katu

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. 

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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.

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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.

Wanting to know and leaning towards that

I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form. The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away.


[Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by  Ma Te Sai , a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

[Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by Ma Te Sai, a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

When we can't have that direct connection with artisans, nor them with us, whether because of geographic, cultural, or technical barriers, there are other ways that a conversation can begin, I've found. If by letting our imaginations free, we can still share our stories around their handmade craft. What happens when we have their handmade craft in our hands? Doesn’t our curiosity get sparked? Mine does. I may be able to find out a little from a tag, or a website, or social media post. Or ask a salesperson at the store, if they know anything more. Or from the friend who travelled and gave me that beautiful gift. It’s just often never enough to satisfy my curiosity. I just want to know more.

So a different kind of conversation starts to happen. All my questions rise to ask the handmade craft itself, as if it knows. Surely it knows, it’s a messenger of sorts, a carrier from its creator to me, the enthusiastic admirer. Won’t it tell me anything? The silence, the unknowing, is obvious. And powerfully revealing.

[Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by  Ma Te Sai .

[Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by Ma Te Sai.

I begin to see. I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form.The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away. I am too momentarily away—drawing associations, what it reminds me of, memories of past, imaginations of future. I am momentarily away, imagining the life of the artisan—the questions of livelihood, of culture, her story.

[Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by  Ma Te Sai .]

[Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by Ma Te Sai.]

But there is only silence, of course, and no answers. Even so, this time it’s okay. Wanting to know and leaning towards that, allows me to see, touch, and sense in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Curiosity often doesn’t seek answers, it finds all the questions.