Collections

The Launch of the Siho Collection!

As an artist, I’m constantly inspired by Laos and the people I meet, the textiles that I see, and the culture I experience. It was almost inevitable that I would create a product for Indigo Lion. 

The launch of our Phu Tai Embroidered Knotbags, the first textile accessory product in our Siho Collection!

The launch of our Phu Tai Embroidered Knotbags, the first textile accessory product in our Siho Collection!

It’s not always a neat linear path to figure out how to do something, especially for an artist. There’s exploration, but not always amounting to anything. There’s learning new things, but never becoming proficient in it. There are starts and stops and being stuck, too.

I’ve done all that over the past two years. And along the way, some things did emerge which would become the first textile accessory product of the Siho Collection: The Phu Tai Embroidered Knotbags.

Here’s the story of how it all happened:

1) My partners in Laos over the years would occasionally propose the idea of creating a product together if I wanted. But I didn’t know much about product design I would say, feeling adrift in not even knowing where to begin. But the idea wouldn’t go away. 

2) A fascination with the natural materials and processes used in Lao textiles - indigenous hand-spun cotton, natural plant-based dyes, and traditional hand weaving. Every time I went back to Laos, I took more hands-on workshops. I always loved it.

Learning cotton spinning and weaving at Ban Lue Handcrafts and Homestay in Nayang Nua in northern Laos.

Learning cotton spinning and weaving at Ban Lue Handcrafts and Homestay in Nayang Nua in northern Laos.

3) Excitement about a new medium, hand stitching, and learning so many techniques from Julie Booth in her classes at The Art League in Alexandria, VA. She continues to inspire and show me new things as I find my own style. 

4) A solo show entitled “Unfinished” at Studio Pause about the influence of nature in my artwork in this new medium, hand stitching. I produced a series of ‘unfinished’ pieces, some of which used materials from Laos, below, and also spoke about reconsidering the value of things unfinished. Much like nature, and ourselves, it leaves an opening to discover more or make connections that unfold into something unexpected.

Selection from “Unfinished” solo show. What I see in nature influences my photography and hand stitching, as shown here, as well as other work I do in expressive mark-making.

Selection from “Unfinished” solo show. What I see in nature influences my photography and hand stitching, as shown here, as well as other work I do in expressive mark-making.

5) Starting experimental stitches using hand-spun indigo dyed thread on handwoven Phu Tai indigo ikat textile swatches, both from Laos.

Practicing with Lao materials and trying to get straight lines and even spaces without measuring.

Practicing with Lao materials and trying to get straight lines and even spaces without measuring.

6) Finding a pattern for a Japanese knot bag wristlet. Loving little bags and pouches, I knew this is where I would start. Having lived in Japan years ago, the knot bag wristlet is still one of my all-time favorites. 

7) Through a connection, finally meeting a sewist! Janneth Tapis, originally from Boliva, took my poor attempts at sewing the knotbag and churned out six masterful prototypes. She had never used Lao textiles before and was impressed. 

Janneth with a finished knotbag pouch, in the rain pattern.

Janneth with a finished knotbag pouch, in the rain pattern.

8) Hand stitching simple line patterns on the sample knotbags Janneth sewed.

It’s somewhat difficult working with this thread, as it tends to break more easily. I go slow. All this takes time. I’m also stitching the pattern in between the indigo ikat fabric and the lining to minimize thread on the inside. But I love the variation of thread’s thickness, which adds another visual language to the simple stitches. I decided to use a guide to keep my rows and columns straight, too!

It’s somewhat difficult working with this thread, as it tends to break more easily. I go slow. All this takes time. I’m also stitching the pattern in between the indigo ikat fabric and the lining to minimize thread on the inside. But I love the variation of thread’s thickness, which adds another visual language to the simple stitches. I decided to use a guide to keep my rows and columns straight, too!

9) Testing the knotbag wristlets at last year’s fall and holiday pop-up shows. Some had hand stitching and some were without. I sold out quickly. 

10) Returning to Laos in January and approaching Sengmany at Houey Hong Vocational Training Center in Vientiane about making 20 knotbags. I chose five Phu Tai indigo ikat patterns from her selection. A box arrived a month later, plastered with stamps and the finished knotbags inside! 

Inside this crazy beautiful box decorated with Lao stamps were 20 custom-sewn knotbags from Houey Hong Vocational Training Center.

Inside this crazy beautiful box decorated with Lao stamps were 20 custom-sewn knotbags from Houey Hong Vocational Training Center.

