LUANG PRABANG, Laos – Women weavers sit side by side at their looms as they create exquisite patterns of gold, blue and red. It’s drizzling outside, and mist covers the mighty Mekong River that flows through the valley beneath the workshop.
Sykai Phonthilath, age 34, skillfully moves her fingers across the fine thread on her wooden loom as her foot pushes a pedal below. A few rows down, her mother Papeng also weaves a traditional Laotian textile. This tradition has continued for generations among women in many Laotian families: Papeng began teaching her daughter how to weave when she was just 8 years old, so young that her foot could not reach the pedal.
Now, a few decades later, Phonthilath is flourishing as a master weaver, creating original designs for scarves, wall hangings and skirts that are sold in boutique shops. She earns around $350 per month, enough to send her 16-year-old daughter to school and, hopefully, all the way to university – a first for a woman in her family.
Thanks to local organizations that support the work of women artisans, Phonthilath and many others are making a living from their craft. Both the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) and Ock Pop Tok, which means “East Meets West,” train rural women and offer them opportunities to market and sell their products.
Papeng, age 58, smiles at her daughter, “I’m happy she can use her income from weaving to make her family’s life better than it was in the past,” she says.
Phonthilath’s family couldn’t afford to pay for her education beyond the age of 18, so she used to work in the fields surrounding her village. Before she got a full-time job weaving at Ock Pop Tok’s craft center at age 21, she made traditional clothes at home for her family. “Now, my main income is from weaving,” Phonthilath says.
Phonthilath also receives health and social security benefits through her job, a rarity in many village communities. “I was able to build a house, and I have enough money to buy food and take care of medical expenses,” she says.
Businesswomen in the Villages
The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) also supports skilled women artisans in rural, impoverished areas of Laos. The nonprofit organization’s co-founder Tara Gujadhur has seen women transform their handicraft work into full-fledged businesses.
“We work with over 600 artisans, and 95 percent are women weavers or embroiderers from rural ethnic groups,” Gujadhur says. Her organization grants small loans to women and also trains them on product design and small business practices.
Gujadhur, who is of Indian and Malaysian descent, was born in Kuala Lumpur and went to college in the United States. While living and working in Laos for the past 13 years, she has seen firsthand how these opportunities can offer women financial independence and uplift their families. “Studies show that women earning money are more likely to spend it on their families and on the health of the family, education and food,” she says.
“Weaving and embroidery are important parts of their cultural identity,” Gujadhur says. “So, it was passed down. It was a way for women to be social. They would chat with each other at the same time. They would produce the clothing that they would wear and their families would wear. We’re helping them commercialize some of these traditional skills.”
Another successful artisan is 58-year-old Famjoy Sehli, who has created a business from her traditional embroidery work, a handicraft passed down for generations in the Yao Mien ethnic group.
Sehli hails from a village about three hours from the Laos-Thai border. She learned to embroider from her grandmother, and by age 13, she had mastered the skill of braiding cord and wrapping it with silver.
She developed an acute business sensibility as an adult, and set up a handicraft stall to sell products out of her home. “She’s energetic and a go-getter,” Gujadhur says. “If there was a training opportunity, she went and did it; if there was an opportunity to cross the border into Thailand to sell products, she would do it; she was willing to take those kinds of risks.”
Sehli used her profits to hire people to work on her family’s farms, so she could focus full-time on her handicrafts work. She now coordinates other local artisans, including silversmiths and embroiderers, and helps them sell their own products.
“In the past, I used to owe money and did not earn enough to live,” Sehli says. “Nowadays, many things are getting better. I’ve been lucky that I can sell a lot and support my family. I think my embroidery sells well because I pay attention to the designs and what colors go together, and I try to do very careful work,” she says.
Keeping Traditions Alive
Bouathong Phetdara, 53, comes from a village where weaving is so intrinsic that she received more than 100 skirts from her husband’s family at her wedding.
She led the Lao Women’s Union in her village for five years and worked with the government and businesses to develop weaving products for a commercial market.
“In the past, we weaved our own cloth because we didn’t have money to buy clothes. We produced just a little and did not make a lot to sell,” Phetdara says. “Nowadays, we produce more to sell, so we have vehicles, houses and furniture.”
Though weaving has brought her financial success, she also emphasizes how important it is to preserve her culture.
“When I was 14, my mother taught me how to dye clothes in indigo and how to create a motif on textiles,” Phetdara says. “Our weaving techniques [are] passed on from generation to generation. It’s my goal to teach our children to learn how to weave.”
Gujadhur’s organization also runs a museum in Luang Prabang highlighting the vast array of ethnic minority cultures and women’s handicrafts in Laos.
“When women are empowered, not just economically but in other parts of their lives, good things can happen in their communities and with their children,” Gujadhur says.