
Two small boys, one naked and one wearing only a tee shirt, ran blindly towards us, laughing. They each held a stick and they were taking turns whapping a bicycle tire rim to continue it on its bumpy path. Looking up from their game, they saw us four falang — Maren, me and our twelve- and nine-year-old sons, Ari and Zall — and they both stopped mid-stride. The tire rim itself rolled forward another twenty feet, directly into Maren's outstretched hand. She smiled: "Sabaidee," she greeted.
The two little boys stood still for a moment, and then one turned and fled back to safety. The other stood wide-eyed, frozen. An older boy, dressed for school in a white shirt and dark pants, now saw us as well and shouted something that thawed the toddler. The little boy looked back at the shouter, then at us, then turned and ran in the direction of his original playmate.
The older boy, wearing a broad smile, trotted towards us; before he had reached our side, he blurted out as one long word: "Hellowhatisyourname?"
"My name is Maren," enunciated Maren slowly. "What is your name?"
"Ma-ren," he repeated, then: "MynameisBoun. Gladtomeetyou." He turned to Ari, extended a hand, and repeated: "Hellowhatisyourname?"
Before Ari could answer, another boy came running up shouting "Hellowhatisyourname?" Ari pronounced his name for both, and then each boy asked Zall his name. Zall's "z" sound proved a challenge and the boys smiled as they tried to turn a buzzing "zhhhh" into a delicate "zzzz." We all laughed at the beehive sounds.
Two more children joined. Everyone wanted a turn with "Hello what is your name?" and we were finally rescued from the lengthy introductions when a woman emerged from the nearest home tightening her sinh around her waist.
"Sabaidee," Maren nodded towards the woman, pressing her hands quickly together under her chin in the traditional greeting.
"Sabaidee," the women returned with a bright smile and a casual bow and hand press. She pointed to our two blond boys and said something that made the gathered children laugh.
Our guide and translator, Kaiphet, quickly stepped up from behind, introduced us, and inquired as to whether there were any weavers in the village. We had read in travel books about the traditional silk and cotton weaving of Laos's Houaphan Province, and we had seen samples of the quality weaving in Laos's major hub, Luang Prabang. We had also seen glimpses of looms under many homes as we had approached Xam Tai on the bus.
The woman nodded and pointed to a bench in the shade under her home. With a wave of her hand, she invited us to sit on the smooth-worn benches; we waited patiently as Kaiphet and the woman exchanged what we assumed were pleasantries. To our left rested a dusty wooden plow and a stack of aged, cracked hardwood boards. On the right were several wide, handwoven baskets, each covered with a section of decaying brown tarp.
We had arrived in Xam Tai, in the southern section of Houaphan Province in northeast Laos, at 3 pm after a seven-hour bus ride from Xam Neua over the twisty jungle mountains. We had deposited our packs in a cement box of a room in the town's sole guesthouse, and — what else to do? — walked the half hour beyond the central market and the bus station, past where the paved lane ended. The rutted dirt road, far more suited for the motorcycle than the rare four-wheel-drive vehicle, tumbled over a hillock and brought us to old Xam Tai's several dozen homes. One main road cut down the neighborhood's center; raised-stilt homes, a few with thatched roofs but most with metal, lined both sides. More homes straddled a thin, rutted lane behind the front row of houses.
Surrounding us were dusty browns and tans, from the houses' aged wooden posts to the unfinished crude boards of the houses' siding to the thick, dry roof thatch. A band of the forest's deep jungle green edged the periphery. The sky was hazy blue.
The woman stood up, readjusted her faded cotton sinh, and beckoned us to join her around behind the stack of lumber to what looked like a four-post canopy bed; she shooed a couple chickens off a worn, stained sheet that covered the structure and pulled off the dust cover.
