How a Collective of Female Weavers Brings Tradition into Modern Designs

Written by Rachna Sachasinh who works directly with the artisans in the Baan Nayang village and connects them to markets and buyers.
Pile of patterned throw blankets made in Laos
A collection of blankets by a weaving collective in Laos

In Baan Nayang, Laos, a village about three hours north of Luang Prabang, two collectives of female weavers craft blankets, napkins, and other home goods. Raised over stilts, their homes have space underneath for the women to work on their looms, where they hand spin cotton and weave each piece.

Well before the global textile economy became the $1.4 trillion market that it is today, women of this region, who belong to the Tai Lue ethnic group, have a long history of weaving. The evidence is in the stitches. Prior to the use of a written script, textiles' motifs passed down origin stories and folk tales. Generations later, weavers stitch the same symbols from centuries past.

The Weavers

The first collective of weavers is led Ms. Navone, a master weaver and dyer. The second is led by Ms. Manomanh and Mae Manh.

Master weaver and dyer, Ms. Navone in Laos
Master Weaver and Dyer, Ms. Navone
Weaver Mae Manh on the right
Weaver Mae Manh (right) with Rachna Sachasinh (left)

Both groups work of women with their neighbors, all of whom contribute to the process of hand spinning, dying, and weaving. Once a piece has been completed, they add it to the collective stock.

Although many of the patterns look like embroidery, they are actually woven. It’s a technique called ‘kit’ or continuous supplementary weft.

The History of Wedding Blankets in Laos

The collection of handwoven, patterned throws are inspired by traditional wedding
blankets. Wedding blankets are woven by young Lao women for their trousseau. Two similar panels are sewn together to create a ‘blanket’ for the newlyweds' first bed. The motifs represent the weaver’s hope for a peaceful, fortuitous and fertile marriage.

Traditional wedding blanket in Laos
Traditional wedding blanket in Laos

Symbolism of the Motifs

The Naga is a 'hook' like curl that represents the water serpent deity who lives in the Mekong River and brings protection, longevity, and fertility. He is the connection between the spiritual realm and the earthly world, which is why the Naga adorns temple railings that lead up to the worship room.

Siho is an animal with the head of the elephant and body of lion that symbolizes strength and resilience.

Diamond motifs can be associated with the inner eye and represent wisdom.

Flowers represent beauty.

Birds mean freedom, lightness of spirit and also beauty.

Symbolism of the motifs

Below, you'll find a Tai Lue folk tale, a Lao version of the Cinderella story. Once you learn the symbols, you'll find this story throughout weavings in Laos.

Nagas, the serpent diety, are protective spirits first and foremost, but they are also associated with bravery, perseverance — and, as you'll see in this story, romance!

The chicken--or sometimes a bird or butterfly--symbolizes the Naga in disguise. The Naga appears in one or two headed forms as a sign of abundance and wealth, a handsome and upstanding man any parent would want as their son-in-law. The diamond patterns in Lao textiles represent insight and the third eye; diamonds also symbolize wisdom in action. The skill of the weaver lures the Naga as much as her beauty.

The Folk Story Behind the Weave

One day, along the banks of the Mekong, a young woman was making a sinh, a traditional Laotian skirt. As she weaved back and forth across the loom, she fantasized about meeting her future husband. She worked diligently, remembering that her mother had explained that being an accomplished weaver would help her find a good partner. As she worked, a chicken kept pecking her spindle, and she continued shoo-ing the pesky bird away. The chicken finally managed to steal the spindle and took off towards the Mekong River.

She chased the chicken into the water, when suddenly she was pulled into the current and fell to the bottom of the river. In the darkness of the deep underwater, she encountered a heavenly place. And, there was the chicken with her spindle! In an instant, the chicken transformed into a powerful, handsome Naga. Not just any Naga, but the Naga Prince.

The Naga Prince had fallen in love with the weaver, and this was his way of luring her back to his kingdom in the Mekong River. The weaver, of course, fell in love with him immediately. The Naga Prince asked his parents, the King and Queen Naga, to grant him permission to marry the weaver. The King and Queen Naga, who were rather kindly sovereigns, warned the girl that if she were to marry their son, she would have to spend half her life in the water and half of her life on land. They gave her a diamond as a kind of "advance dowry" and told her to take it back home and consult with her parents.

The weaver left the river and went back to her village and with the diamond in hand, she and her parents considered their options. It was decided that she could marry the Naga Prince, and so she returned to be with him. And, they lived happily ever after.

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