weavers

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

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. 


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.


Interested in seeing Indigo Lion's collection of Katu Textile Table Runners? We're having a Summer Spectacular Sale of 10% off until the end of August with promo code SUMMER10! 

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.

A chance to go back to a Tai Lue weaving village

It was serendipity that led me to the weaving village of Ban Nayang Tai in Laos last year. I cherished my experience there and didn't think I'd ever be able to go back. But that didn’t end up being true. I did go back.


Feasting on traditional Laos cuisine for lunch that was prepared by some of the village women. Mae Sam is seated left, a master dyer; then me enjoying every moment of it; then Emi Weir of the artisan enterprise Ma Té Sai; and Sengmany, who has become a natural leader among the weavers.

Feasting on traditional Laos cuisine for lunch that was prepared by some of the village women. Mae Sam is seated left, a master dyer; then me enjoying every moment of it; then Emi Weir of the artisan enterprise Ma Té Sai; and Sengmany, who has become a natural leader among the weavers.

I first met Emi Weir, founder of Ma Te Sai, an artisan enterprise in Luang Prabang, last year and sourced the Tai Lue home accents and Tai Lao accessories for Indigo Lion’s Laos Collection. She shared with me that the napkins I ordered were made by Sengmany and her young ten-year old daughter, Somaly, who was getting quite good at weaving.

Upon my return to Laos in February, I reached out to Emi and requested to meet some of the weavers, particularly Sengmany and Somaly. I didn’t know then that they were indeed from in the same weaving village of Ban Nayang Tai.

Savong's traditional wooden frame home is typical of the Tai Lue ethnic group. Women do their spinning and weaving underneath their homes, creating a wide range of hand-spun, hand-dyed, and handwoven indigenous cotton accessories and accents.

We walked around the village and met En, who showed us spinning cotton into thread for weaving.

Check out this brief video of shibori indigo dyeing with Mae Sam and go behind the scenes with her showing me how to create a particular shibori design using folding and binding between two bamboo sticks. After plunging several times in indigo vats, and several rounds of pounding, off to the stream we went to swoosh it around in the water. The final design and rich indigo color was quite lovely. 

We met many weavers, who all learned from an early age how to spin and weave. On the left is Silivong, making tassels on her indigo scarf; Savong in the middle in front her display of scarves; and Kon on the right, holding her copper-rose colored scarf.

Silivong's indigo scarf on the left:   Natural, indigenous plant-based indigo dye in solid color with subtle variations    Savong and Kon's scarves on the right:   Natural, indigenous plant-based dyes of indigo and “mak bao” create the colors: natural, gray indigo, indigo + copper rose, and copper rose    Click on the bold purple links above to purchase one of their scarves!

Silivong's indigo scarf on the left: Natural, indigenous plant-based indigo dye in solid color with subtle variations

Savong and Kon's scarves on the right: Natural, indigenous plant-based dyes of indigo and “mak bao” create the colors: natural, gray indigo, indigo + copper rose, and copper rose

Click on the bold purple links above to purchase one of their scarves!

I had the fortune of spending time with Emi on several occasions—learning more about her story as an Australian expat and businesswoman, seeing the difference she’s making in the lives of empowering women, and understanding more the current context of weaving traditions in Laos.

She’s a vivacious, savvy, and determined woman and I really like this about her. 

In the interview above, Emi shared how she got her start, her experience working collaboratively with Tai Lue village weavers, and her perspective on the changes, uncertainty, and opportunities for Lao traditional textiles in a globalized world.

When I asked her what still keeps her here in Laos, she said it was the Lao women. I saw that so beautifully in Ban Nayang Tai. Fluent in Lao, her interactions with the women had a notable ease and playfulness. A mutual respect and friendship was palpable among them.

Sengmany, who has emerged as a natural leader among the village weavers

Sengmany, who has emerged as a natural leader among the village weavers

And I met Sengmany and her daughter Somaly! When I gave her the hangtag for the napkins, which had a photo of her designs and her at the loom (and a writing by one of the participants, Alexandra Boycheck, in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions inspired by her napkins), the expression on her face immediately lit up.

While we couldn’t communicate in words, her facial expressions and intonations said everything. The simple recognition of highlighting her in this little printed piece from some faraway place let her know that she’s important, that what she does is valued, and that it means something to others halfway across the globe. And in that recognition, if only for a moment, I felt that we—weavers, partners, me, and writers—were all connected around the one thing that brought us together: her handmade textiles.