The complex four-posted loom apparatus was strung with a dizzying, seemingly chaotic array of tan string, pink plastic ties, and smooth-worn sticks. The extended warp, which wrapped across, up, and over the loom, glowed with rich red. A glimmer of supplemental color — a bit of purple and yellow — danced a hint of expression on the front bar of the loom; the rest of the completed textile was hidden, as it had been rolled tightly during the weaving process with the bottomside up onto the loom's rolling front bar.
The woman disconnected the front bar and delicately unrolled the completed three-foot section, making sure not to create excess tension on the still-connected warp threads. With a smile she backed up so we could see the textile she had in progress.
The silk shimmered like a jewel — a burst of opulence and intricacy and precision in reds and yellows and purples that reached deep and sure. The bold Escheresque geometric design — Was this an elephant? Was this a man standing? Was this the rice awaiting harvest? — defied the "simpleness" of our surroundings.
We looked closer. A thousand — no, a hundred thousand — threads of spirited color have been cajoled and tamed into a woven dance of the exquisite and refined.
"Please, show us how?" Maren asked in English. No translation was needed.
The woman sat down on the worn bench, re-rolled the textile onto the bar, adjusted a plastic tie attached to the comb, lifted a wide set of threads with a wooden weaver's sword, and passed her hand-smoothed shuttle between the threads, adding another line of red weft. We sat mesmerized for several minutes, watching her pass the shuttle across the warp, and then hand-pick a selection of bright silk threads across each row.
Two more women who must have heard Maren's "oohs and aahs" appeared on the porch above and leaned over the narrow wooden railing. We looked up and smiled. "Sabaidee."
"Sabaidee-ee," they smiled back, holding the last long-e tone an extra beat. One of them said something and the weaver broke into a bright grin. The weaver didn't miss a beat, continuing to work her hands, methodically picking the discontinuous supplemental pattern threads into the textile's exposed backside. Three young, bottom-naked children appeared from the home and clung to the two women's knees, staring down at us from the overhead porch.
Ari, our twelve-year-old son, offered them a wide grin; the three little boys stared. One pointed and said "Falang." The other little boys quickly repeated: "Falang, falang!" Ari nodded at their welcome, which literally means "French," but today refers to any westerner. Zall, our nine-year-old, raised his ever-present Nikon and snapped a shot of the boys clinging to their mothers' legs.
Maren leaned down close to the woman's loom to study its intricacies. The weaver kept working, knowing she was being studied. Two more children, perhaps nine- or ten-year-olds in grubby tee shirts, sagging shorts, and flip-flops, ran over to join the growing crowd, bringing with them a dog and a whirl of dust. A chicken with a fleet of chicks scurried by our feet and ran out of the cool of the home's shade.
"What is she weaving?" we ask Kaiphet. Kaiphet translated the sentence into Lao and received a three-sentence reply, and then turned to us.
"She say it is for a ... uh ... ceremony," translated Kaiphet. His brow crinkled as he searched for the best words. "It is phaa sabai, but, uh, I do not know how to say in English — it is a clothing for a ... a ... a 'getting better.'" He paused. "She says this style in her tradition is to ... uh ... how to say ... to fix a balance that is inside"— and here Kaiphet put a hand on his heart. He paused again. "She ... uh ... says she has been weaving this piece since the end of rice harvest — about two months."
The woman continued to weave, sending her worn wooden shuttle back and forth on the silk warp threads and hand-picking the bright added colors. Another older woman appeared from a home behind the first; in her left hand she held a few folded textiles. She said something quick and sharp to the two boys, and one dashed off towards where the elder had come from. An older girl brought out a plastic pitcher of water and three glasses, and we all took a turn refreshing ourselves.
Two more people arrived — a toothless bent man wearing black-framed glasses and a young woman with an empty backpack basket who appeared at least eight months pregnant. They stood off to the side, joining the now-dozen children, and watched intently.
Maren had a flood of questions, and Kaiphet did his best:
The silk? "Raised here in the baskets woven by her father, under these tarps. Here, take a look. ..."
The threads? "Hand-reeled by her aunt, who lives over there ..."
