Silk and cotton weaving is an ancient art from the former kingdoms of the Lao, which showed not only the wealth of families, communities, and the royal courts, but also was an important factor in the commercial relations between the Lao and their neighbouring kingdoms as China, Angkor, Siam, and Vietnam. Up to today it is impossible to date the beginnings of weaving in this region or with the Lao exactly. More than thousand years ago, trade flourished between India and China via various silk roads. The south-west silk-road had its origin in Sichuan where traders followed the rivers through the mountainous areas to today`s Assam. Silk and textile trade may have favoured and influenced the development of different weaving and dyeing techniques, but also design and use of textiles among the Lao. Clothes are used as a form of group identification, and textiles have been very important symbols of prestige throughout history.
Festive and court clothes from Luang Phabang and Vientiane
Court clothes are characterised by their fine shade and design and the use of precious materials as refined silk, gold and silver thread. The court of Luang Phabang preferably used long cloth woven in ikat technique as formal wear as it was a tradition of the former Khmer empire, often with a fine tiin sin - a border brocade woven in supplementary weft technique - sewed on. Other favourites of the Luang Phabang court were copies of imported supplementary weft brocades from India and Chinese satins. These served as men's pantaloons, women's tubeskirts, blouses and shoulder cloths. The classic Lao shoulder cloth, woven in brocade and bright silk and mostly decorated throughout, was worn wrapped around the torso with the loose end hanging down the left shoulder at the back. The court of Vientiane was strongly influenced by the Luang Phabang court, but also elements of the Lao Phuan (Siang Khwang) and from Southern Laos, namely Champassak, can be found in Vientiane court textiles.
The royal courts influenced far away villages with their styles. Information concerning the costume and textiles of the courts may have been carried to the rural areas by word of mouth and via the popular theatre. Village weavers imitated court clothes and wove their own interpretations of court designs, and folk did wear such clothes at festive events.
Women's festive silk dresses are silk pha sin (tube-skirts) with fine gold-lace brocades and phaa biang (shoulder cloth), also made of silk with gild lace. The motifs are manifold, and include such as flowers and stars, lotus flowers, stupa motifs, mythical figures as birds and naga (water snake), diamond and key patterns.
Textiles for ceremonial purposes
Within most cultures textiles are used in ceremonies as identifiers. Such textiles are of great importance in the lives of the people and often are used as gifts or for ceremonial purposes in "rites de passage" such as birth, puberty, marriage, death or the elevation of a person's social status. With the Lao, textiles are also of special importance in healing rituals and in Buddhist ceremonies.
The traditional Lao wedding, one of the most significant ceremonies, requires fine and elaborate costumes and clothes for bride, groom and the "master of the ceremony" (mo phon). The dress of the bride during the main suu khwan ritual ("calling of the life essence" - the most important of several phases of a marriage) is woven with refined silk thread and lavishly decorated with silver or gold yarns using supplementary weft techniques. The preferred colour for a bride is red. The groom wears a pha nung and pha waa (pantaloon and shoulder cloth). The pha nung is woven with fine silk in a single dark colour, sometimes decorated with a splendid lace; the pha waa is a check silk cloth. An intricate bride's dress may take several months or even years to complete. But not only clothes are important in wedding ceremonies, but also textiles as a part of the bride-price.
The Lao employ textiles in ceremonial ways for death rituals, irrespective if they bury their dead or they follow Theravada Buddhism and cremate their dead. Textiles are used to indicate the status of the deceased and the deceaced's family. The deceased is dressed in the finest new clothes the family can afford; and several sets of clothing are placed in the coffin with the corpse as it lies in state. It is believed, that by offering textiles one can gain merit and make the deceased more comfortable in the next life. In addition to this, handwoven banners are given to the temple or are erected at the cemetery as a memorial.
Another major event is the Buddhist ordination. Boys during several ceremonies and processions wear special silk clothes, and with the delivery of the yellow priestly robes to the ordinants the main ceremony is completed. Furthermore, cotton shawls are woven to cover and protect Buddhist sacred scriptures, utensils of monks or even sacred Buddha statues. Dyed silk or cotton yarns are used to create the designs of such clothes, using supplementary weft techniques, on a plain weave white cotton ground.
The finest traditional attire up to today is worn to temple functions. On Buddhist holidays or for ceremonial occasions, men often wear a shoulder cloth with check or key pattern. Women wear cotton or silk skirts and shoulder cloths, which do show religious motifs as stylised stupas, candlestick motifs, palm leaf patterns and key patterns, stars and naga-motifs.
The richness of patterns, motifs and colours makes weaving an artful handicraft, which reflects the creativity and the aesthetic mind of Lao women weavers. The manifold symbols represented in traditional textiles originate in the natural environment and also reflect the Lao world view. The most important symbols are:
Phanya Naak (naga) or NgŁak
Phanya Naak and NgŁak are names of water serpents, which appear in Lao mythology as powerful rulers over the waters. These water serpents symbolise fertility, and are seen as important gods or guardian spirits having the power to rule over human life. In a wet-rice cultivating society human life fully depends on water even when irrigation systems are constructed as practised by the Lao. Thus the Phanya Naak or NgŁak are worshipped as guardians of human life, but also are believed to control human`s right and moral behaviour.
The Garuda is a sun-bird and symbolises the opposite of Phanya Naak or NgŁak. In Lao dualistic world view every thing must have an opposite to establish a stable balance of the world. The Garuda is believed to be a heavenly being, and to be able to wander between human and heavenly worlds.
