At the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang in northern Laos, the Oma ethnic community’s past and future intersect in the form of leg wraps designed as handwoven wine bags covered in colorful embroidery and appliqués. The wine bags, sold at the TAEC gift shop, are among the modern takes on traditional textiles from the country’s 49 ethnic groups showcased by the organization. But this isn’t some museum to the past. It’s part of a growing movement in Laos in which traditional textiles and crafts are being used to create economic opportunities, particularly for women, in a way that would have been impossible earlier. And an old enemy is emerging as an unlikely ally.
For years, the rise of cheap and mass-produced clothing and decreasing interest in traditional crafts among younger generations threatened the future of heritage textiles in Laos. Now, growing conscious consumerism among tourists and improvements in technology — in particular the internet — and infrastructure that allow for remote artisans to connect with profitable markets are spawning a revival. While higher levels of industrialization make such initiatives a greater challenge in countries like India, China and Thailand, the efforts in Laos — where industrialization intensity (a measure of how competitive a country’s industry is) remains so low that the World Bank doesn’t even record it — are already beginning to flip the odds.
Our slogan is ‘Discover Laos, and its different ethnic groups, through textiles.’
Vin Souvanthone, Ock Pop Tok
The TAEC, through sales made at its museum shop, its boutique in downtown Luang Prabang and its online store, generated approximately $633,777 in direct earnings for artisans between 2007 and 2017. The amount has grown each year as artisans design more products and work with new producer groups: In 2017 alone, the amount that went directly to artisans was $138,558. Ock Pop Tok, a social enterprise that offers weavers fair pay and access to learning and professional development, started with five weavers in 2000. Today, it works with 500 weavers, almost all women, across 11 provinces. Handmade in Luang Prabang, a label launched in 2012, has contributed to an 80 percent income increase for the weavers who work with it. And in Vientiane, local initiatives Saoban Crafts and Cama Crafts are working with women to create employment opportunities in rural areas, build community leadership and reduce poverty through traditional crafts.
“Our slogan is ‘Discover Laos, and its different ethnic groups, through textiles,’” says Vin Souvanthone, the sales and marketing coordinator at Ock Pop Tok.
Laos isn’t the only country where such initiatives have emerged in recent years, but both the drivers of the movement, and the implications of these efforts, are fundamentally different in Laos from what’s happening elsewhere in Asia. In India and Thailand, the efforts at reviving traditional textiles have catered in large part to domestic audiences and have been government led. In India, for instance, the domestic sale of khaddar — the hand-spun fabric made famous by Mahatma Gandhi — went up by 33 percent in 2017. In Laos, on the other hand, most initiatives have no government involvement, and tourists are almost exclusively the market.
That’s why many of the Laos initiatives, such as Ock Pop Tok and the TAEC, are based in Luang Prabang. Since it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the city has seen an explosion in tourism. Visitors increased by 6 percent last year even as they fell by 10 percent for Laos on the whole.
That tourists, not domestic buyers, are at the center of the Laos efforts also highlights why the impact of the initiatives here is markedly different from other regional nations. For decades, female weavers in India and China have earned money from producing clothes for the domestic market. In Laos, on the other hand, women have traditionally woven at home, and usually only for immediate family. This, says Souvanthone, meant that their skills offered little financial incentive, making weaving less viable as an occupation and less valuable to younger generations. That’s changing. The rise of the internet has made it easier for social enterprises and businesses to connect with artisans, creating infrastructure and a product line that links remote villages to the demand of the global market. For women, it’s also an opportunity to earn from traditional arts in a way they couldn’t in the past.
Some of these benefits of technology are evident beyond Laos. Sharon de Lyster, the designer behind Hong Kong–based brand Narrative Made, which blends heritage textiles and contemporary designs, agrees that technological improvements have made it easier to reach out to artisan communities and create partnerships. Formerly a design forecaster and researcher focused on Asian heritage crafts, de Lyster has created an online “artisan map” of Asian weavers, cooperatives and designers creating textiles using traditional techniques, motifs and materials. “You can share the story [on the internet] of how things are made,” she says, explaining how the internet helps with marketing.
Challenges remain, especially in popularizing traditional crafts among local communities and those who can’t afford handmade artisanal textiles. Local youth often view traditional textiles as old-fashioned, says Thai designer and fashion buyer Parissara Na Phatthalung. Her resortwear brand Parissara, which exclusively uses handmade Thai fabrics reinterpreted into “contemporary and timeless designs,” tries to overcome that perception.
Sourcing weavers can be difficult too. Parissara originally wanted to hire weavers from her hometown, but found only one elderly woman still familiar with the method and the local industry dead because of a lack of demand. She hopes to one day rebuild that weaving community and tradition. “Thai fabric is so beautiful and it represents art and fashion and history,” she says. “I really don’t want this to die.” Then there’s the debate over how authentic to stay to tradition. “There are roots we need to honor and try as much to keep,” says de Lyster, but adds that “heritage is always evolving.”
Relatively lower levels of industrialization compared with its neighbors, though, mean the bombardment of mass-produced traditional clothes in Laos is more recent than in some other traditional Asian societies — such as India, where the disruption of legacy textiles began a century ago, under the British. China’s industrialization intensity was last recorded in 2014 as 0.76 on a scale of 1 by the World Bank. The figure for Thailand was 0.68, and for India, 0.43. Laos’ was too low to track.
That doesn’t mean Laos has no challenges. Back in Luang Prabang, Marie-Pierre Lissoir, a TAEC researcher focusing on the music of minority groups and the local economy, suggests a balance between tradition and what tourists want is critical. As it is, artisans have to compete with cheap knockoffs that flood the city’s night market.
Like TAEC, Ock Pop Tok works with its weavers to interpret traditional techniques and designs into products that will attract tourists and help artisans secure financial stability. But Lissoir argues that the textiles remain heavily influenced by tradition, often using motifs and imagery that outsiders might not notice but that have a deeper meaning for the local community. For artisans to design exactly what their grandmothers did would be like expecting Westerners to dress the way their ancestors did, she says.
Instead, Laos’ female weavers are blending what their grandmothers did with technology and tourism for a shot at economic security.
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