Explore the Mesmerizing World of Traditional Silk Weaving
Silk Textiles from Laos
The tradition of silk weaving in Laos, a small country in Southeast Asia, is over 1000 years old. Passed down from mother to daughter for generations, silk weaving continues to serve as a beautiful expression of an ancient culture.
In the past, Laotian women only weaved for themselves and their family; breeding the silk worms, extracting the silk, and dyeing it with natural pigments before taking an heirloom textile as inspiration for their own piece.
The many ethnic groups in Laos provide a vast pool of influences and have led to a wonderful variety of patterns, color schemes, and shapes over past centuries. The court clothes of Luang Prabang were often made with refined silk, using gold and silver thread. Formal wear was at one time influenced by the tradition of the Khmer Empire, with long cloth woven in ikat techniques, often with a tin sin – a border brocade woven in supplementary weft technique and sewn at the foot of the skirt. Other influences include the supplementary weft brocades from India and China. These designs were incorporated into men’s pantaloons, women’s tube skirts, blouses, and shoulder cloths. The classic Lao shoulder cloth, woven in brocade using bright silk and intricately decorated, was worn wrapped around the torso with the loose end hanging down across the left shoulder.
The royal courts influenced the styles of silk weaving in distant villages. Village weavers imitated court clothes and wove their own interpretations of court designs, often learned of through word of mouth and traveling theaters. Silk textiles of specific design are still worn today during ceremonies marking birth, puberty, marriage, death, or the elevation of a person’s social status. In Laos, textiles play an important role in healing rituals and Buddhist ceremonies.
Revival of the Tradition of Silk Weaving in Laos
After a long period of decline in the art of silk weaving, this wonderful tradition experienced a revival in the early 1990s. Today several studios in Laos are weaving silks of breathtaking quality and design and are receiving deserved recognition from around the world. The demand for loom woven silk textiles from Laos is on the rise as more and more people come into contact with and have the opportunity to appreciate this unique art form.
The weavers of Laos are proud and passionate about silk weaving, and describe it as a work of great joy. Silk weaving plays an important role in Lao tradition, and as demand grows, it is helping to stimulate a tiny economy with few exports by providing a valuable source of income for women and their families, as well as serving to boost tourism.
Working with Silk Thread
Thanks to hundreds of years spent perfecting the cultivation of silk, the thread used in Laos is of a consistently high quality. The silk taken from a cocoon consists of a single filament up to 3,000 feet long. Five or so filaments are normally combined to make a usable silk thread. The thickness or fineness of silk filament yarn is expressed in terms of denier, which is defined as the weight in grams of 9,000 meters of the yarn -the lower the denier, the finer the silk. Silk that contains sericin is called raw silk. The gummy substance affords protection during processing and so is usually retained until the yarn or fabric stage. It is then removed by boiling the silk in a mildly alkaline solution. This process, called degumming, leaves the silk soft and lustrous, but it can reduce the weight of the silk by as much as 30 percent.
After the silk is dried and spun, it is then dyed using extract from the indigo plant (producing blue, black, and green), mahogany tree (dry earth and red brick ), ebony fruit (grey), annatto seeds (orange), jackfruit (yellow), the bark of the Indian trumpet flower tree (green), and almond leaves (olive). Ancestral dyeing techniques are of a very high standard and great care is taken selecting the plants from which the dye is extracted in this time consuming practice. Most fabrics in the world today are dyed with synthetic dyes, which can be of very high quality, but lack the natural beauty of dyes produced from plant extracts. Some studios in Laos have elected to use synthetic dyes from Germany to achieve certain colors and because they are more resistant to fading.
Once a design has been decided on, silk weaving begins on a traditional wooden loom. It’s an amazing experience to watch a detailed motif slowly emerge day by day. One quickly develops an appreciation for the skill and patience required by the weaver. A single piece can take days, weeks, or even months to complete. Traditional designs and patterns, called motifs, include ancient symbols such as diamonds, temples, birds, mythical serpents (Naga), elephants, and other animals, as well as flowers. These motifs are not merely ornamental. They have significance to the people of Laos; thought to offer both status and protection to the owner. The starflower and other geometric designs bring good luck and prosperity. Animal characters are believed to bring fertility and protection, while patterns such as the firestone and spinning tools represent wisdom and creativity.
