Wildcrafted Fibres From Laos

Muang La, Oudomxai: After 3 days of travel – bus to Chiang Khong, boat to Pak Beng, bus to Oudomxai – we knew we needed at least 2 nights in Oudomxai (also spelled Oudomxay, Udomxai, Udomxay, Muang Xay, Xay Town). However, we're having such a good time in the heart of Northern Laos, that we've already extended our stay here to 4 days.

On Day 2, we rented a Chinese motorbike (a Zongshen Cub, 100 cc semi-automatic 4-speed) and traveled up to Muang La, said to be one the fave places of Joe Cummings (of Lonely Planet fame). It was great riding through an undulating, narrow river valley with lots of agricultural diversity and as many ethnic groups.

We didn't find the recommended Buddha footprint en route but we did find a local handicraft shop specializing in Khmu bark weaving. We've been wondering for years where a particular type of net bag comes from. Now we know!

“Bark” is a bit of a misnomer. There were actually products made from 2 types of wildcrafted fibres that involve lots of processing and we bought some of both, of course.

The first is what Europeans once knew as bast. Long ago there, it was made from the inner bark of the linden tree. It’s likely what ropes on Viking ships were made from. As you might guess, it’s not used much anymore. Except here in Northern Laos there’s apparently lots. Here it’s called yaboi or lavang. (One’s allegedly female, the other male, but we didn’t get into that.)

Anyway, the Khmu people in Laos have long made fibre by processing the inner bark found between the outer bark and the woody core (technically, the nutrient-rich phloem from the dead epidermis and inner xylem) of their chosen tree – a labour-intensive process involving a really sharp knife and much patience.

Stripped Yaboi bark, pounded
This must be dried, pounded, split into very thin strips and then twisted by hand, usually by rubbing it along a Khmu woman’s leg and then twisted again to join it into a continuous “yarn.” This can then be woven into narrow bolts of fabric, generally about 5 metres (or 6 yards) long.  Depending on the season and the tree (remember that gender thing?) the colour will vary from off-white to deep brown.

So, we bought 2 rolls of this fiber, about 32 cm wide and 6 metres long, to make…something unique.

We also found those net bags we’d seen in markets and souvenir shops (without provenance so we've never bought them before).

This time we know where they came from, right down to the village, and how they were made. They’re made from kudzu vine, which the Khmu call kheuapiad.

Harvesting wild Kheupiad vine ("jungle vine")

Rather than the invasive species we consider it in the West, this jungle vine has long been used by Khmu people to make fishing nets and netted bags. Unlike in Japan, where only the root is used for fibre, the upland people in Laos use the inner fiber. Like kudzu, it’s a time-consuming process to strip, dry, split and twist this into a workable fibre. 

Traditionally, the resulting fine twine is netted with a piece of bamboo fashioned into something resembling a crochet hook. Like yaboi, it can be woven on a backstrap loom into narrow fabric. It can also be dyed as yarn before the final product is made.

No surprise that when we headed back to Oudomxai town, the bike was more loaded than when we set off. Before going back, though, we had Lao PDR (please, don’t rush) lunch at a local cafĂ© that allowed us to sample some the many vegetables we’d seen growing along the route. We also took time to stick our fingers in the local hot spring and, last but not least, stop at the Buddhist temple across the river that locals regard as THE destination for supplicants.

On our way out, Ellen noticed some young women and men dressed in ethnic dress too perfectly matching to be anything but staged. We followed them to the edge of a grassy area overlooking the river below and, sure enough, they were performing traditional Khmu songs and dances being recorded by a professional cameraman...and Ellen, of course.

We have greatly enjoyed our time here in Oudomxai, the heart of Northern Laos, especially our discovery of new, interesting, wildcrafted fibres.

[Thanks to the Productivity and Marketing Center (PMC) for their generous sharing of many of the photos shown here and for much of this information about the making of these products. They support Village Productivity Groups and provide a link to potential customers. We bought some fibre products from the PMC in Oudomxai town and others from the handicraft centre in Muang La. You can contact the PMC directly to enquire about product development and purchasing: pmcmarketing.odx@gmail.com.]