11) More hand-stitching. How do I know what design to create? I don't. I just look at the ikat pattern, an idea starts to form, and then I begin. So far each one is different. Some designs are easier. Some take more time than I anticipated. The white thread is harder to work with than the indigo. I started to get much better at straight, evenly spaced stitches. Maybe I'm getting more patient, too. For sure I'm happy doing this work.

Oh, the patience I need to do this! I've heard it called slow stitching and meditative stitching, but for me it's definitely about patience stitching.

12) Coming across the traditional Lao motif “siho” combining the mythical lion and elephant. It seemed the perfect symbol for this new creative adventure, which I’m calling the Siho Collection. The lion is in our name, of course, and the elephant is the national animal of Laos. The country used to be called “Lan Xang” or The Land of a Million Elephants. Maybe at some point I’ll reach a million stitches!

13) More hand stitching, until there was enough to launch. Is five enough to launch? Yes. Yes it is.

Creating a distinct handmade product incorporating my hand stitching for Indigo Lion involved patience, exploration, and persistence. It was inevitable that I would create something; I just didn’t always know how. But the how came. Slowly. It took two years, and now here it is! 

Cruise on over to our shop page showcasing the Phu Tai Embroidered Knotbag Wristlets and get yours now!

We’d love to hear from you. What designs are your favorite? What designs would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below!

~Mary Louise Marino
artist, social entrepreneur, and founder of Indigo Lion

Making color, weaving threads, and dyeing textiles

In returning to Laos, I wanted to learn more about the various traditional weaving techniques and how indigenous plants make such natural colors for dyeing textiles. I discovered this and more, at a lively, tucked-away place on the outskirts of Vientiane. 


IMG_5341.jpg

Upon arrival to Houey Hong Vocational Training Center, I had the pleasure of meeting Sengmany Vongsipasom, who manages the day-to day operations of the center. She is a delightful, attentive, and lighthearted person, who translated a great deal for me while I took a two-day natural color dyeing course. She had spent many years in the US, until returning to Laos about seven years ago to take care of her aging parents and oversee the center in which her sister started. 

Sengmany’s sister, Chanthasone Inthavong, started the center in 1998 with the support of two Japanese non-governmental organizations to focus on providing training to women in three main areas: sewing and tailoring, natural dyes, and weaving; along with support in small business skills and development.

HHVTC - weavers.jpg

At its core, Houey Hong Vocational Training Center endeavors to revive and strengthen Lao’s weaving and natural dyeing traditions. The staff of weavers, dyers, artisans, tailors, and designers are expert in their fields, who continue to not only train others but create a wide range of handmade textile accessories, home accents, and fabric for international and domestic clients.

Houey Hong has 28 people on their team now, including two gardeners, a driver, workshop trainers for foreign visitors, and a super star Japanese volunteer, Hiroko. She has been there for four years and assists in many aspects of the center, including coming up with new product designs. 

There is also a daily rotation of foreigners coming to Houey Hong for workshops to spend a half day, a day, or a few days like myself trying one’s hand at shibori dyeing a silk scarf, or weaving a supplemental design sample, or learning the natural color dye process. I signed up for all of them, of course.

MAKING COLOR & DYEING TEXTILES
In the video above go behind the scenes with Yo and Nyai, natural dyeing experts and patient teachers in showing the alchemy involved in transforming jackfruit wood, marigold, indigo, and stick lac to make delightful yellows, blues, and reds. Then Bibi and Hammy show how to dye silk scarves in shibori designs.

alchemy.jpg

ash-making with medicinal leaves
best with flowing river and rain water

copper juice of rusty nails and vinegar
wood burning, smoke-filled spaces

marigold boiling and brewing
waiting. takes patience

feeling water, pinching thread
sensing time without clocks

knowing its ready and right
an art and science

and alchemy

Soh, Nyai, and Ger, natural dye assistants, and at right, Yo, lead natural dyer with his daughter

Soh, Nyai, and Ger, natural dye assistants, and at right, Yo, lead natural dyer with his daughter

WEAVING THREAD
In the video above, the magical finger work of the supplemental weft weave comes alive from one of the expert weavers. I also had a chance to learn it, with a much simpler design and slower pace, from Bibi, below.

supplementalweaving.jpg

sitting at a floor loom
awkward
feet on two bamboo petals

hands on heddles, boards, and beaters
syncing movements

orchestrating taut warp strings
and shuttling slack weft threads

weaving and finger playing
trying to harmonize rhythms
a pattern of beautiful imperfection

Hammy, left, who showed how to prepare a silk scarf for a shibori design natural dyeing and Bibi, right, who helped with dyeing textiles and showed how to do supplemental weft weave.

