Laos silk: background
Natural silk is produced by silkworms that spin fine filaments into cocoons. More than 3,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered that silk could be harvested and woven; the knowledge later spread along the Silk Route to other parts of the world.
Silk was introduced to Laos when the Tai-Lao peoples migrated from their ancestral lands in Southern China into present-day Laos, bringing with them the knowledge of silk cultivation, dyeing, and weaving on upright wooden looms. In Laos they encountered the indigenous Mon-Khmer people, who used back-strap or body-tension looms to weave other types of fabric, mainly from raw cotton and hemp. This cultural contact has given Lao textiles the diversity and intricacy of designs that make them stand out today.
Shui-Meng, Saoban, Vientiane, Laos shows different types of spun silk
Production and processing of handwoven silk require great skill and patience. The process begins with feeding silkworms mulberry leaves. Because silkworms die if the weather is too wet or too cold, silkworm cultivation is best done between March and June and between September and November.
It takes 24 days for a silkworm to mature from egg to cocoon. To extract the silk the cocoons are plunged into pots of boiling water to soften the silk. The work must be done within five to seven days after the cocoon is formed; otherwise the moth inside will chew through the silk. After being drawn, silk is spun into yarn and graded according to its fineness. The yarn is then boiled in a lye solution to remove the natural resin that adheres to the cocoon. Finally the yarn is dyed and woven.
In the past–and even today in some remote rural communities—this entire process was often done by a single person. Today, weavers who don’t own mulberry fields usually buy processed silk.
See interviews with Carol Cassidy, Laos Textiles and Shui-Meng, Saoban to see their beautiful creations and learn more about their contribution to this incredible art form.