Symbols of Lao Silk Weaving - Ancient Motifs
The rich symbolism expressed through the motifs woven into Lao silk textiles are inspired by the natural environment, Buddhist tradition, local culture and the Laotian’s world view. The most important symbols are:
Naga (Phanya Naak/Nguak) – a serpent of the water systems with magical powers. Important to Lao mythology, the Naga is a symbol of fertility and also worshiped as a guardian of human life in a society that depends on water to cultivate rice, a staple food. The Naga is also believed to exercise influence over the moral behavior of humans.
Garuda – the Garuda is a sun bird and is the counterpart to the Naga. Thought to be a heavenly being, the Garuda wanders between the human and heavenly worlds.
Elephant – the elephant stands for wisdom, nobility, and strength and is the guardian of the traveler. White elephants in Laos are regarded as sacred and in the former Lao Kingdom, Laan Saang, were bred at the king’s court.
Rajaiha – a mythical figure whose form has elements of the lion, dragon, and bird. In the eyes of some, it is the king of all animals. The Rajaiha is thought to offer protection against natural catastrophes and accidents.
Flower – in Asia, flowers have been used for thousands of years in rituals and as offerings to the Buddha, guardians, and ancestor spirits, and symbolize the offering of respect. Palm leaves symbolize the ‘tree of life’ and are understood as an element connecting earth and heaven.
Stars / Diamonds – often appearing in rows or patterns, they symbolize the cosmos with its four or eight directions (N, E, S, W; NE, SE, SW, NW). The star symbol (daa lao) is often used as a protective symbol during ceremonies with family or community. The star symbol is said to cast off negative energy and malevolent spirits.
Palace – the palace motif represents the heavenly worlds where the gods and angels reside. These beings have magical powers and may help humans out of compassion for their predicaments.
Stupa – the stupa is a Buddhist symbol and a physical structure that contains relics of the Buddha, along with Buddhist manuscripts, Buddha images, and other works of art. The stupa is used in meditation practice, symbolizing enlightenment.
Ancestor figure – ancestor spirits are represented by the human form. They are thought to maintain a close relationship with the human world, and when motivated out of a call to compassion, will intervene in worldly affairs to protect human beings from illness and mishap.
Terms referring to the weaving techniques used include warp, weft, supplementary weft, matmee or ikat and tapestry. Warp refers to the silk threads stretched lengthwise on the loom to be crossed by the weft, which then forms the cloth. Supplementary weft refers to a decorative technique in which the motif is created using additional threads. This ingenious technique can appear as though the designs were embroidered onto the cloth. Matmme or ikat is the process of introducing a pre-dyed pattern into the warp. Silk threads are dyed in a pattern and woven into the piece, creating an artistic effect where the colors appear to bleed into one another. This technique is also employed in Indonesia and India. Tapestry is a freestyle weaving technique popular in the north of Laos.
Unlike machine made textiles, the surfaces of loom woven silk are not perfect, but instead show the beautiful characteristics and nubs of hand-woven and dyed silk.
We carefully handpick every silk textile to ensure the highest possible quality. When considering the value of a silk, please take into account the time and skill required to create these mesmerizing textiles. Silk is a durable fiber, but we do recommend dry cleaning. Silk can be ironed with a moderately hot iron, using a thin cloth between the iron and the silk.
Our silk textiles can be used as wall hangings, table runners, bed runners, or wraps. Certain pieces also look wonderful framed. Our antique silks sometimes combine cotton with silk, especially the pieces that were originally skirts worn by Laotian women. These pieces are in short supply and will increase in value over time.
The exquisite textiles woven by the women of Laos lend a wonderful, warm ambience to the home and capture much of the mystical, exotic, and playful sense of Southeast Asian culture.
Visit our Silk Textiles collection to see a variety of silk wall hangings, runners, and silk art from Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Japan. Below is a small sample of silk textiles currently available in the gallery.
Exotic Home Decor
Our silk textile collection comprises both new and vintage pieces, including silk wall hangings, bed and table runners, and framed silk art.