Hammy, left, who showed how to prepare a silk scarf for a shibori design natural dyeing and Bibi, right, who helped with dyeing textiles and showed how to do supplemental weft weave.

In an interview with Sengmany, she shared some of the highlights over the years: 

They have been able to keep their focus on traditional designs in weaving, use of indigenous cotton and high-quality regional silk, and exclusive use of natural color dyes. At the same time, they are innovating on their ‘ready-made’ textile accessories and home accent products for wider markets.  

They have trained 714 people in weaving and natural dyeing processes, and 192 in sewing, and may of them still continued weaving, dyeing, and sewing once they return to their villages. Some have set up centers to support each other, some go to local markets to sell to the domestic market, and Houey Hong buys from them in support of making products for their retail and wholesale markets from Japan, US, Germany, the Netherlands. 

The center has become more known by foreign tourists interested in taking their workshops. With the help of good reviews on Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, their retail shop in Vientiane, they see about 1000 visitors a year. 

They exhibit annually at handcrafts markets and shows, and have done well at those venues. Sales are increasing, most of which come from local markets, as Lao women still wear the traditional skirt, or sinh.

Sengmany also shared that while center has been successful, it’s a constant challenge to keep the center running and maintained. She pointed to the area where the natural dyeing takes place that badly needs repairing, mentioned their reduction in staff, and additional funds needed to train more women for their programs. 

mlmathhvtc.jpg

My three days of learning at Houey Hong Vocational Training Center were eye-opening, awe-inspiring, and fun-filled. I’m grateful to Sengmany and her superstar staff for welcoming me and patiently teaching me how to make color, weave threads, and dye textiles. It offered me a glimpse into Laos life, bringing me closer to inspiring women and men, nature’s gifts, and cultural expression both traditional and present.

And finally, we’re so pleased to introduce Indigo Lion’s expanded Lao Collection with the inclusion of several new textile accessories and home accents from Houey Hong Vocational Training Center!

How those beads get woven into Katu textiles

There was something mysterious about how those beads got into textiles made by Katu weavers. Returning to Laos earlier this year was a chance for me to find out. I first had to meet Keo. 


I came across several workshops being held at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC) in Luang Prabang, including Katu backstrap weaving. That was it! I inquired more and soon found myself one morning in the company of Keo Jow. She led me to the side veranda, where we took off our shoes, and nestled down with a backstrap loom, threads, and beads. 

keo_collage.jpg

The traditional textiles of the Katu ethnic group in Laos are commonly identified with the intricate bead patterns produced on foot-braced backstrap looms. Women cultivate the cotton, hand spin it into thread, dye the thread, and then weave the textiles for use in clothing, ceremonial cloth, and trading. While the beads were traditionally glass and lead, these days imported plastic white beads are more readily available. Colorful pre-dyed cotton threads have also been introduced. The beaded motifs and patterns are reflective of their animist beliefs, as well as likely influenced by other Laos textile designs. 

Last fall when I launched the Laos Collection including the Katu Textile Table Runners at an Indigo Lion Pause event, they were an immediate hit. Kara Billings expressed it well in one of her writings: 

I brush my fingers over pale beads. They are bumpier than I expect and offer a joyful contrast to the soft woven fabric underneath. These beads are clouds in a pink and purple sunset. They form the triangles that sit in the corners of eyes that have seen many smiles. They create a pattern that gives way to tumbling tassels. Always trying to break free. Always trying to instill order.

And we all wanted to know, "how did those beads get in there? Keo showed me, revealing the mystery in this video: 

I finally got my turn on the backstrap loom, too. Keo strapped me in and gave gentle and patient instructions to weaving, calling out next steps and long encouragements of "yeeees" when I finally started getting it. In contrast to Keo's deft and ease in weaving and incorporating those beads, I lost count and kept forgetting steps.

I had previously learned weaving on a floor loom, but this was a different; a much more physical sensation. The tension needed in my feet and toes really mattered, always having to keep it taut but not too tight.

I marveled at how thread could be arranged so simply and ingeniously around bamboo poles, carefully laced to create woven textiles. And that they didn't tangle. The first time she showed me how the beads got in there, I laughed with glee, honestly, as if momentarily being on the inside of some best kept secret. 

When I showed the video of Keo weaving in the beads at another Indigo Lion Pause event this summer, everyone had the same reaction as me, wowing and expressing relief with knowing! That was fun.

mary_katu.jpg

I'm appreciative of Keo and the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center for this opportunity — a glimpse into Katu handmade textiles, both traditional and contemporary.


