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