Festival of Traditional Arts in a Kaliang Village

Mai of Junhom Banton has kindly invited us to join her at a unique textile festival at a nearby village of Karen people (known in Thai as Kaliang.) The festival is being sponsored by Ban Lai Kaew Weavers, a long-standing fair trade textile group that creates beautiful, naturally-dyed textiles on backstrap looms.

When we arrive, weaving exhibits have already been mounted in some of the traditional buildings that dot the site. In one, there's an extensive exhibit of Kaliang textiles, dyed with the traditional natural dyes that are being revived here in Doi Tao district. Nearby there’s also a display of jok (elaborate supplementary weft-patterned weaving) for which the neighbouring district of Chom Thong is famous.

A large stage has been constructed in the usual country fashion – a wooden platform resting on steel barrels. The platform is then covered with mats. Today the festival name, crafted out of handspun cotton skeins, hangs above the stage. Children, in traditional Kaliang clothing, gleefully run about the site, blowing off some steam before their dance performance.

We wander to an open area, where women are preparing a dye bath with annatto (kamset in Thai, bikkii in Kaliang). Young women from local schools, here for a cultural learning day, are invited to smash the pods with a large wooden pestle in a hardwood trough. They’re instructed by an older woman to leave it to simmer for 1 hour.

Nearby, a bird-like grandmother has begun to spin cotton on a traditional wheel, smaller than the Lao version we've seen by the Mekong, but otherwise the same. A larger, old woman soon joins her with another wheel. Both wear layers upon layers of black beads around their necks and larger white beads on their wrists. The tiny woman chews betel, the larger smokes a pipe, as many Kaliang women do.

While elaborately patterned on a backstrap loom, the traditional Kaliang clothing is simply constructed, similar to a Mayan huipil and corte. The top is seamed vertically and left open in the middle, while the skirt is seamed horizontally. Colours are now usually made with chemical dyes, although the Kaliang’s natural dye traditions are being revived and, today, are being celebrated.

One of the many young women watching, all wearing their school’s sports day attire, is persuaded to try her hand at spinning. The thread soon breaks and the first grandmother comes to her rescue.

Back at the dye pot, the students learn to strain out the annatto with a tool that looks like a giant wok strainer.

An older woman adds water soaked with yahoo (ash water) for mordant. Then they add the skeins of handspun cotton and simmer over the fire. After another 30 minutes the yarns emerge in the deep orange usually associated with Buddhist monks, although this traditional and natural colour has much more depth and substance than the brighter and thinner orange more commonly seen now.

Two pick-up trucks pass by, filled with more students. They shout to Ellen, who is wearing a traditional dress worn by Kaliang maidens, which she was offered upon our arrival. Ellen accepts their offer and climbs aboard. They drive for about 10 minutes and arrive at a field sparsely populated with cotton plants. The noon-day sun is hot, but Ellen happily picks cotton – both white and brown varieties – side-by-side with urban students from Bangkok and others from Kaliang villages further north. She wonders if any of them will be inspired to continue these traditions.

After Ellen returns from her outing, we return to the display of naturally dyed backstrap weaving. Tucked on a low shelf, we find lovely placemats with designs that are an appealing blend of homespun and abstract-modern. We sort through the pile and choose dozens that will make their way later this year to a table near you.

At the same display, we are pleased to bump into Ajarn Nittaya Mahachaiwong from Fai Gaem Mai of Chiang Mai University. (That’s the Cotton and Silk Project we’ve worked with for years to source Eri silk). Today she’s wearing an extraordinary coat fashioned from Kaliang fabric. She’s here to participate in the technical discussions that are part of the day’s events. However, the talks are intended for the local participants and our ride is about to depart, so we say thank you to our hosts and set out for the bus station with our bags of treasure.

Junhom Bantan: Building Relationships - the Heart of Fair Trade

It's time for our annual visit to Ban Tan to visit Mai, who runs Junhom Bantan. After a 2+ hour local bus ride to Hod, south of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, where Mai picks us, we settle in to catch up. We spend the first 2 hours chatting in Thai and English, consulting our "talking dictionary" as needed. We cover all kinds of topics -- the small guest bungalow Mai's father is building in his spare time, from parts of another, disassembled wooden house moved from nearby; gardening -- what grows well here in Ban Tan and at our home in Canada; cooking -- who cooks what and how; how business has been for us over the last year.