Katu Textile Table Runner  — Pattern and detail lead the way on an unforgettable journey.

Katu Textile Table Runner — Pattern and detail lead the way on an unforgettable journey.

Sokhom's scarves, connecting me to understanding Cambodia

In learning about the context of handmade textiles in Cambodia, by tugging on one thread leading to another thread and the unraveling of a whole tapestry, reveals a resilient people, a rich culture, and so much more.


img_4900.jpg

Naihoang and her niece Gueckhour picked me up at my hotel and off we went, driving out of Phnom Penh and towards somewhere. I didn’t know a road trip was our plan (that detail not clarified in our email), but we were on our way to visit one of Craft Village’s master weavers two hours south. I was elated of course and getting to know Naihoang and Gueckhour there and back made it even more fun.

I had met Naihoang's sister, Naiseng, at NYNOW a year prior and was lured by Craft Village’s handwoven silk scarves, determined to visit them on my return trip to Cambodia.   

29125940161_980b3f3eb8_o.jpg

Sokhom welcomed us to her home in Ta Non village, Takeo Province. She showed us the beautiful silk scarves she designed, having learned weaving as a girl from her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother before that.

img_20170201_154705085.jpg

Sokhom is known for combining rough and smooth silk, using subtle, subdued colors that evoke presence. Additional training in textile design and color dyes through community development grants, as well as working with Naiseng, helped refine her talents that evolved into creating her own style.

img_4944.jpg

One of my intentions for this trip was to know more about the materials, processes, and context of handmade textiles in Cambodia. I came to know that traditional Cambodian silk, or Khmer golden silk, dates back many centuries. The knowledge of sericulture, or the raising of silkworms for the production of raw silk, had also nearly died out. There's been a modest revival over the decades, but it remains a luxury. To meet the current demands of silk textile production in Cambodia, white silk from Vietnam is imported.

Sokhom admits that she prefers working with Khmer golden silk for its high quality and ease in weaving, but it’s not readily available for her to buy locally. So she buys the white silk imported from Vietnam, both fine and raw bundled silk thread. She then dyes the threads using both natural and low-impact dyes, finally spinning the thread to prepare it for weaving on her loom.

img_4917.jpg

While we were there, she was preparing silk threads with a pattern for hol (ikat) dying, but admitted that she doesn’t really want to do hol weaving. It takes too long and it doesn't earn her as much money. 

img_4947.jpg

Sokhom’s gratitude from working with Craft Village over the years was palpable, and Naiheang shared that both families had come to know each other well, creating a trust that was special. She has been able to support her family with weaving, and that’s been very important for her.

Left to right: A family relative, Gueckhour, Sokhom, Sokhom’s husband, and Naihoang

Left to right: A family relative, Gueckhour, Sokhom, Sokhom’s husband, and Naihoang

I felt grateful to meet Sokhom and to learn how weaving has given her a better life and broader opportunities. While her three grown children were all taught how to weave, none are pursuing weaving as a livelihood for income. Sokhom struggles to get enough orders as she once did. 

img_4952.jpg

The  current socio-economic changes in Cambodia challenge the sustainability of its skilled weaving traditions. It is set against the increasing presence of garment factories that employ many young women to urban places, confronting gender norms in the process. My friend Yennie Tse of Fourth Sector Collective wrote an insightful piece, Daughters of Cambodia: Past and Future, that says it all so well.

Yennie also wrote, "It isn’t until we get a deeper understanding of a society and its people that we can truly appreciate or be effective partners."

In learning about the context of handmade textiles in Cambodia, by tugging on one thread leading to another thread and the unraveling of a whole tapestry, reveals a resilient people, a rich culture, a brutal recent history, and forces in regional economics and government positions that continue to alter the warp and weft of Cambodia.

A selection of Sokhom's scarves came home with me, acquired for Indigo Lion's Cambodia Collection. They are that much more meaningful. I met her. Her scarves are woven with her energy, her story, her worry, her hopes. They connect me to a better understanding of Cambodia. The story of Sokhom's scarves continues, from her hands to mine, from mine to yours.

We paused for inspired writing around handmade

We discovered our inner prose and glimpsed into another part of the globe. We were moved by each other’s writings that evoked memory, that inspired story, that recalled people and place and unique insight.