The colors? "All made from the forest. The dyer lives by the bus station ..."
The pattern? "This one was shaped by her grandmother and has been woven many times ..."
The weaver? "Her mother, this woman over here, taught her to weave when she was seven years old ..."
Other women and children gathered to watch and listen, and a couple of older men, and another pitcher of water appeared. They smiled between themselves as they listened to our strange words, then to our translator's struggling enunciation, and finally the weaver's concise answer.
A stack of silk textiles appeared, and another woman unfolded a creation and held it up to her chest so we could see the full dance of her phaa sabai. A bevy of sharp-angled two-headed serpents dove through each other, purple over gold, in a sea of shimmering green and maroon. Maren and I laughed at the beauty and movement.
Maren asked a few more questions through Kaiphet, but the more detailed information Maren sought about the source of the silk and the meaning of the pattern proved the limit of Kaiphet's English. Kaiphet looked a bit embarrassed. "No problem," Maren said to him, "Bo penyang." Kaiphet smiled at the Lao expression.
"Does she have any textiles for sale?" asked Maren, eyebrows raised. Kaiphet translated and the weaver nodded and turned her head upward toward the two women on the porch. She rattled off a paragraph of information. One dashed inside, we presumed to get whatever she might have for sale. The boy who had earlier dashed into the home brought out two cheap blue plastic chairs and nodded for Maren and me to sit down.
Our boys, sensing another hour at this home, sighed, and looked around at the fifteen or so kids who surrounded them. Ari dug into his daypack and pulled out a frisbee. "Come on, Zall." The two dashed out onto the main track. The local boys watched Ari and Zall toss the frisbee three times, and then the fourth time Ari zipped the frisbee to the boy who had brought us the chairs. The boy ducked and laughed, then ran after the crashed frisbee and attempted his first-ever frisbee toss. Everyone laughed and ran to where the frisbee had landed. Maren and I knew that every boy fourteen and under would be entertained for at least half an hour.
Two more women arrived along with several more children who looked anywhere between three and twelve years old. The boys ran to join the newfound game; the girls gathered around their moms' legs and the loom. A moment later three more women came scurrying around from the road. There must now have been twenty people crowded around, not counting the dozen boys playing frisbee out in the road.
Then a bustling, weathered woman charged in shouting what sounded like instructions to all of us. Slung across her shoulders was an old worn purse so large that she almost could have fit into it herself; stuffed into the bag was a jumble of hastily folded rich-colored textiles. I think I actually heard Maren smile.
This short pugilist of a woman grabbed a silk from her purse and shook it at Maren. She shouted a few sentences — two women looked down sheepishly, and another laughed behind her hand. The original weaver returned, carefully clutching several neatly folded shimmering silks. She presented the stack to Maren with two hands and a little bow, and then stepped back, glancing at the elder.
The older woman scowled and spat out another couple of sentences. The second woman laughed again under her breath, which inspired the sour-looking elder to throw out a few more quick lines. Kaiphet chose not to translate her words; we chose not to ask.
Maren picked up one of the original weaver's silks and unfurled the opulent body-height tapestry. Rich gold threads, highlighted with sparks of deep green and blue, detailed the popular siho (mythical elephant-lion) motif. Ancestor figures, each riding the siho's back, shimmered in the sun. Maren took her time to admire the piece with her eyes and hands, chortling subtle "oohs" and other under-the-breath accolades at the complex artistry.
The elder, eyes blinking rapidly, waited perhaps five seconds, and she shook out one of her textiles and pushed it into Maren's hands. She spoke in a rushed high tone. No translator was needed to tell us what she wanted.
Maren politely directed the elder's textile to the side, all the while nodding and smiling. As politely as possible, Maren ignored the elder's interruption and addressed the original weaver: "Sii tomasat? Sii chemi?" ("Natural color? Chemical color?") "Sii tomasat!" the woman grinned, surprised at Maren's Lao. The elder threw out another couple of quick lines — one of the words was tomasat — and then she burst out laughing. The other women all smiled.