The elephant symbolises wisdom, strength and nobility. White elephants are sacred animals, and in the former Lao kingdom Laan Saang were bred at the king`s court. Thus, a three-headed elephant was the official symbol of the former Lao kingdom. The elephant symbol is also seen as a guardian of travellers.
The Rajasiha is a mythic figure, which is a mixture of lion, dragon and bird. In some tales, the Rajasiha is presented as the king of the animals. The Rajasiha symbol is thought to protect from natural catastrophes and accidents.
The fowl in many Lao rituals is offered to the ancestor spirits, and it is thought to possess magic capabilities. Many Lao ritual masters use the fowl or eggs to forecast the future. Besides, the fowl symbolises fertility.
Palm leaf and flower
Generally, palm leafs and flowers are used for ritual purposes and as offerings to worship Buddha, guardian and ancestor spirits. Palm leaves also symbolise the ďtree of lifeĒ, which is understood as an element connecting heaven and earth.
Stars or rows of stars symbolise the cosmos with its four or eight directions (N,E,S,W; NE, SE, SW, NW). The star symbol (taa lšo) often is used as a protective symbol during ceremonies within a family or a community. The star symbol is thought to throw off bad spirits or negative powers.
The palace symbol (or towers of palaces) represents the heavenly worlds, where the gods and thewada (angel-like beings) reside. These beings are believed to have super-natural and magic powers, and they are able to help human beings.
The stupa is a Buddhist symbol, and in Lao society is worshipped as a sacred building, where Buddhist reliquias, Buddhist manuscripts, Buddha figures and other works of art may be stored. The stupa symbol is used in the meditation practice, and it symbolises enlightenment.
Ancestors and guardian spirits mostly are represented in form of a human being. This shows their close relation to the human world, as well as their influence on human life. They are thought to be able to protect human beings from danger and illness.
Textiles of Tai Lue, Tai Dam, Tai Daeng and Lao Phuan
The many other Tao-Lao groups living in Laos have preserved their own weaving traditions until today. Though the commercial purpose of weaving during the last years has increased rapidly, traditional silk cloth is still used in many rituals and ceremonies. Meditation and ceremonial shawls are of special significance in healing rituals, in suu khwan ceremonies and communal agrarian rites.
While Buddhism occupies an important role in the lives of the Lao and several Tai groups, religious practices exist side by side with pre-Buddhist beliefs and rituals. In addition to the quintessencial Lao/Tai ceremony suu khwan, which is held to call and hold the khwan ("life essence") in order to stabilise and harmonise an individual or community, spirit mediums will be called when sudden or unexplained disasters or illness befall a person or community. The role of the medium is to make contact and communicate with the local or regional phi ("spirits") to determine the cause of the problem. The costume worn by the medium, often an elderly woman, are raw silk or cotton pha biang (head- and waist cloth) and sometimes a long sash or shawl with coloured motifs. Red is a powerful basic colour with the Tai Daeng (Red Tai), black shawls are mostly used by the Tai Dam (Black Tai). One of the most important motifs is a central diamond - sometimes it has been also interpreted as "the third eye" - which is framed by stylised animal motifs. Mythical figures, especially the NgŁak or Naak, birds and chicken motifs, the siho (half-lion half-elephant) figure, spirit and ancestor figures sitting in a boat or holding candle-lights, are believed to be powerful and protecting symbols. The same it is with stars and magic diagrams.
The design patterns and motifs, dyeing and weaving techniques; and the use of textiles represent the lives and fundamental ideas the weavers and the users of textiles have of the world around them. Textiles are an excellent way to understand culture and history, because we are able to get in touch with the past and the present of a particular people through their textiles. Lao textiles furthermore are an example for cultural and economic exchange in Southeast Asia through history. Lao designs, weaving techniques and the use of material do not only show the influence of Indian and Chinese traditions, but also have similarities with patterns and motifs of Indonesian and even Dong Son cultures.
Lao and Tai women are still preserving their traditional textiles and their artful handicraft. Up to today, weaving is an ideal profession for Lao women and girls not only in rural, but also in urban areas, providing an income for the whole family. Girls often start to learn weaving at 6 or 7 years of age. A young woman's knowledge of weaving to a high extent determines the value of the bride-price. Tai and Lao weavers from ancient times have transmitted the knowledge of weaving and of dyeing processes, using plant ingredients, from mother to daughter. But the loss of this special knowledge is increasing by the use of chemical yarns. In present Northern and North-Eastern Thailand for example, the production of naturally dyed yarns and even weaving nearly have get lost, although there are several initiatives to revitalise the handicraft and to popularise "tradition-like fashion". Also in Laos traditional textiles more and more are replaced by imported industrial products, although quite every Lao or Tai household still uses its loom. The quality of antique textiles was very fine and the designs were intricate. With the commercialisation of weaving, favoured by increasing mass tourism, designs have become simplified and the quality of textiles coarser. Many of the antique textiles have been lost during war times, have been destroyed by vermin, or are sold now to foreigners for high prices - and coincidently Lao weavers lose the original examples of weaving that they need to learn from to continue their handicraft. For this reason, every effort should be made to preserve traditional Lao textiles, to preserve the knowledge on the cultural, historical and religious backgrounds of textiles and to promote the continuation of weaving. Serious collecting and research, and especially the re-transfer of research results and knowledge to the originators of the handicraft can be a useful contribution to the above mentioned aims.
Bounyavong, D. et. al.: Infinite designs. The art of silk. Vientiane 1995
Cheesman, Patricia: Lao textiles. Ancient symbols - living art. Bangkok 1988
Connors, Mary F.: Lao textiles and traditions. Kuala Lumpur 1996
Tangtavonsirikun, C.: Symbolism of Lao textiles. Bangkok 2541
Back to the Photos