Some of the amazing friends and supporters who participated in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions! Top: Florence, Aida, Sush, Ann Marie, Kate, Andrea, Alex, Sharmila, Louise, Kara, Mary, Sarah. Bottom: Florence, Kate, Mary, Kim, Sush

Some of the amazing friends and supporters who participated in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions! Top: Florence, Aida, Sush, Ann Marie, Kate, Andrea, Alex, Sharmila, Louise, Kara, Mary, Sarah. Bottom: Florence, Kate, Mary, Kim, Sush

What happens when you hold handmade craft in your hands? What will it inspire you to write? This is what we discovered together in three Indigo Lion Pause sessions this fall.

We paused together to hold handmade craft in our hands and write from the heart. We discovered our inner prose and glimpsed into another part of the globe. We were moved by each other’s writings that evoked memory, that inspired story, that recalled people and place and unique insight. We created beautiful conversations and it was magical.

Michelle, Rini, Evan

Michelle, Rini, Evan

The idea of Indigo Lion Pause coming to life

It started in my travels and living abroad over the years. I’ve long been fascinated by beautifully crafted objects and their stories. I would hold them in my hands, see them up close, let my imagination wander and wonder, and try to get a sense of the person who made it. 

Then a couple of years ago, I would get together with Sushmita Mazumdar, an artist, writer, and educator at her studio, Studio Pause for monthly “Mary Pauses”. These were wonderfully creative sessions. One of things I proposed was conversations with objects. I selected a few handcrafted items I had acquired in Mexico and Morocco and wrote freely what came to mind. I was surprised at what was revealed in my conversations. They were full of interesting associations, current emotions, and meaningful insights.

I had conversations with these two handcrafted objects: a ceramic container from Fez, Morocco and an Oaxacan rabbit figurine that was a gift from a dear friend in Mexico

I had conversations with these two handcrafted objects: a ceramic container from Fez, Morocco and an Oaxacan rabbit figurine that was a gift from a dear friend in Mexico

Then this past summer I started attending Sush’s “writing pauses, as she calls them, where we would use the monthly community art on her studio wall as prompts. In ten minutes we would write whatever came to mind — whether associations from past, or present thoughts, weaving in fiction, poetry, prose, whatever. With current issues being what they’ve been this year, we had conversations about race and religion, language and ethnicity, love and social justice.

Kara, Sush, and Tannia inspired by Susan Sterner’s photographic posters of women day laborers in Guatemala at one of Studio Pause’s writing pauses.

Kara, Sush, and Tannia inspired by Susan Sterner’s photographic posters of women day laborers in Guatemala at one of Studio Pause’s writing pauses.

It was also around this time that Sush proposed the idea of doing a series of writing pauses with a twist: focusing on the handmade crafts I was bringing in from Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia as prompts for writing. It all came together and Indigo Lion Pause was born.

Here I am at the launch of the first Indigo Lion Pause in October, focusing on Laos textiles and accessories

Here I am at the launch of the first Indigo Lion Pause in October, focusing on Laos textiles and accessories

The magical happenings of inspired writing

The instructions were simple. We could choose whatever handmade item on the display that spoke to us, bring it on our laps, feel it in our hands, and then in ten minutes write whatever thoughts came. There wasn’t any right or wrong way, or any particular way to do it. Just lean in and let our imagination be free to discover what might appear in writing. We were often surprised at what we wrote. But it was all from the heart, unfiltered, and on the spot. In that sense, it was magical.

Andrea, Alex, Victoria, and Susan

Andrea, Alex, Victoria, and Susan

LAOS

In October we touched the gentle indigo-dyed textiles from the Tai Leu, the ink-black woven bamboo from the Tai Lao, and the inlay woven beading from the Katu in Laos. Feelings of warmth and peace, memories of one’s grandmother and mother, of faraway cafes and imagined stories all came alive in our writing.  

Details from cushion covers, napkins, table runners, hand cloths, and purses — all accessories and home accents from the Tai Leu, Katu, and Tao Lao ethnic groups. Traditional and adapted designs, hand spun, hand dyed and handwoven natural cotton using natural dyes. LAOS

Details from cushion covers, napkins, table runners, hand cloths, and purses — all accessories and home accents from the Tai Leu, Katu, and Tao Lao ethnic groups. Traditional and adapted designs, hand spun, hand dyed and handwoven natural cotton using natural dyes. LAOS

Starting upper left, clockwise: Padee of the Tai Dam ethnic group; women weavers of the Katu ethnic group; Chaban and Noy (mother and daughter) and Sengmany  of the Tai Leu ethnic group (photo credit: MaTeSai for Katu weavers and Sengmany). LAOS

Starting upper left, clockwise: Padee of the Tai Dam ethnic group; women weavers of the Katu ethnic group; Chaban and Noy (mother and daughter) and Sengmany  of the Tai Leu ethnic group (photo credit: MaTeSai for Katu weavers and Sengmany). LAOS

MYANMAR

In November we wrapped ourselves in uniquely designed blankets by the Tiddim Chin weavers of Myanmar. We got close to the intricate patterns, coiling tassels, and embroidered motifs. We traveled along railroads and went to villages at night, we felt textures and decided on designs, and told stories about reindeers and drums.

