Well. Today has been Official Textile Excess Day. (Which of you wags was it that suggested the “tien” as a unit of excess, with standard behavior measured in millitiens? 😉 ) I’ve bought three gorgeous woven silk tapestries (two 100% naturally dyed!), half a kilo of naturally dyed reeled-silk yarn, half a pound of undyed reeled silk, and (the kicker) a 36″ weaving reed with two sets of tied heddles. This does not sound like such a bad idea, until you ask yourself how on earth one mails a 36″ reed home from Laos? If you haven’t the slightest clue, well, neither do I. I imagine I’ll figure it out eventually. 😉
The tapestries, on the other hand, I am thoroughly unrepentant about. They’re all 2-3 yards long, very well-woven, and gorgeous. They also demonstrate a fairly broad range of textile techniques and patterns–tapestry weaving, supplementary weft, ten or twelve different natural dye colors, and a number of different traditional patterns. I’m still looking for good pieces, but as my guide from today has agreed to take me up north and show me around Luang Namtha (his home province), I may wait and buy them from the actual hilltribe weavers (it will probably be cheaper).
I will, of course, take photos when I can.
Today I went off with the guy from the textiles shop, who turns out to be this 21-year-old weaver who is studying English, or trying to. It costs $20/month to study English at the local university, and the shop he works in only pays him $15/month (plus room/board), so he basically éhas to work for two months, then study for one. In the meanwhile, he tries to study as much as he can on his own.
Running around with me, of course, is an excellent chance to practice his English. That plus I’m paying him a reasonable rate for a Lao guide, about $6/day–40% of his monthly salary. (If you are detecting a major gap in the exchange rate, here, you are entirely correct. What I paid for textiles today would pay his salary for almost an entire year–a sobering thought. (I am still unrepentant–they are *really* nice pieces.))
Anyway, today he took me around to the various weaving and natural dye places. They are all tourist traps, but they are tourist traps of varying quality: the “weaving village” is complete schlock (complete with hard-sell tactics), but one of the natural dye centers had some excellent stuff–museum quality, maybe a little below. All had demo sites for weaving and natural dyeing–nothing I haven’t seen before, though there was one indigo dyepot that was really cool. It was almost full of real live indigo paste! and, with that amount of indigo, they must have started with at least a half-ton of indigo leaves (more likely a ton). I wish I could have seen them processing it.
However, I *did* get to try using a Lao loom! which was really cool. I only wove a few throws–it’s trickier than it looks–but my guide talked to his friend, and she offered to teach me to weave! She estimated that it would take about a week for her to teach me, and I haven’t got that much time, but if I make it back to Laos at the end of the India trip, I may come back here. (I suspect my guide would be more than happy to teach me, too–he has a loom at home–but I’m being careful about that. My experience with single guys in Asia is that sooner or later, they start developing a personal interest–a week is probably well into the danger zone.)
It has been interesting looking at Lao textiles. At first glance, they all look wonderful–way, way better than anything that’s made in the U.S.–but after awhile, they start sorting into tourist schlock, better tourist schlock, and nice pieces. Tourist schlock looks not unlike the cheap polyester bits you can buy in Bangkok–some of them *are* cheap polyester. (Tourists buy them anyway.) Better tourist schlock is “real” weaving, but garish colors, synthetic dyes, simplistic patterns, and poor weaving quality.
Nice pieces are more subtle/coordinated, complex, and well-woven. But I’d be hard put to explain any one criteria that distinguishes one from another–sort of like explaining the differences between good art and bad art. As the Supreme Court justice said, I know it when I see it…at least, *now* I do. 🙂
I got my textile pieces documented, by the way–it turned out that one of the women in the natural dye center spoke good English, so she identified the various dyes in my pieces and wrote them down for me, along with the pattern names, ethnic origins, etc. My books on Lao natural dyes/textiles were priceless–she didn’t always know English names, but she could find them using the photos. A pictoral dictionary!
Anyway, after that, we went to a knifemaking village, where they hand-forge everything from small knives to machetes. Really interesting–every house (usually a wood-frame hut with corrugated tin roof) has a crude little forge in back, with sweating Lao men hammering away at red-hot iron blades. The noise is constant. The forges are small charcoal fires maybe a foot across (just big enough to hold one or two blades), heated by a pair of very spiffy bellows. These are basically aluminum stovepipes that vent into the fire; in the stovepipes are large round cloth pads attached to sticks, which are pulled up and down to force air into the fire.
This would look relatively pedestrian, except that the bellows operators are generally adorable little kids–I have a great photo of a three-year-old (four? five?) boy pumping the bellows up and down with a big grin on his face. His equally cute, six-year-old sister was sitting by the fire, helping with something else–she had bits of ash smeared all over her face and was absolutely the cutest thing on earth. (Yes, I have photos. 😉 )
Everywhere I went in the knifemaking village people stared at me–I think they couldn’t figure out if I was Lao or not. (Most tourists arrive in busloads.)
I am, of course, extremely tempted to buy a hand-hammered machete, but even my unreasonableness has limits. I mean, imagine trying to mail a machete home… 🙂
Oh–I have now eaten water buffalo. It’s indistinguishable from beef (but very distinguishable from rat 😉 ). I have also picked up some scorpion brandy, mostly for sentimental (Bangkok) reasons. 🙂
That’s it for today…tomorrow I may go for a bicycle tour, and I may just go around Luang Prabang looking at the textiles museum, and poking around textile places. Day after tomorrow, assuming he can arrange it, I’ll run up to Luang Namtha with my “guide”. He’s from Luang Namtha province, knows all about the minorities and what kinds of stuff they weave, and is going to take me off exploring, in exchange for bus fare there and back, and a chance to see his family. (Bus fare is very expensive for him, irrelevant for me.) I’ll probably also pay him, although strictly speaking I don’t need to–$6/day won’t kill me, it’s a fair price for a guide, and it will pay his tuition for another month in school. Worth it, I think.
Needless to say, the idea of being shown around the Luang Namtha hilltribes by a weaver who grew up there and knows weaving, is just horrifying. I am suffering horribly. 😉
P.S. He also offered to take me to see cockfighting, if we can find a place where they’re having them…I have to admit, I’m incredibly curious.