art/creativity

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

A Creative Oasis in Northern Laos

Have you ever discovered a place that you just immediately fell in love with, almost even before you entered?

The entrance to Ban Lue Handicrafts & Homestay Center in Nayang Nua, Laos

The entrance to Ban Lue Handicrafts & Homestay Center in Nayang Nua, Laos

That’s how it was at Ban Lue Handicrafts & Homestay, an oasis in a village called Nayang Nua in northern Laos. It’s an inspiring, charming, and creative space.

This place came about from the vision of Somedeth. One afternoon he shared his story, the story of his village, and the passion for his project, which is what he likes to call it. The words visionary, entrepreneur, and community mobilizer easily come to mind for Somedeth, but he seems a bit more humble than all that. He’s a guy who was called back to his village by his aging parents to take care of them, so he did because that’s what they do in Laos.

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Soon after he met Khone, now his wife. He still hadn’t found suitable work in his village, though. After being gone for so long, what’s a 33 year old, well-educated, English-speaking city guy to do in a rice-farming village still making traditional handicrafts for their own livelihood? Dream big (and see the Lao version of a dreamcatcher above his head, made by Tai Lue families of bamboo and cotton thread, and given to temples to make dreams and wishes come true).

Left to right: Phone (one of the weaving teachers) Sang (Somedeth’s mother-in-law and master weaver), Khone (Somedeth’s wife, fabulous cook, and also a nurse at a local hospital), and Somedeth

Left to right: Phone (one of the weaving teachers) Sang (Somedeth’s mother-in-law and master weaver), Khone (Somedeth’s wife, fabulous cook, and also a nurse at a local hospital), and Somedeth

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Growing up in Nayang Nua there was no electricity, no running water, no market, and no bus connecting them to any other place. He and other children had to walk far to go to school. At age eleven he was sent to the capital city, Vientiane, to become a novice monk at a temple and get a better education. This is still common practice in Laos, as education at temples is better than in public schools. There he studied English and did well in school. But he wasn’t able to visit his parents at all during that time. The roads were terrible and with no busses, and it was a very hard journey. There were also no phones, so he could only communicate with his parents by letters. Afterward, he went on to college and studied Business English, working many part-time jobs in between at big hotels, the airlines, and government.

Nayang Nua today – 180 families enjoy electricity, better roads, satellite dishes, scooters, smartphones, a weekly market, and running water into homes.

Nayang Nua today – 180 families enjoy electricity, better roads, satellite dishes, scooters, smartphones, a weekly market, and running water into homes.

Nong Khiaw is a beautiful tourist destination only thirty minutes from Nayang Nua. Somedeth connected with a friend there to be a tour guide. He liked it, was good at it, and liked interacting with foreigners. One time a couple asked him if they could visit his village as a tour, and therein sparked the idea that Nayang Nua has something to offer of interest.

His wife’s parents wanted to build a new home in the village made of concrete (a growing trend) and were going to tear down their old wooden home. Somedeth begged that they not tear it down, than in fact he had an idea to create a handicrafts and homestay there, and could this be the place. He needed the other villagers on board to create this vision of revitalizing traditional crafts and community development. Anyone could share their skills, could help cook meals for guests, could sell their handicrafts to tourists, and be a part of this initiative, he proposed. They could earn additional income. Many villagers thought he was crazy. Others didn’t believe him. But a few did, and helped out, and helped rebuild the place for a handicrafts center and homestay. It opened last spring and it’s been wonderfully successful since.

Bokai, one of the master weavers, at a loom in the open learning space under the main house.

Bokai, one of the master weavers, at a loom in the open learning space under the main house.

For two days I and my two traveling companions (Susan McCauley of Mekong River Textiles and her friend Nayanee) tried our hands at new things – like taking the seeds out of cotton, then fluffing it and spinning it into thread, and making a bamboo tea strainer. It wasn’t easy, but it was great fun. 

Left to right: Phon taking seeds out of the raw cotton; Sang spinning cotton into thread; Bokai weaving natural and indigo-dyed thread into a scarf.

Left to right: Phon taking seeds out of the raw cotton; Sang spinning cotton into thread; Bokai weaving natural and indigo-dyed thread into a scarf.

Left to right: Sang pulling mango leaves from a tree at the handicrafts center; then the mango leaves are boiled for a couple hours, creating a wonderful sweet yellow for dyeing woven cotton.

Left to right: Sang pulling mango leaves from a tree at the handicrafts center; then the mango leaves are boiled for a couple hours, creating a wonderful sweet yellow for dyeing woven cotton.

Left to right: A Japanese guest; master bamboo artisan and Somedeth’s father-in-law; Nayanee, Susan, Phon, Sang, me, Khone, and Somedeth.

Left to right: A Japanese guest; master bamboo artisan and Somedeth’s father-in-law; Nayanee, Susan, Phon, Sang, me, Khone, and Somedeth.

There is so much to say – about the experience of learning from the weavers, of experiencing traditional crafts directly, and coming away with deep respect and appreciation for the village of Nayang Nua, its life and especially its people. 

In a forthcoming blog I will share more of this, so stay tuned!

Mary Louise Marino
artist and founder of Indigo Lion