The outdoor workroom in a lush garden not far from the mighty Mekong River seems a world apart from Paris. A dozen Laotian women talk among themselves as the city traffic from the streets of Vientiane swirls by. Their wooden shuttles make a soft slithering sound as they hand weave large swathes of silk fabric in rich colors on handcrafted looms.
Well before the success of handmade crafts on the e-commerce site Etsy, the studio of Carol Cassidy, an American master weaver, has been a favorite stop for travelers in this corner of Southeast Asia. Ms. Cassidy has been working with Laotian weavers in the backyard of a grand old colonial mansion in central Vientiane for nearly three decades. Together they have kept alive age-old traditions of Laotian design in woven cloth and the natural colors of a palette extracted from plants in the forests: reds, pinks, yellows, greens.
Just steps from the garden, her showroom, Lao Textiles, on the mansion’s wood-paneled first floor — a cool retreat from the city’s blazing heat — is a haven for easy-to-pack gifts. Day and evening silk scarves, zippered all-purpose silk pouches and elegant cushion covers are arrayed on tables, all at fairly reasonable prices for handmade pieces.
Few know that they are buying the creative efforts of weavers who also make top-of-the-line drapes, sofa and cushion coverings for the retail palaces of luxury fashion houses in Paris, London and Milan.
On the afternoon of my visit, a weaver was working thin strips of buttery soft beige leather into off-white silk thread stretched across the wooden frame of her loom. Flecks of gold silk gave contrast. Ms. Cassidy designed the fabric with its slightly rough texture especially for window shades for a store on the Champs-Élysées.
“We are the new luxury because our pieces are still entirely created by human beings with the uniqueness the human hand brings to the fabrics,” Ms. Cassidy said. As consumers worry about the ecological impact of what they buy, woven Laotian silk is a near perfect investment. “You can come here and see the preparation of the silk, the dyeing of silk, the winding and the designing. You can see it on any given day.”
Ms. Cassidy and her husband, Dawit Seyoum, arrived in Laos in 1989. He had a background in small business development; weaving had been her passion since her father took the family to Mexico for a visit in the 1960s. She studied at the University of Helsinki under Dora Jung, the fabric designer for the Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto.
The collaboration between the famed architect and the fabric designer inspired the young Ms. Cassidy who would later transfer her skills to the temples of luxury-brand retail. “I learned from her that you could design fabric for a specific place,” she said. “You designed a fabric to consider the shape and the lines and the architectural features.”
In Laos, the couple could see the potential for showcasing to the world the extraordinary weaving that was used for religious and ritual ceremonies as well as everyday wear. Woven silk cloth in dazzling or muted colors are an intrinsic part of rural life in Laos, and of upper-class life, too. The fabrics are fashioned into the borders of long skirts still worn by Laotian women, into curtains and bed covers for village and grander homes, and into head cloths, sashes and intricate bodices for dress up occasions.
But the official atmosphere was unwelcoming: The Laos government was hard-line Communist. “It was an exact replica of East Germany,” Mr. Seyoum joked. He was an exile from Ethiopia, so had some ideas about how to deal with authoritarian rule. To their surprise they won approval for the first business license issued to foreigners.
In those days, only the hardiest tourists mastered the hurdles for getting a visa. So their first sales were to expatriates at the embassies in the sleepy capital. Getting things done for overseas orders wasn’t easy. The government considered fax machines subversive; they took a boat trip to Thailand to communicate with the outside world.
The two-story house that had been the residence of the French governor general in Laos, Paul Blanchard de la Brosse, seemed an ideal place to establish the workshop. They flew to Versailles to talk to the owners-in-exile, and the government granted a lease. They began with three Laotian weavers. Now they employ more than 40.
At a mid-1990s show at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York they set up a demonstration of two looms operated by two weavers. It was a hit. Architects and interior designers raved about the surprise of the silks that would impress rich clients always on the look out for the new and exclusive. Peter Marino, the architect for high-end stores, including Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, loved the olive-hued silk covering for a sofa, Mr. Seyoum recalled. Many assignments from Mr. Marino followed, using Laotian motifs and styles of weaving (brocades, ikat, tapestry) that are well-suited to the grandeur of luxe interiors.
The United States bombed Laos from 1965 to 1973, leaving the northern part of the country a wreck, a dangerous place with unexploded ordnance that has caused terrible injuries since. Many of the weavers, who mostly come from the Tai ethnic group, survived. Their looms, usually their most important possessions, were mobile and they were able to flee the bombing.
Producing the silk was one of the most difficult things to revive, Ms. Cassidy said. She invested in some of the worn-down silk farms in northern Laos, and soon had a ready supply. In the last few years, though, the silk supply has plummeted again, and the cost has increased because of the scarcity. Sometimes she resorts to silk from Thailand and Vietnam, but never uses Chinese silk, which is shiny and often synthetic.
In Laos, farmers still feed the silkworms with mulberry leaves, producing a fine silk. In Vietnam, the silk is coarser: It is fed with cassava. “Lao silk is matte, and uneven. As a textile artist I look for the variety and the hand-twisting of the silk.”
Many farmers are turning to more lucrative cash crops, including opium, for sale to China. The increasing scarcity of silk is forcing Ms. Cassidy to turn to more creative weaves — incorporating fine leather, feathers and cotton. It’s not such a bad thing, she said. The mixtures produce interesting textures.
The greatest challenge to the art is not only where to find a guaranteed supply of local silk, but how to encourage the next generation of Laotian weavers.
Bouakham Phengmixay, 39, with long black hair tied back in a ponytail and a radiant smile, is a star weaver at Lao Textiles. She has been working in the garden since 1997. “In my village in the north, the incentive to produce silk is dying because of the imports from Vietnam,” she said.
Her daughter, 16, knows how to weave, and made a hand-woven skirt when she was 9. But that was her first and last attempt at weaving. “She doesn’t want to weave anymore. Our daughters are really not interested in weaving. It’s not entertainment for them.” Young women want jobs in offices and banks, not at the loom.
But Ms. Cassidy is undeterred. She will find a way, she insists, to ensure the tradition of Laotian woven silk endures.
Lao Textiles, 82 Nokeo Khoumane, Ban Mixay, Vientiane; laotextiles.com.