Silk and cotton weaving is an ancient art from the former kingdoms of the Lao, which showed not only the wealth of families, communities, and the royal courts, but also was an important factor in the commercial relations between the Lao and their neighbouring kingdoms as China, Angkor, Siam, and Vietnam. Within most cultures textiles are used in ceremonies as identifiers. Such textiles are of great importance in the lives of the people and often are used as gifts or for ceremonial purposes in "rites de passage" such as birth, puberty, marriage, death or the elevation of a person's social status.
With the Lao, textiles are also of special importance in healing rituals and in Buddhist ceremonies. The traditional Lao wedding, one of the most significant ceremonies, requires fine and elaborate costumes and clothes for bride, groom and the "master of the ceremony" (mo phon). The dress of the bride during the main ritual is woven with refined silk thread and lavishly decorated with silver or gold yarns using supplementary weft techniques. An intricate bride's dress may take several months or even years to complete. But not only clothes are important in wedding ceremonies, but also textiles as a part of the bride-price. The Lao also use textiles in ceremonial ways for death rituals, and the way they are used indicates the status of the deceased and the deceased's family. The deceased is dressed in the finest new clothes the family can afford; and several sets of clothing are placed in the coffin with the corpse as it lies in state. It is believed, that by offering textiles one can gain merit and make the deceased more comfortable in the next life. In addition to this, handwoven banners are given to the temple or are erected at the cemetery as a memorial.
Silk is produced in three main areas, Luang Namtha, Houaphan and Xieng Khouan Provinces. The production of Lao silk is seasonal revolving around the rice harvest. Lao silk is hand spun from silk worms, the worms feed of the leaves of the mulberry tree. Lao silk is soft and absorbs dyes well, making it very rich in colour. In Laos there are 2 types of silk cocoons: white and yellow. Both are found in the north, while only yellow cocoons are found in the south. One type of silkworm eats only mulberry leaves and the second type originates from India and can eat a variety of plants such as castor leaves, cassava leaves, and papaya leaves, but not mulberry. The traditional Lao silk cocoons are gathered after the months have emerged and laid the silk eggs. The eggs are hatched without the help of an incubator. The traditional Lao silkworm produces a very short yellow strand that can only be reeled by hand. The history of Lao weaving of silk goes back for thousands of years. Women have been synonymous with weaving for centuries, and weaving is an important part of a woman’s daily life. From age four or five, girls are encouraged to play with weaving and embroidery equipment.
The process of natural dyeing is not as commonly practiced in Laos today, however there are areas in Laos that are reviving this ancient technique. Each ethnic group, each family has its own resources and methods. Use of many natural dyes has declined due to the difficulty of preparing the colours, the limited geographic availability of certain plant materials, and the popularity within Laos of the brilliant colours available from chemical dyes. The only natural colours in wide use are blue/black from indigo and red from lac. Natural production of other colours such as orange, yellow, and pink from leaves and roots can add considerably to the cost of a textile.
Lao Textiles are hand-woven on a frame loom and incorporate three especially complex techniques.
Motifs in Lao textiles are deeply symbolic and can be used to determine things like: ethnic group, marital status, region and function. Ancient weavers designed their patterns to resemble the things they saw in their daily lives. In the beginning, weaving patterns were composed of flowers, plants, trees, vines, animals, animal skin patterns, natural views, and tools for daily life. Each pattern has a different meaning, although the pattern’s colours vary, according to the weaver’s ideas and personal taste.
Examples of Symbols in motifs
Naga - a mythological water serpent with unparalleled magic powers and is important to animists as it is believed to be an ancestor spirit, whilst Buddhists revere the Naga as he saved Buddha from the floods.
Butterfly - a short-lived symbol, taboo for weddings, represents beauty and vanity, worn by young girls.
Snake - Associated with fertility and the underworld.
Elephant - An important role in the history of Lao and thought to have rain bearing power.