Friday, February 19, 2010

Laos Day #6 - The Rest of the Day - Silk Experience

After our lunch in Luang Namtha on Saturday, 30 January, we wandered around the "new" town searching for the bakery and a place to buy some supplies for the next day's journey to Ban Pakha for the Lanten New Year celebration. "New" town? After the war ended in 1975, the Pathet Lao moved, or more accurately rebuilt, the market and government buildings north of the original town site in 1976. The "old" town where we were staying is subject to flooding in the rainy season so the decision was made to move to the higher ground to the north.

The new town consists of three wide parallel streets, one of them being the main highway - Highway #3 with a small number of connecting streets. Luang Namtha is the capital of the province but is essentially a rural backwater. There are several guest houses and a large hotel is under construction. There are a few restaurants catering to tourists and even fewer bars. There are several tour company offices offering treks, and when the water levels are sufficient, boat tours. The town is the jumping off point for treks into the minority people villages and the NPA wilderness.

There are supposed to be 35,000 people in Luang Namtha, but that number must include all of the adjacent villages in the wide area around the town. Based upon my observations, I would say that the actual "new" town has around 5,000 inhabitants. There was very little traffic on Saturday afternoon and even fewer people on the streets. It was so empty that we found only two booths on the sidewalk - a young girl selling fruit and an older woman selling some clothing - unbelievable for southeast Asia. After talking with several people, most who did not know about the bakery, we found out that the bakery was closed on Saturday and Sunday. Undeterred with bought some fruit and resigned ourselves to having to make an early morning stop at the market in Kouang, a small village past Muang Sing, to have breakfast.

We returned to the hotel - Duang to rest and I to write in my diary. As Duang rested, I sat on the porch overlooking the Nam Tha River, and took photographs. Several children, two girls and four boys, were busy exploring the opposite river bank as well as the river itself. They were having a grand time as only 5 to 8 year olds can. The boys were dressed only in the jockey style underwear. One girl was topless and the other girl around 5 years old was stark naked. Two of the boys climbed a tree stump and jumped into the river. With that demonstration of bravado the group waded across the river to our side, put on their dry clothes that were cached midway up the river bank, and walked back to their village.

After about two hours I checked in on Duang to see if she would like to go for another walk. She agreed so we walked to the bridge that spans the Nam Tha River and leads to Ban Pasak. Ban Pasak is a Tai Dam (Black Tai) village that we had visited earlier. During our previous village Duang has purchased a beautiful silk scarf from a local weaver.

We walked to the home of the village weaver and found the family involved in another aspect of the silk process that we had not witnessed before. The grandmother was working in front of a large wood frame that had been set up outside of their home. The woman's daughter or daughter-in-law assisted her in her task. An older grand daughter cared for her younger sister and baby brother. Her son or son-in-law supervised and helped as required to keep the work going.

The wood frame reminded me of the wood curtain frame that my mother used in the 1950's to stretch out and dry freshly washed sheer window curtains. The frame in Ban Pasak was about 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. Along each of the two long sides of the frame, 16 shiny metal tubes, about 6 inches long and 3/4 inch in diameter were fastened. At the bottom of the frame, two similar tubes were attached. The top of the frame was a wood board with a series of notches cut into it's upper edge. The bottom cross member at the back of the frame had approximately 20 slender wood rods. On the day of our visit, 10 of the wood rods had short blue PVC pipe bobbins placed over them. Each of the bobbins had a mass of brilliant gold colored silk thread spun around them. The older woman was busily occupied taking the 10 individual threads in her hand from the bobbins and looping them around the 34 shiny tubes. In a continuous and fluid motion she wound the threads up and down and up and down through the tubular maze. Her motion only occasionally interrupted when a thread was broken or came to an end. She stopped and waited as her son or son-in-law tied the two ends together and gave them a few twists necessary to essential make the knot invisible. It was remarkable even when I removed my glasses and got extremely close to the knot that I had just witnessed being made I could not see it. The end result of the afternoon's efforts will be a large skein of golden silk that will be placed above the hand loom located underneath the family home which stands about 6 feet above the ground on stilts. The skein is then incorporated into the fabric that is woven my the woman's daughter. On our previous visit, we watched as the daughter wove similar golden silk thread into a piece that she was weaving. It was extremely beautiful - the gold silk iridescent within the intricate design of the finished fabric on the loom.

