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Laos has one of the most diverse cultures in Southeast Asia which is a product of landlocked geography, colonization and decades of conflict with neighboring regions. But despite all these struggles and challenges, the country continues to thrive thanks largely to a booming tourism industry that promotes Laos weaving and textiles.
Weaving is part of the fabric of being a woman in Laos which has practiced the art for thousands of years. In fact, up until half a century ago, Laos females in Hua Phan province were not allowed to go to school and get formal education. Instead, villagers required daughters to learn and master everything about textile weaving; from reeling silk and cotton threads to raising silkworms and even making natural dyes. Things have changed a lot since then but many elders still maintain the belief that Laos women are better off weaving.
Silk weaving and textile production go beyond economics for Laotians. It’s embedded in virtually every facet of their society. In ancient times, the most exquisite textiles were reserved for royalty and wealthy families who wielded power and great influence. They were also essential to trade and maintaining peace with the neighboring kingdoms of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Angkor. Textiles play a central role in everyday Laotian life too. Locals weave costumes they wear to weddings and given as offerings for the dead to bring in the afterlife. They’re also favored as gifts and are often expected as part of bridal dowries.
Like Persian rugs, Laos textiles use intricate design patterns that reflect what weavers see around them. However, many of the symbols used also represent Laotian beliefs and traditions. Textiles often determine ethnic group and status in society which are very important aspects of life in Laos. Elephant figures and the ‘hong,’ a mythical bird-like creature, says the textile owner is rich and very influential. When couples want to get pregnant, friends and family often gift them textiles with frog symbols that means fertility or reproduction.
These days, this long-standing tradition of crafting beautiful Laos textiles is heavily threatened by mass-production of cheaper quality weaves. Many interior designers recognize this challenge and are incorporating Laotian art in their projects by using silk and cotton rugs handwoven in Laos to help revive this age-old tradition.