Samorn Sanixay is an Australian woman born in Laos who has established a company Eastern Weft that seeks a market for Laos silk in countries like Australia. Her project requires a good fit between two radically different worlds. What seems critical to Samorn is an appreciation of serious craft – something more likely to be found in galleries than shops.
She describes how she was drawn to silk production in her home country:
In 2002, my husband was offered the position of United Nations Advisor on Human Trafficking for South East Asia based in Vientiane Laos. Soon after I got a job with UNICEF and all Lao women must wear the traditional sarong. So I went to the markets to look for material but everything was in fluoro colours so I decided to have my neighbours who were weavers produce silk especially for me. I would sit and watch and developed an interest ever since.
Samorn sees a tradition that is passed down relatively unconsciously through family lines.
All Lao silk is woven on traditional looms, there is no industrialisation as yet.
Lao silk is intricate, sophisticated and of high quality. With Lao silk there is a continuity in the way that it is still passed on from mother to daughter as opposed to having a romantic notion that `this is our culture’ or part of our tradition. Most weavers are poor and mostly illiterate but there is great technical skill required for weaving. There is also a fragility about Lao silk. Unlike most handicraft products from around the world which sadly ends up in Fair Trade stores or gift shops, much Lao silk end up in Museums and galleries.
But there are serious problems. Samorn sees silk weaving in Laos caught between the intrusion of modernity from outside and conservatism within:
[The challenges include] globalisation, urbanisation, competition with mass production from China, in terms of raw silk as well as retail. There is the local market production for the tourist industry versus international market: selling products abroad and few have the skill to do so.
Knowledge and skills about various crafts such as weaving and natural dyeing which have existed for centuries are no longer being passed through generations because the young people today aren’t interest or have no desire to use silk or learn the methods, they want a mobile phone and to wear denim jeans.
It is caught in conservative politics. Lao women have the sole responsibility of being ‘guardians’ of culture. As an example of this, during the ASEAN summit, women who were not in traditional sarongs during the meeting were fined and men were not.
In describing the motivation for starting Eastern Weft, Samorn wanted to show her adopted world the quality of Laos silk:
It was more of coincidence than desire to start a business. I wanted to ‘conserve our national heritage in the face of bewildering change.’ I wanted to keep my connection with my birthplace by giving some highly skilled young people a chance to improve their lives through producing beautiful silk. To show the world what we were capable of producing by combining traditional weaving techniques with contemporary design. Eastern WEFT does not purely exist as a Fair Trade business, we focus on the technical skills and the beautiful art of Lao weavings.
But it’s not always easy to work with traditional peoples:
Working with Lao people in general is difficult, they are unpredictable they work in their own time. They will not work during holidays even for extra pay!
And she hopes for the future:
Funding to expand our workshop. Educating people about the skills and dedication and labour required for weaving.