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Phyu Win and Sui Te (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Phyu Win and Sui Te (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Vung Pi and Oo Man (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Vung Pi and Oo Man (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

CAMBODIA

In December we swooned over gorgeous rough-spun silk accessories made by Cambodian weavers and sewists. We let the colors take us to sky and fields, to subtle moods and wonder, to savor ice cream and remember home and childhood.

Weavers from a women’s cooperative in Krang Thong Village, Cambodia; Bottom right on left: Vibol Sath, founder of Colors of Life Social Enterprise; details of multi-colored designs of hand spun and handwoven rough silk accessories. CAMBODIA

Weavers from a women’s cooperative in Krang Thong Village, Cambodia; Bottom right on left: Vibol Sath, founder of Colors of Life Social Enterprise; details of multi-colored designs of hand spun and handwoven rough silk accessories. CAMBODIA

Multi-design and multi-color rough silk hand spun and handwoven accessories: Starting upper left, clockwise: Coin purses sewn by N. Hang; shoulder bags sewn by Vandy; scarves woven by Sok Khim. CAMBODIA

Multi-design and multi-color rough silk hand spun and handwoven accessories: Starting upper left, clockwise: Coin purses sewn by N. Hang; shoulder bags sewn by Vandy; scarves woven by Sok Khim. CAMBODIA

And of course all of the items were available for purchase so participants could take home the ones they fell in love with.

What’s next? The curating beautiful conversations booklet!

Handmade craft has an energy and an unfolding story - from the artisan who made it, to liaisons working with those artisans, to me sharing it with others, and finally enthusiasts of handmade. We all contribute to the story of handmade.

With that in mind, I’m compiling a booklet of the Indigo Lion Pause sessions to share our beautiful conversations with others. I’ve invited all the participants to contribute their writings with the intent to share it with the artisans and liaisons in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

It’s a way to complete the circle and to show how we’re all connected, how what they do matters and how their handmade craft inspires us.

Kara and Alex

Kara and Alex

And this, what I wrote in an earlier post, “The beautiful conversations held in my hands”:

Most importantly, I want to tell her how much I genuinely love what she’s made. I want to tell her that holding it in my hands is a delight, as if I can feel its energy knowing that she’s held it before me. I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers.

I want to thank her for sharing it with me and tell her to keep making more because there are many others who would enjoy experiencing this too. This is my conversation, held in my hands, what I want to tell her. And in that moment we are connected, if only in my mind, around the one thing we do have in common, that we both held in our hands her beautiful handmade craft.

Aida and Florence

Aida and Florence

A final reception will be held where we’ll showcase the finished booklet, share our collective experiences, and a chance to buy a copy! Stay tuned for upcoming details.

Thank you! 

A huge thank you to Sushmita Mazumdar for this awesome and fun collaboration, for opening your studio to us, and for conceiving of these wonderful writing pauses. Your constant enthusiasm, creativity, and tremendous support made the Indigo Lion Pauses spectacular.

Sush!

Sush!

Thank you to all the participants (many of whom are dear friends and supporters) who paused from busy days and crazy lives to experience something new — writing about textiles from Southeast Asia, delving into memory and association and story, and sharing together a range of perspectives and emotions. I learned something from each of you and have tremendous appreciation for your writings.

Sarah, Ann Marie, Sharmila, Brittany, and Su

Sarah, Ann Marie, Sharmila, Brittany, and Su

Finally, a big shout out to John Chapin, Alexandra Boycheck, Sharmila Karamchandani, and Brittany Noetzel for your enduring belief in me, good counsel along the way, and support beyond words. Thank you Alex Treble, Sushmita Mazumdar, and John Chapin for taking and sharing photos.

Michelle, John, Evan, Sush, Alex, Rini, and Susan

Michelle, John, Evan, Sush, Alex, Rini, and Susan

It really was a lot of fun.

It really was a lot of fun.

Letting serendipity lead to a weaving village in Laos

I felt genuine excitement from seeing beautifully made textiles and meeting the women who were creating them, trying my hardest not to go crazy just admiring it all.


