A brief history
The art of silk manufacture was invented in China as early as 3500BC. In legend, it was the Empress Leizu who was responsible for discovering silk and until 200BC the secret remained closely guarded within China.
The material captured the imagination of everybody who came into contact with it, making it at one point the most valued commodity in the world. As demand for silk grew in the East, silk was ultimately responsible for a trade route which stretched from China to Turkey and enhanced the exchange of culture, language and of course commodities, The Silk Road.
Today there is no secret to Sericulture, or the production of silk. Production centres sprung up everywhere, including France and Italy in the middle ages but China and India are still perhaps the most widely recognised centres. However, silk is an intrinsic part the history and culture throughout Asia and South East Asia and one of the most unique and beautiful examples of traditional silk production and weaving is to be found in Laos.
Throughout the first Millenium BC, South East Asia was the home to various Kingdoms and civilisations with constantly shifting boundaries. Laos’ northern borders with Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and China’s Yunnan province were therefore extremely porous allowing migration in all directions. Throughout this period the Tai people of Yunnan spread throughout Northern South East Asia and brought with them the secret of silk production, dyeing and weaving.
Lao silk weaving today
Today Lao silk weaving is endemic to the culture of Laos. It is seen as a sign of womanhood and mothers pass these skills onto their daughters. Both communities and individuals weave patterns laden with historical and cultural significance and it is often possible to tell which region a particular style of fabric originated from. The patterns are also handed down from generation to generation and in many cases are a closely guarded secret. The most authentic Lao silk uses only naturally occurring pigments as dye, shunning chemical dyes. These dyes come from bark, seeds, earth, flowers and even Lac beetles allowing for an infinite number of colours and shades.
But it is not only the dyes which make Lao silk a great choice for the Eco conscious. In many cases, the silk is produced using traditional methods on a small scale.
Silk is spun from the cocoons of mulberry silk worms. The larvae are fed on mulberry leaves four times a day for a month until they reach the pupal stage and begin to weave their cocoons. They are placed onto trays until they are ready to leave the cocoon. At this point the moths must be killed to prevent them from breaking the silk fibres and so the cocoons are scalded in hot water before being placed in water mixed with ash, creating an alkali solution which helps to extract the thread.
After this process the threads are boiled and the process is repeated until the required softness is achieved. After this process the three different types of silk are separated. The outer threads produce a rougher silk, and the inner threads produce a much softer silk, known as Royal Silk or mai nyot.
The threads are then woven spun into thread by skilled hands before being coloured with natural dyes. The range of colours achievable is quite incredible.
In one farm in Xieng Kouang, Eastern Laos, they have up to 630 colour variations, all created using natural dyes. Some of the plants and seeds they use are:
PINK: lac resin, mulberries.
RED: lac resin, mulberries, annato seed.
YELLOW: hem vine, leen tree bark, coffee, indigo, annato seed.
BROWN: ngiao branch, teak leaf, du branch, kabao fruit, mulberries.
GREEN: indigo, hem vine, mulberries.
BLUE: indigo, mulberries.
PURPLE: mulberries, teak leaf.
Once the spun silk has been dyed and dried it is then woven on a traditional loom by the skilled hands of Lao women in designs of varying complexity. It stands to reason that some of the more complicated designs take weeks to weave but the results are truly stunning.
While in Laos ion our latest trip, we were fortunate enough to meet some of these very skilled women in different regions of the country and have a variety of styles available. If you’re interested in purchasing one of these beautiful pieces, please check out our range of fair trade knitwear.