Since Duang and I typically are not part of any tour or organized group, we remain masters of our time. We are able to stop and if not to smell the roses, to talk to the local people and learn much more about their life as well as their work. We both share the same passion to learn and understand the world outside of our home which makes our travels so much more enjoyable. In our travels we have found that two of people's favorite subjects for discussion as well as sharing are their life and their work. Our visit with the village silk weavers was no exception. As Duang and the villagers were busily engaged in conversation, I wandered around. I noticed two long pieces of PVC pipe straddled across the back of the family's Chinese farm truck. The middle of the pipes were covered with heavy paper - locally produced bamboo paper I suspect. I asked about the pipes through Duang and the man came over to show me what they were. He removed the paper covering from one of the pipes exposing a mass of shiny gold silk threads. Removed from the constraints of their paper restraint, several ends, I believe 8, of small skeins of thread dropped from the pipe. The family had recently completed dying the thread gold and the finished product was drying around the PVC pipe. Eventually the dried threads will be wound onto bobbins for subsequent processing on the frame close by.
Also spanning the pick up truck's bed was a wide bamboo tray covered by a large piece of silk obviously covering many objects. We learned that the fabric was covering special structures along with silk worms. The man's wife came over to me and brought me to an area underneath the house where many objects were stored. The objects were a dome type very open lattice created from woven rattan. From the woman, we learned from the woman that at the proper time, silk worms are selected and placed beneath each dome, 10 worms to a dome. The domes are then covered which encourages the worms to commence spinning their cocoons. using the dome to support their work. She then took us to a screened room underneath the house.

The screened room was about 10 feet by 10 feet and had a vestibule with two doors as and entrance. Inside the room was a large framework made from lashed bamboo which served as shelves. Many low side woven bamboo trays rested on the shelves. The woman removed one of the woven trays and placed it on the floor. It was filled with wiggling silk worms and mulberry leaves. She squatted and commenced to sort through the mass of worms. She selected the fat ones that had a yellowish tinge. The selected worms were placed into a plastic bin. These are the worms that are placed underneath the rattan domes to spin their cocoons. She was joined by her young son who readily pitched in to select the worms. Her young daughter was not put off by the wiggling and squirming creatures but was not willing to give up her guard with a falang (foreigner) in such close proximity!

After completing the day's sorting operation, the woman went up into the house and returned with a large bag filled with dry cocoons that had been previously harvested and boiled. The dry cocoons would eventually be turned into thread, dyed, and woven into fabric. It was very informative and interesting to learn how the family produced as well as controlled the entire process of creating silk fabric. Every member of the family contributed to the process and it appeared that the family was successful. Although the family was currently living in a typical Tai Dam elevated wood house, next door a three story concrete and brick replacement home was being constructed.

The family had a baby son who had a cleft lip. Fortunately his palate was fine. He was able to feed without difficulty and just about upon cue in response to my query about his ability to eat, he started to breastfeed. The family told us that when the baby got to be 10 kilos (22 pounds) he would be able to have his lip repaired for free. I took a father and son photograph in appreciation for the family's time and kindness. I promised to send a copy to them by way of the hotel. Two days ago we mailed the photos to Laos.

After seeing and learning about the entire silk production process that the family used to produce the silk scarf that we had purchased, we have a greater appreciation for the piece and a much greater respect as well as admiration for the people who created it.


  1. Allen, This is a terrific entry for me. I am a spinner and a weaver. I do have a few silk cocoons that I truly do not know what to do with. I also work at a RI textile factory, where the warping process (which is what you observed outside on the frame) uses thousands of threads to roll onto the beam to be used on looms or knitting machines. The textile process is basically the same, no matter how small, like in Loatian villages or in large factories. What a wonderful story. Thanks

  2. Marcia: Thank you for the kind words. I put a great deal out there, try to be accurate, and try to be interesting. I typically do not know how it is all being taken "out there". It is very nice, inspiring and motivating to learn that it is appreciated.