Silk Textiles from Laos

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Silk Textiles from Laos

Silk Textiles sabai designs

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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, Lao women only weaved for themselves and their family, breeding the silkworms, extracting the silk, and dyeing it with natural pigments. Then an heirloom textile would be taken and studied to inspire their own piece.                                        

The many ethnic groups in Laos provide a vast pool of influences and have led to a wonderful variety of patterns, colour schemes and shapes over past centuries. After a long period of decline in the art of weaving in Laos, this most excellent tradition experienced a revival  in the early 1990s. Today several silk weaving studios in Laos are weaving silks of breathtaking quality and design and are receiving deserved attention and 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 wonderful art form.

The women of Laos are passionate about silk weaving and describe the weaving process as a work of great joy. To watch a silk textile evolve day by day, seeing individual strands of dyed silk woven into complex, perfectly executed designs, is an unforgettable experience and leaves one with a great sense of appreciation of the skills of these women. Silk weaving plays an important role in Laos' tradition and as demand grows, it is helping to stimulate a tiny economy with few exports. It is a valuable source of income for women and their families and serves to promote tourism in Laos.

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 3000 feet long. Five or so filaments are usually combined to make a usable silk thread. After the thread is dried and spun it is dyed using a traditional, time honoured technique of taking extracts from indigenous plants. Extracts from indigo produce blue, black and green, the mahogany tree produces beige and maroon, ebony fruit produces grey, jackfruit produces yellow, the bark of the Indian trumpet flower tree produces green and wild almond leaves produce olive. During these ancestral dyeing techniques, great care is taken in selecting the plants and it is a very time consuming process. The natural beauty of silk dyed from pigments extracted from plants is very obvious when compared side by side with chemically dyed textiles.                                                        

Once the design has been decided on, silk weaving begins on traditional wooden loom. A single piece can take take days, weeks or even months to complete. Traditional designs or motifs include ancient symbols embedded in Lao culture and include diamonds, temples, birds, mythical serpents (Naga), elephants and other animals as well as flowers. These symbols are not merely ornamental but have significance, offering both protection and status to the owner. The starflower and other geometric designs bring good luck and prosperity, the Naga   possesses magical powers, and is a powerful symbol of fertility and protects the Dharma or teaching of the Buddha. The firestone and spinning tools represent wisdom and creativity.

Terms referring to the weaving techniques commonly used include warp, weft, supplementary weft, matmee or ikat and tapestry. Warp refers to the the silk threads stretched lengthwise on the loom to be crossed by the weft, which combines to create the cloth. Supplementary weft refers to a decorative technique in which the motif is created using additional threads. This ingenious technique can make the motif appear as though it were embroidered when the finished silk is studied. In matmee or ikat silk threads are pre-dyed in a pattern which forms when the piece is woven, creating an artistic effect where the colours appear to bleed into one another. This technique is well known in Indonesia and India. Tapestry is a freestyle weaving technique popular in the north of Laos.

Unlike machine made textiles the surface of these textiles is not perfect, and instead shows the beautiful characteristics and nubs of hand woven silk, giving it a warm organic appearance. We carefully handpick every silk silk to ensure the highest possible quality at the most reasonable price. When considering the value of a silk, please consider the time and skill required to create these mesmerizing textiles. Silk is a durable fibre but we do recommend dry cleaning. Silk can be ironed with a moderately hot iron, placing a thin cloth such as a handkerchief between the silk and the iron.

Our silk textiles can be used as wall hangings, table runners, bed runners, and shawls, which is the traditional use of many Lao textiles. Certain pieces can look wonderful framed such as the antique silk pieces known as tin-sin, which originally adorned the skirt bottoms of traditional Lao dresses. The tin-sin often use cotton with the supplementary weft design in silk. The antique pieces are in short supply and will increase in value over time. The exquisite textiles woven by the women of Laos capture much of the exotic, mystical East and look wonderful displayed in the home.

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