First posted on The Artesan Gateway February 8, 2016

It was the kind of day that I had dreamed about for many years — connecting with artisans abroad directly in a tangible way. Seeing each other face to face, glimpsing each other’s lives and livelihoods, and having a shared openness that engages us around beautifully handcrafted objects was always at the heart of it.

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles, with her husband, Sin, and me looking on

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles, with her husband, Sin, and me looking on

I met Sin at Ock Pop Tok, a well-established boutique shop in Luang Prabang, Laos, a social enterprise working in both ethnic and contemporary textile designs. When I first walked in the store, his approachable smile and inviting manner made our conversation easy. Sonnalee, the store manager, and Moonoy, the assistant manager, were equally engaging.

Moonoy and Sin from Oct Pop Tok

Moonoy and Sin from Oct Pop Tok

It was clear that they all cared about their work, were extremely knowledgeable about the various ethnic groups throughout Laos making the textiles and textile products, and passionate about the social mission of Ock Pop Tok. When I introduced myself and the idea of Indigo Lion Artisan Boutique, Sin invited me to his village to meet women who still weave traditional designs and have finished products, if I was interested to buy. Of course I said yes!

Our transport for the two hour trip to the village

Our transport for the two hour trip to the village

Two days later we met early morning at the bus station for the two hour trip in the back of a crowded, bumpy, open-sided, two-bench vehicle. Sin had also invited two of his expat colleagues at Ock Pop Tok – Marie from Greenland, their Production Coordinator, and Katie from DC (small world!), who had just started a couple of months prior as their Marketing Coordinator. Her husband Daniel had joined us, as did my husband John.

When we arrived in the remote village of Ban Thabou where Sin grew up, the first order of business was lunch. We walked a little ways where his family grows rice and vegetables, and picked up handfuls of fresh greens.

Sin boiling the leafy greens in lemongrass and garlic

Sin boiling the leafy greens in lemongrass and garlic

Kitchens are generally outside the homes we’d noticed (much like outdoor camping but more permanent here), so that’s where we headed in Sins’s home. It quickly became a group event. Marie washed the vegetables, Katie chopped them, Sin’s mother Lasoy went off to buy fresh fish, his sister chopped wood kindling, Sin and his niece got the fire started, Sin’s brother cleaned and skinned the fish, his mother grilled it, and Sin boiled the green vegetables in lemongrass and garlic. And me, well, I was the official photographer.

A family affair in preparing lunch

A family affair in preparing lunch

The sense of gratitude to Sin and his family, his mom especially for welcoming us into their home was palpable. Not often do travelers like ourselves get a chance to make the kind of serendipitous connection, where without planning and much fuss do we get a glimpse into the lives of others very much in their homes. Lunch was fantastic, to say the least, and we returned a small gift in kind of fruits and vegetables from the market we picked up later in the day.

Sin, Daniel, Marie, Katie, and John

Sin, Daniel, Marie, Katie, and John

Bellies and hearts full, we moved to the next order of business, which was all about textiles. From her wardrobe Sin’s mother began to pull out several plastic bags of her family’s collection of hand embroidered textiles and traditional clothing. She didn’t have a lot, most were family heirlooms, and they were all extraordinary.

Sin’s mother, Lasoy showing us her traditional handwoven textiles

Sin’s mother, Lasoy showing us her traditional handwoven textiles

The traditional headscarves caught my attention most – deep blue-black indigo with a refined yet simply detailed embroidery that I had never seen before. It had been handspun, hand dyed, handwoven, and hand embroidered by Sin’s mother many years ago.

Traditional Tai Dam headscarf handmade by Lasoy

Traditional Tai Dam headscarf handmade by Lasoy

She placed the headscarf on her head in the fashion of the Tai Dam ethnic group of which Sin and his family belong (and most of the other villagers). Something in her came alive, as we ooh-ed and ah-ed in delight. She rummaged back in the wardrobe and pulled out a traditional jacket and skirt and put it on, looking at herself in the cracked and dusty full-length mirror that didn’t matter; she looked beautiful. She and Sin both said they couldn’t remember the last time they took a look at these traditional clothes and textiles, but it had been a long time.

I wondered what memories came to her in that moment? What was she feeling then of the past, the present, of herself? She seemed pleased, then slightly embarrassed, but she knew we were all appreciative, a special recognition in that moment.

Next we walked down the road to a cluster of traditional wooden homes built on stilts to Lasoy’s sister’s house. Pavan and her husband welcomed us warmly and showed us her collection of cotton textiles she had also handspun, hand dyed, and hand woven. She had products ready to sell.

