Silk and Weaving: Entirely Hand-produced from Start to Finish
For both women and silkworms alike, producing silk is a very labor intensive blend of ancient techniques and modern innovations. And although relatively expensive, the resulting threads are unique in their light weight, strength, luster, and ability to absorb rich dyes. All over Laos, where we travel for most of our woven products, you will find women weaving beautiful silk and cotton scarves, and silk material for the traditional Lao skirt (sinh) on traditional looms under their stilted homes.
One of the oldest fibres known to man, silk is natural continuous-filament fiber that the silkworm produces when constructing its cocoon. Similar to hair, silk fibre consists of fibron protein that is secreted from two salivary glands in the head of each larvae, and a gum called sericin which cements the two filaments together.
Today, most silk fibre is gathered from cultivated silkworms. Producing fine fabric from silkworm fibres begins right in the very early stages with the examination of silkworm eggs to be certain that they're free from disease.
Once hatched, the larvae are fed a diet of cut-up mulberry leaves and begin to molt as they grow. After the fourth molt the larva climbs a twig placed near them and spin their silken cocoons. At this point, they are called pupae.
Once mature, pupae still within their cocoons are killed by steam or fumigation. This prevents them from leaving their cocoons in their adult stage when to do so would cut and tangle the silk filaments. Harvested cocoons are later softened in boiling water to remove the sericin, thus freeing the silk filaments for reeling. In the Laotian weaving villages, this process is often carried out beneath the weaver's stilt homes.
Silk Fibres Become Silk Threads...
Boiling the silkworm's cocoon removes most of the sericin and readies fibers for spinning. The high sericin content of Southeast Asian silk results in threads that are a little bit uneven, but this irregularity creates a beautiful natural character to the woven fabric. It also means the threads must be hand-woven; they cannot be used in power looms.
To form a single thread, 10-12 silk filaments from the cocoon must first be wound together. They are then wound onto a bamboo reel and reeled - or spun - into a single thread. Once the threads are spun, they are ready for dyeing. When the process is complete the threads are reeled onto spools, and then put on the looms.
...and Threads Become Fabrics
An experienced weaver can produce about 9 yards of plain un patterned fabric in a day, but the pace of work on complex patterned textiles is much slower. In some cases it can require a whole day to produce just one inch of material.
Cotton Fibres also Require Careful Handling
Although the processes of preparing cotton threads for hand- powered looms differs from that of silk thread, cotton also requires careful handling to ensure the production of high-quality materials.
Upon harvesting, seeds are removed from the cotton fluff by feeding it between two hand-cranked rollers. As the seeds are too large to pass between the rollers, they either drop or are picked off of the surface fluff's surface.
The cleaned cotton is then hand-rolled into cigar-shaped clumps and fed into the kin to make thread. At this point it is then reeled, just as are silk threads, onto a bamboo reel.
Brilliant Colors and Vivid Hues
Having been spun into the threads which will be used to weave the intricate patterns Laotian fabrics are famous for, it is at this stage that both silk and cotton are immersed in vats containing dyes of various hues. Once dyed, the thread is hung in swathes on the side of houses to dry and make the colors fast.
An Ancient Art turns Natural Fibres into Future Treasures
Dry and color-fast, dyed silk and cotton threads are returned to their reels and hand-wound onto spools. From the spools, the thread is used to string the traditional hand-looms and fill the shuttles.
When describing woven fabric, two terms are commonly used to describe the purpose of the threads that construct the textile: warp and weft. Threads that are are arranged lengthwise on the loom are known as the warp. The threads the weaver interlaces over and under the warp threads to create a design are called weft threads.
Threading a loom with warp threads is a process that can take days, as the threads must be perfectly placed on the warp beams before weaving with the weft thread can begin.
The basic purpose of any loom is to hold the warp threads under tension to facilitate the interweaving of the weft threads. The precise shape of the loom varies from village to village, but the basic functions remain the same.
As the shuttle flys between the weaver's fingers, beautiful textures and pattern begins to slowly immerge from the tightly woven threads.
The artistry and skill of making these fine weavings is passed down from one generation to the next, usually with mother working side-by-side her daughter.
Traditional Yao Embroidery
In the far north of Laos lies the town of Muang Seng only 10 kilometers from the border with China. It acts as a trade center for the ethnic tribes of Yao, Thai Dom, and Akha.
The women of the Yao Hill weave plain cotton cloth of different colors.
They then apply a brightly colored thread in a cross-stitch or embroidery pattern. Usually the women and girls gather in groups while they work, and it is a pleasant social occasion to engage in light banter and catch up on the latest village news.
With much hard work and exhaustive patience the skilled weaver produces exquisite textiles that are ready for the market.
World threads travels to the villages and homes of these fine artisan and rewards them by purchasing their products at a price better than they can get in the local markets or from local merchants.