To Weave a New Pattern–Lao Style

Our guides in this week’s travel adventure are Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck who began traveling through Southeast Asia fifteen years ago with their 9 and 11-year-old sons. After two family trips in Thailand, Vietnam, and later, Laos, Joshua and Maren wanted to transform these extended family adventures into a new lifestyle, a new way of being.

Lao style
Josh, Maren, and their young sons during a Baci ceremony in Laos. Photo by Josh and Maren from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

In these excerpts from their award-winning book Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition, and Well-Being, they describe how family travels led to starting a textile business, Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art, the forming of deep friendships, and they introduce you to one of their weaving friends from the village of Xam Tai, Laos. Plus, we’re treating you to another of Joe Coca’s fabulous videos, made from photos taken for the book while traveling in Laos with Josh, Maren, and publisher Linda Ligon.

—Karen Brock, associate publisher

Traveling with Purpose

After our family’s second Asia adventure, we felt emboldened and healthy—perhaps a little cocky. “Start a little business,” some friends said. “You bring back such amazing stuff.” Jeez—it sounded like an exciting adventure in itself!

So we did. “Perhaps it can pay for another trip?” we imagined. And it nearly did.

So we turned to learning everything we could about customs brokers, importing, and labeling laws. We devoured every text we could find on the cultures and the textiles of the Annamite Mountain region of northern Laos and Vietnam. “You do it or you don’t,” we told ourselves.

Houaphan Province, Laos. Photo by Josh Hirschstein & Maren Beck from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

And we made some decisions, taking into account the realities of parenting and managing a stable home, about how we best liked to spend our personal, valuable time and effort. (Money, I preach to my kids, comes and goes. Time, however, only goes. Spend it wisely.)

We continued also to explore the cotton, hemp, batik, and other textile arts found in Laos’s northern and southern provinces as well as across the border in northern Vietnam where we have also developed some wonderful and enduring relationships with several Hmong and Dzao weavers and embroiderers.

Lao style

We had found what we anticipated to be an engaging, dynamic business, which could work (sort of) with the schedule of running a tutoring service and having two kids in school, and that also energized and gave context to Maren’s passion with color and creative design.

We had found an excuse for back-pack-style rural ventures in Asia with the kids for years to come. (And both our boys traveled with us until each went to college.) We also had gained an excuse to deepen our cultural experiences. This element of connecting with the locals was no longer a fantasy, but a business requirement and expense. We needed to make relationships with the artists of the region. (Oh, the riches we found here!)

Lao style
Maren and Josh admire and choose textiles to purchase. Photo by Josh Hirschstein & Maren Beck from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

We even had an excuse to shop, for the business, of course. Eyes always peeled, every day on the road. Every village has treasures and stories. We quickly learned that “traveling with purpose” is immensely more fun than just wandering. “And it would be good for college admissions,” we justified. (It turned out, by the way, we were right.)

Perhaps most of all: it would feel healthy and momentous to weave a new pattern—to create lives that lifted rather than entrenched. That created, rather than endured. That dove in, rather than scanned. That engaged and flowed, rather than sat and puddled.

Lao style
A plain-weave weft follows a row of discontinuous supplementary pattern wefts in this gorgeous lao design woven in silk.

And, of course, we really had very little idea what we were doing or getting into, which made the whole idea seem possible.

Nang Tiip of Xam Tai

The traditional, older village of Xam Tai has one broad and dusty road that is fronted by two dozen well-appointed stilt-raised homes; traffic, although light, can zip through quickly and the children tend to avoid playing on the well-groomed thoroughfare.

However, walking between two of the homes on the right—and walking close to neighbors and their homes is not considered obtrusive in small villages—we find a pot-holed alley that parallels the main road, and here one witnesses the active daily life of Xam Tai’s residents: kids from toddler age to near adolescent play with sticks and bicycles, old men prepare bamboo for weaving fishing creels, young men repair their fishing nets, chickens and roosters strut for primacy, laundry waves in the light breeze.

Lao style
Making and repairing fish nets are ongoing tasks for the men of Xam Tai, Laos. Photo by Joe Coca from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

Nearly every home has at least one floor loom set in the shade; several of the homes shade three or four looms. In the late after-noon, walking by these twenty-five or so homes, we find twenty women actively weaving. One home has three young girls weaving side by side with Lao pop music blaring from a dusty boom box.

The “back alley” of Xam Tai village; looms are set up under every home. Photo by Joe Coca from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

At the end of the lively side road stands a modest home with a porch overlooking a small stream. In the cool under the home, away from the glare of the sun, sits Nang Tiip on her worn bench. She is one of the town’s master weavers, a forty-one-year-old veteran dyer, spinner, and weaver.

Lao style
Nang Tiip wearing one of her handwoven silk shoulder cloths with a box of naga pattern. Photo by Joe Coca from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

Nang Tiip learned how to weave from her mother. At ten years of age, she was weaving cotton sinh (skirt) for local women, and by age fourteen she was spinning her own cotton. As a child she also learned the intricacy of weaving silk using the discontinuous supple-mental weft method, and she began her career weaving silk patterns on narrow, cotton-backed tiin sinh (skirt borders). She laughs with a big open smile as she remembers that those first tiin sihn sold pretty well in the developing marketplace.

Lao style

Nang Tiip still works with both cotton and silk. Part of the year she weaves cotton fabric, which she dyes with indigo to make men’s shirts and pants. Most men wear factory-made western-style cloth-ng, but there is still a small market for those who prefer the feel, look, and tradition of handcrafted clothing.

Most of the year, however, is spent weaving the complex ceremonial textiles, phaa biang. Indeed, these are the pieces that catch a fairer price in the marketplace. She has the patience and skill to be nearly flawless with her weaving, and her talent with color play, especially with jewel tones, allows her completed pieces to stand out with maturity and a certain pop.

Nang Tiip’s first textile created completely on her own; she raised the silkworms, reeled the silk, created the natural dyes, designed the pattern, and wove this stunning piece. Photo by Joe Coca from the book Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

Nang Tiip is one of Xam Tai’s most productive weavers, putting in seven to eight hours every day, and she has been a consistent talent represented in the silks our business has purchased over the years.

She is married and has three children: a daughter who is twenty-three, and two sons, ages nineteen and eighteen. Yes, she laughs, of course her daughter has been taught how to dye and weave!

Nang Tiip chuckles as she pushes her richly worn wooden shuttle across the warp threads. “Yes,” she says. “I very much look forward to teaching my grandchildren how to weave someday. It is still a good way to earn a living.”

—Joshua Hirschstein & Maren Beck

Experience Xam Tai, Laos in this beautiful video of Joe Coca’s photos.

Meet the artisans of Xam Tai, learn their stories and discover their silk weaving traditions in Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos, now on sale.

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