Pavan sharing her traditional textile designs

Pavan sharing her traditional textile designs

Inquiring more about the textiles, the cotton was grown from nearby farms, as was the raw silk (we visited the silkworms in various stages of production at another woman’s house).

The designs were traditional, referencing the diamond-shaped mahoy seed. The dyes are natural, produced in the village from the indigo plant and macbau, a small fruit plant used for the red.

Natural dyes of indigo and macbau

Natural dyes of indigo and macbau

A little negotiating and I bought two pieces that I could envision as table runners.  Pavan seemed most grateful for the sale, eyes watery and her palms pressed together, thumbs touching her forehead, saying khob chai to us, “thank you.” We learned after that her health was not good and the money would help her get treatment.

Padee was waiting for us at the house next door, with an even bigger collection of finished textiles, all beautifully crafted. I had to keep in mind that I was buying for my shop, and that a random assortment of this and that design wouldn’t work, so I leaned in on similar designs of what I just bought. Padee had a gorgeous piece, something Sin said could be a wall hanging in my shop to showcase the Lao Tai Dan style. Great idea, I thought! So I bought it.

Padee with her collection

Padee with her collection

What I was feeling at this point was mostly amazement that this was actually my life ,that after so many years of wishing for and wondering how I was to segue into the global artisan field, it was finally real and tangible. I also felt genuine excitement from seeing beautifully made textiles and meeting the women who were creating them, trying my hardest not to go crazy just admiring it all.

Me in front of Padee’s house

Me in front of Padee’s house

Finally, I had to keep my mind on my business when it came to buying, the reason why all of us were there, truthfully. For example: Would it sell. Does it convey a story. Will this evolve into a longer-term buying relationship. What is my budget for today. Are these good prices. Does it fit in my luggage. Can I ship it home. I couldn’t buy a lot, nor did I buy from everyone, being mindful not to buy out of pressure or obligation, which was insanely hard.

Sin’s friend with a van then drove us 20 minutes to the next weaving village of Nayang Tai, of the Tai Lue ethnic group. One of the traditional homes had a large open room where they received us. One woman, than another, and another started to arrive, then more, eager to show us what they made, and to sell. I guess they got the word out that we had arrived.

Received warmly by village weavers showing us their enticing designs

Received warmly by village weavers showing us their enticing designs

Bags upturned and textiles unfurled and displayed on the floor in front of us to see, all so wonderful I didn’t know where to begin. Most of what they showcased were cotton scarves, runners, and napkins in their Tai Leu style.

A beautiful display of Tai Leu style designs by village weavers

A beautiful display of Tai Leu style designs by village weavers

While the style was only slightly different to the Tai Dam, their resources and processes were similar. Cotton grown from their farm, hand spun and woven, using natural dyes – the indigo plant for the indigo blue, the macbau fruit for the red.

Vats of indigo!

Vats of indigo!

I bought five scarves of varying patterns from Chaban and her daughter, Noy and ten napkins from another woman, Panya, completing my collection.

Chaban and her daughter Noy with their rich indigo scarves

Chaban and her daughter Noy with their rich indigo scarves

Panya with her delicately handwoven napkins

Panya with her delicately handwoven napkins

Detail of Panya’s napkin designs

Detail of Panya’s napkin designs

As usual, I wondered more about the women I was meeting. Conversations translated through Sin were simple introductions that at least mattered to me. I wanted to know their names, a little about their textile designs, how long they’d been weaving, who taught them, what their products were made for. Most followed traditional designs and processes, all learned from their mothers who learned from their mothers, and many of the textiles they made were for their own home and for themselves.

Detail of Chaban and Noy’s woven scarves

Detail of Chaban and Noy’s woven scarves

For Sin, I can only imagine his motivation for bringing us to his village and that of a neighboring weaving village. It is clear he is proud of his ethnic heritage, and perhaps sees bringing people like me and other buyers in direct contact with the artisan producers as an economic advantage for everyone.

He’s a young kid, maybe 20, still in school, but already entrepreneurial. His honesty, generosity, and big heart won me over early. He shared that he hopes in the future he can do more of this kind of work, bring artisan producers to buyers and markets. With a nod towards encouraging him in his idea, and an expression of my gratitude for his generosity, I gave him a commission.

I’ve already promised myself that I will return to Laos, to Luang Prabang and other regions of this ethnically diverse and culturally rich country. In just two weeks in Laos I have learned much, but barely enough, to understand the full scope of traditional textiles and their place economically and culturally within Laos and wider markets, for which I am now an invested contributor. And understanding the value of time — time to get to know people, to build trust, to show sincerity — allows serendipity to happen.