Threads of Time
Ahead of this month’s Frederick Harris Gallery exhibition, the founder of a Lao weavers’ workshop explains why she’s determined to preserve her homeland’s intangible art.
"People said, ‘Like in Cambodia, you go back, you are killed.’” That was the warning concerned professors issued Chanthasone Inthavong.
She was a 20-year-old student on a scholarship in Tokyo when she learned that the Pathet Lao communists had seized the Laotian capital. It was December 1975 and Inthavong knew it would be some time before she saw home again.
“My professors said, ‘You have to wait until you know what’s happened in your country,’” recalls Inthavong, 65.
Many in the capital of Vientiane fled across the Mekong River. According to 2018 estimates, as many as 2.5 million Laotians may now live outside their homeland’s borders, including 1.2 million in the United States alone.
For Inthavong, not until 1979 would the situation in Laos be safe enough to enable a return.
Inthavong found Vientiane transformed. Her father, who had worked for the deposed monarchy, now labored for the Pathet Lao. Villagers from the mountainous north flocked to the city. The markets swelled with as many people as the sinh skirts, pha bieng shawls and modern blouses they brought to sell.
“I’d never seen [such] striking colors or beautiful designs,” recalls Inthavong. “Before, I had only very simple [patterns]. I was so shocked.”
Laotians were selling, but hardly any were buying. Visitors from Thailand, spared the recent conflicts, snatched up woven fabric at prices far below market value. If this held, little would remain in Laos of its own traditional arts.
Inthavong returned to Tokyo to graduate before embarking on a doctorate. All the while, she made annual pilgrimages, sometimes two or three times a year, to the markets of Vientiane. She bought armfuls of fabric and clothes with designs as diverse as she could find.
The skirts and shawls she preserved are now the textbooks from which the students at the Houey Hong Center learn.
Founded by Inthavong in 1998, the nonprofit hosts Lao women for three-month intensives in silk dying, loom working and advanced weaving techniques. While most women learn rudimentary weaving skills at home, the pieces Inthavong devotedly collected over the years offer students a rare chance to reproduce and innovate upon the intricate patterns favored for centuries.
“Normally, Lao people like to have many motifs in one piece,” Inthavong says. “It is said that the good weaver should do [many] motifs.”
This month, the apprentices and master instructors of the Houey Hong Center exhibit that legacy of Lao textiles at the Frederick Harris Gallery.
Lao weaving was traditionally passed down from generation to generation. Since 1959, however, that lineage of transmission has suffered nearly continual disruption. The Lao people endured a 16-year civil war, including nine years of bombing in the United States’ so-called “secret war,” and subsequent decades of communist rule that placed little emphasis on fostering traditional arts.
“In Laos, we don’t have art departments in university to teach weaving,” Inthavong explains. “Young people [have] nowhere to study.”
Students almost always learn about the center through word of mouth. Some have just finished their formal education, like 23-year-old Toulavanh Manixay, while others like Mayphone Vilayphanh, 33, have spent years helping family businesses make ends meet.
Regardless of background, most students hope one day to teach protégés in weaving workshops of their own.
Today, Inthavong’s Houey Hong Center is one of dozens of ateliers in Vientiane, though one of only a few nonprofits. In addition to weaving, dyeing and tailoring, instructors teach a skill in short supply across modern Laos: business know-how.
“[Many weavers] don’t know how to [measure] the time they spend for one piece,” says Inthavong. “It’s a very big problem. So we teach them…what they should think about [when pricing pieces].”
Complex designs require weeks upon weeks of loom work. For particularly detailed portions, progress can mean weaving just two centimeters a day. Much like preindustrial Western looms, alternating foot pedals control the vertical warp threads.
The flying shuttle and other modern mechanisms never caught on in Laos, so interweaving the horizontal weft is still done, painstakingly, by hand.
The process demands time and dedication. Weavers who undervalue their work will never make a living, and weavers who cannot make a living will give up on weaving itself.
The Houey Hong Center faces its share of challenges as well. High-grade silk can be difficult to source and the suppliers Inthavong does find do not always honor contracts. To entice experienced weavers to stay and teach rather than opening their own workshops, Inthavong must offer fair wages. She gladly pays for such priceless returns.
“Many techniques in weaving are still alive in Laos,” Inthavong says. “I think there’s time now. It’s not too late.”
Words: Owen Ziegler
Image: Kayo Yamawaki
Oct 15 | 6:30–7:30pm
Oct 15–Nov 4