WEAVING THE FUTURE IN LAOS
Khan is a Khmu : she belongs to this ethnic minority. Khan lives in Ban Khang Kham, on the heights of Kham district, province of Xiengkhouang, with her husband and her 4 children. The family owns a modest farm, remaining mostly on maize crops, vegetables and poultry to live. They are able to make a living from what they produce and Khan get additional income tanks to the traditional wrapped-around skirts she makes, the sinhs.
The Sinh is the feminine traditional outfit in Laos. This piece of fabric is made of silk or cotton (or a blend of the two). Pleated at the waist with two hooks on the side, it covers gracefully the hips and legs, giving a flattering tube-shaped effect to the silhouette.
The whole art of the weaver lies in the way she arranges the shapes and colors: the complexity of design involved in the creation process. The bottom of the skirt consists in a large fabric of cotton or silk, sometimes decorated with golden threads. Flowers, graphic elements, animal designs or anthropomorphic forms, there are more than a hundred patterns all through the country. From one region to another, they may vary a lot: each sinh is different by its layout, its colors, its structure and the weaving technique used.
In Laos, there are as much sinhs as ethnic groups and maybe even more, given that within each ethnic group, people and families may have developed their own weaving technique and patterns. Today, a lot of knock-offs flooding in from China and Thailand imitates the sinh but this garment only proceeds from traditional manufacturing methods. It comes from the traditional know-how.
Like other women from Ban Khang Kham, Khan chose to dedicate her free time to sinh making in order to earn more money. On the afternoon, when Khan is not working in the field, she weaves at home. Spinning, dyeing, weaving are activities traditionally occupied by women. Home textiles are a “women’s thing” and traditional skills of sinh weaving are transmitted from mother to daughter, along with knowledge. Sewing this garment is a long and meticulous work, resulting in unique creations of high-value added. Sinh weaving is widespread throughout the country and Lao families run this generating income activity in order to supplement their income and so does Khan.
Khan started running her new business one year ago. With both financial and technical support, Khan received the material she needed to make the sinhs (loom, cotton spool) as well as the trainings required through the « Farmer-to-Farmer extension » program which aims to enable farmers to exchange experience and share knowledge. Thanks to this dynamic approach, women from the village who have skills in sinh making have been enhanced to train their neighbors. Thus, the traditional know-how has been passed down and women trainers were paid for that work. Moreover, a specific training on natural dyeing was provided by the Lao Handicraft Group.
In Khang Kham, only 6 women used to weave sinh whereas today, this is 15 of them who weave it day after day. Khan doesn’t need to go to the local market to sell her fabrics because traders from the surroundings directly come to her place to buy sinhs in order to sell it at better price in town. Traders always come back to the weavers they know to buy garments and at the same time, they provide them with the cotton spools women need.
Khan sells a skirt from 50 000 to 150 000 kips, depending of the quality range. She started by sewing simple patterns, mostly flowers. Over time, she earned in ability and dexterity, progressively increasing her color play and the combination of designed patterns learnt. According to Khan, the learning process was pretty difficult in the beginning but just a few months after, she could realize her first sinhs that she sold quite quickly afterwards.
Finally, Khan has correctly assimilated all of the techniques learnt and the entire process of sinh-making. What she needs now is learning new techniques to realize more complex patterns, thus adding more value to her sinhs. Through this personal investment, Khan has made a judicious choice: she has bet on her own skills to improve the family livelihoods. This woman is weaving her future but most of all, her children’s.