Traditional floor loom under the house
Mai tells us -- as she had told us a couple of visits ago -- that she values the quiet of living here in the village where she grew up. Although she attended university in Chiang Mai, thanks to the success of the weaving group her mother ran for decades, her heart is here in the village, with the weavers. It's important to her to work with customers who don't pressure the weavers -- with orders too big, weaving too fast, deadlines too short. These pressures do not make for beautiful textiles or for happy weavers, she tells us. We agree wholeheartedly.

We talk about how we sell Junhom Bantan's textiles in Canada -- mostly face-to-face where we can tell the story behind their creation. She nods and smiles. We talk about technology -- she uses email at a local internet cafe -- and show her some of the tools we use on our computers and iPod Touch. She's interested, but we agree that this work is truly rooted in the village and in the hands of the spinners, dyers and weavers. Technology only supports this.

When the time feels right, we step inside the shop -- a showroom and storeroom for the weavings. We open glass-fronted, handcarved cabinets and pore over the designs within. We talk about local, natural dye colours (soft gray-greens, mushroom, indigo, sky blue, ebony brown, rosewood tan), textures (handspun cotton thick or thin, weaves in small windowpanes or "missing thread") and designs.

Junhom Bantan's shop next to Mai's house in Ban Tan
We talk about what sold well last year and the years before, then thoughtfully choose our favourite designs in colours and textures that reflect the talents of the artisans in this group. Our textile order is simple this year -- cotton scarves in 6 designs and traditional Thai fishermen's wrap pants.

Wispy cotton scarves are fun to wear

Chunky scarves offer texture from handspun cotton
Finally -- our order for cotton scarves settled -- I model the wrap pants I brought from Canada. A slightly slimmer design, Mai is happy to use this new pattern and we select the fabric -- a deep ebony brown with finely handspun cotton and a deep indigo blue, still on the loom somewhere in the village. Our work is now officially done and we can eat, talk some more and laugh.

Indigo wrap pants are great for everyday wear

"Can you eat khao neow?" Mai asks us the question we're frequently asked in Isaan, the northeast of Thailand. Here too in Lanna, the north of Thailand, sticky rice is traditionally the staff of life. "Yes," we reply. "We love it."

Mai relaxes. We have just returned in the dark from a trip to her sister's field on the edge of the village. We had jumped on 2 motorbikes as the sun was quickly disappearing and followed a newly paved path that soon  slid into a typical red dust road. The field was filled with blooming marigolds, ready for offerings to the monks, and a small vegetable garden of greens.

Mai arrives at the marigold and vegetable field, mountains in the background
I grab the second knife and join Mai to cut khana, a type of kale, for our dinner and for the children tomorrow. Mai has invited us to stay the night so we can join her at a nearby Kaliang (Karen) village for a local textile festival the next day. School children from around the region will attend to learn about growing cotton, spinning, dyeing and weaving.

Mai cuts khana, green onions and cilantro
Back in her kitchen, Mai shows me how she cuts khana and I take over. Her soft protests that she's not a good cook are put to rest as we soon tuck into a delicious meal of khana stir-fried with oyster sauce, a chopped omelet sprinkled with tiny green onions and feathery cilantro, a simple soup with squares of fish cakes we picked up earlier in the local market, fresh cucumber rounds and the popular Chiang Mai sausage, a slightly spicy pork specialty of the region. And, of course, khao neow -- served in 2 beautifully woven sticky rice baskets made by a man in the village.


It's morning. Roosters crow. Motorbikes putt putt along the main road of the village outside Mai's family house. I awake early and see she has set up a display area since we visited last year with weaving and farming tools on the porch outside our room. We eat sticky rice cooked with coconut milk, stuffed into a length of bamboo and roasted over the fire. It's time for the Kaliang textile festival.

Outside our room, we discover a display of weaving and farming tools