In the countryside of Luang Prabang, we met Mrs Kieng, a charming and traditional Lao lady who talked to us about her life and her craft.
1. Can you introduce yourself and tell us how and when you decided to become a silk weaver?
My name is Kieng, I'm 39 years old. I live in Luang Prabang. We were 6 people in my family and I was the fourth child. My family was very poor and they could not afford sending us to school. At that time, my mom was very good at weaving and that was the only way for us to earn money for living. So, in order to help the family, I started to learn weaving when I was 10 with the guide of my mom. At first I just learned simple patterns and then after several months, my skill got better and after years, I could make difficult patterns requested by customers.
2. How long does it take to a new learner to become a good silk weaver?
Like other handicrafts, weaving requires patience and it takes time. A new learner must spend at least 3 months to get used to the tools and the weaving job. In addition, the person who learns silk weaving must be the one who has a passion on it otherwise it would take much more time to learn this job. I myself have been in this job for over 29 years and one of the strongest reasons is that I am very interested in this handicraft.
3. Do you work alone or do you work within a group or a cooperative?
Before I used to work alone at home. However, in 2005, I met a friend who advised me to join Ock Pop Tok (it is the private company which produces silk products in Luang Prabang). So, I have been working there since that time.
4. Can you tell us more about your daily work related to silk weaving?
Every day, I get up at about 4 am to weave my own silk requested for my own customers. Then I go to work from 8 am to 5 pm. When I come home after work, I work again on my weaving for my own for about 2 hours. It is such a hard work but I love it very much.
5. Can you present us your tools and the weaving process?
The weaver’s tools are the floor standing loom, the comb or beater, the shuttles, the spools, the winding wheel, the warp frame, the pattern stick.
Most of these items are handmade, but nowadays combs can be bought in the market. Each ethnic group makes a slightly different design.
After coloring and drying, the yarns are reeled onto spools. The spinning process is to separate and smooth the silk yarns further. Good reeling can make a difference to the final quality of the woven silk. After, the yarn is stretched in the warp board and then rolled into the loom.
Then to make the warp, the weavers first need to calculate how many threads the warp will contain. Each comb has a set number of teeth, which are counted in measurements called lop. For example, if a lop has 20 teeth and each tooth contains 2m threads, a comb of 10 lops needs 400 silk threads for the warp.
Then, the weaver wraps the yarn around the pillars of their house. The warp is then plaited and put in bags. The ends of the warp have to pass through the comb and be tied to the loom. This process is call Supe Hup. The whole process takes a couple of days.
One of the most difficult tasks for a weaver is to invent new motifs to differentiate with others in the market. It requires creativity and details.
6. Do you want your children to inherit all of the weaving techniques from you? What do you think of the weaving silk job in Laos nowadays?
Of course my daughter to continue this tradition if she has an interest in silk weaving. Nowadays, the demand for silk products is very high in comparison with the decrease in the number of silk weavers. I believe silk weaver will be a good job in term of making income in the coming years.