"Mai Lao? Mai Viet?" Maren continued. (Lao silk? Vietnam silk?) The elder pushed a second textile at Maren, and Maren continued to ignore her, directing her full attention to the original weaver.
"Mai Lao," the woman answered proudly. She then rattled a sentence off to Maren, who turned to Kaiphet.
"Sorry," said Kaiphet, who was watching the frisbee game. And he turned to the woman and asked her to repeat. He laughed. "She says you speak good Lao."
The elder grabbed a third textile from her purse and held it directly in Maren's vision. Maren turned toward the scowling woman and explained in English, and a flurry of hand signals, that while she would get a turn, we were currently talking with this other woman. Kaiphet didn't translate Maren's words, but he did say something short that got everyone, save the elder, to crack a smile. The elder, unperturbed, yanked now a fourth textile from her purse and held it up to Maren. Maren and she locked eyes.
The elder squinted, and pushed up her lower lip to form a deep frown. She held her grim mouth in a deep frown firmly for a moment, as if daring Maren. And then, finally with Maren's full attention, she erupted into a wide smile.
Grinning there in front of all the other women and Maren on that first day, Sukkhavit — for that is the elder's name — held that clutched textile up for Maren to see. The women all paused, waiting to see how the stand-off would end. Maren raised her eyebrows at Sukkhavit, and then she too joined the wide grin. Sukkhavit chortled as if a great secret had been shared — and maybe it had. She reached up and shook Maren by the shoulder, as if waking her up. Then they laughed together.
Sukkhavit didn't let go of Maren's shoulder.
Through Kaiphet, Maren patiently assured Sukkhavit that her silks would be also admired and, possibly, purchased. Since she had arrived after the others, she explained, it would only be appropriate that she receive our focused attention after the others. Sukkhavit scowled as she watched young Kaiphet struggle to explain and, long before he could finish, she charged off on another quick sentence. The entire group of locals tried to suppress a laugh.
Excerpted from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos by Joshua Hirschstein. Copyright © 2017 Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck. Excerpted by permission of Thrums Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE Welcome to Xam Tai,
CHAPTER TWO Sukkhavit,
CHAPTER THREE The Falang, and How We Got Here,
CHAPTER FOUR Spark,
CHAPTER FIVE Xam Tai District, Houaphan Province, Laos,
CHAPTER SIX Nang Tiip of Xam Tai,
CHAPTER SEVEN Political History of the Region,
CHAPTER EIGHT Yiim of Xam Tai,
CHAPTER NINE Entering the Twenty-First Century,
CHAPTER TEN Mai of Xam Tai,
CHAPTER ELEVEN Seeking Xam Tai's Ethno-Cultural Roots,
CHAPTER TWELVE Lun and Bounkeo,
three. Textiles in Village Life,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN Me Tau Lu of Ban Tao,
CHAPTER FOURTEEN Weaving as Well-Being,
CHAPTER FIFTEEN Sinh and Other Daily-Use Textiles,
CHAPTER SIXTEEN Ta of Meung Kuan,
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Ceremonial Textiles,
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Phout of Xam Tai,
four. Textile Creation,
CHAPTER NINETEEN The Art of Xam Tai Design and Motifs,
CHAPTER TWENTY Ban Tao Sushi,
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Silkworms and the Art of Sericulture,
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Reeling with Seuk of Ban Tao,
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Ni Mon of Xam Tai,
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Souksakone of Xam Tai,
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE The Art of Natural Dyeing,
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX The Art of Silk Weaving: Tools and Techniques,
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN Template-Makers and Weavers,
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT Chola of Xam Tai,
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE Cotton Textiles,
CHAPTER THIRTY Dyeing with Indigo,
five. Looking Forward,
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE The Marketplace,
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO Mai of Meung Kuan,
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE The Dance of the Young Weavers,
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR Mai Chom of Xam Tai,
The Final Word,
Bibliography and Photography Credits,