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January 15, 2003

360 days in SE Asia & Oz - Carol Cassidy Interview


Carol Cassidy is an American who has been weaving and designing textiles for over 25 years. She has studied textiles at the Bergen College of Applied and Fine Art in Norway, at the University of Helsinki in Finland and at the University of Michigan in the US. She spent several years working with weavers in Southern Africa before moving to Laos in 1989, where she founded Lao Textiles, producing high quality silks based on traditional designs with a contemporary twist.

360 caught up with Ms Cassidy in the beautifully restored French-colonial house in which Lao Textiles is based in the capital, Vientiane.

360: So Ms Cassidy, can you tell us a little about how you started up Lao Textiles, what was the idea involved, when did it start?

Carol Cassidy: I came to Laos in 1989. I had been a textiles designer for many years. I came here and I had worked for approximately eight years in Southern Africa where I had worked with weaving as a skill that helped women improve their lives by producing a product. I did that in Southern Africa by working with mohair producers and the situation there was that many of the men worked in the mines and the wives were at home in the countryside and the only really viable activity they had was herding mohair goats. So I worked with mohair developing threads and yarns that they could spin in their homes. We could then collect it, pay them for the mohair and turn it into some viable export product.

So I did this and also involved was the Department of National Farms and Wildlife. We worked with sustainable raw materials and worked with the National Parks Service so the handicrafts were developed using traditional materials with the National Parks Service in mind as the destination and as a source of raw materials.

So it was in 1989 that I moved from Africa to Laos as a community adviser working with the UNAID agency and worked with the Lao government. And as you might know, but perhaps don't, Laos has a rich and diverse textile discipline. There are numerous ethnic groups; I wouldn't venture to give a precise number but I know that there are at least 68 and there might be more different ethnic groups. And within these groups you have various expressions of traditional textiles - some of them weave, some of them don't, some of them embroider, some use cotton, some use silk, some use hemp. So you have quite a variety within the country of raw materials, techniques and ethnic diversity.

So in Laos because of this diversity we have a broad range of extraordinary weaving techniques which include Ikat which is a tie-dye method and it's a resisti process - a process where a single thread contains the image and when aligned perfectly the image appears.

And then we do brocade weaving here which the Lao have developed; several of the minority Lao groups in the Tai ethnic group have developed very unique methods of creating supplementary patterns and this is done by a unique method of turning a pedal system and this allows a very broad range of patterns of complexity and design which can be created through the skill of the weaver, and so it allows these very complex patterns to be woven on very simple technology.

And then we do tapestry weave, which is the third weave technique we do, which comes from the Tai Lue people who have origins in the North and are mountain people. They have developed certain techniques - specifically the techniques that they specialise in. One of them is interlocking tapestry and we include it here in my workshop.

We work with all these diverse techniques that various ethnic groups from Laos are used to working with. So you have this very rich history of design and pattern and iconology which were specific to some of these ethnic groups.

And when I came to Laos it was a privilege to see these pieces that had been woven over the last 100 / 150 years as they flowed to the markets: because Lao had been a closed country since the revolution here in 1975 Western parties left and there were very few foreigners from Western countries that were allowed into the country and I was one of the few that was allowed back in in 1989 and saw these antique pieces flowing into the markets, understood how wonderful and complex they were and realised that these were extraordinary textiles.

So at that time I was working with the Lao government. They had a programme doing cotton weaving and we had looms all over the Vientiane area and about 200 women who were weaving in their homes and that was to provide income to improve their lives using traditional skills. But what I realised was that in the older pieces we have very diverse and complex patterns and raw materials of both cotton and silk and you had natural dyes woven into beautiful pieces.

At that time, by 1989 many of the natural fibres had been replaced with synthetics, chemical dyes were pretty much entering the market but you had wonderful skills still remaining and using whatever raw materials you could get. So what I did was I looked at the antique pieces and didn't see any contemporary production of the quality and integrity of these pieces. So this was really the time when I realised that this wonderful alternative really was extraordinary but there was very little contemporary production of this extraordinary quality.

So at that very time the Lao government was changing its policy to a policy where they were encouraging the private sector and businesses in Laos following the example of the Vietnamese government which was to encourage the private sector. So I was encouraged by both private citizens, Lao friends and government officials to apply for a business where the objective would be to preserve traditional skill, to replicate antique Lao design and to provide employment to women, because there was very little industry in this sector and they were hoping it would develop to provide foreign exchange through export. And by raising the silk which we've done on a large scale we were able to affect a lot of rural producers in the villages of the Northern provinces.

So the situation was that there was a movement towards supporting the private sector and I had the technical skills and the outside knowledge of marketing and how remarkable these designs were and the Lao weavers had extraordinary skills and designs for the time. So we merged all of this to a vision which was to preserve Lao weaving skills - to maintain the rich traditions of the traditional weaving - but also to modify and interpret it to bring it into the modern world which I have learnt through being a weaver for 27 years that in order to maintain the skills we need to make it viable. In order to do that we need to somehow integrate it into a modern economy.

So I started by modifying the Laotian loom with Western ideas, fixing it for European methods of maintaining tension. By putting a beam on the back we could weave long lengths of fabric of wide width and have the Lao design method, marrying European and Lao methods to come up with a fabric of a very high quality.

The traditional Lao technique could only weave one skirt length or one shoulder cloth length at a time and the warp was tied in, tensioned by a back beam and brought above your head - so this allows you to weave more shorter lengths, to weave longer lengths was difficult. So the first thing I did was to modify the Lao weave and then go to silk farmers who had a tradition with mulberry production and encourage them to sell mulberry silk to me, traveled round the country talking to individual farmers. I worked with the UNAID agency, different development agencies, private Lao individuals who had a history of sericulture, and asked them if they could raise maybe some more kilos we could then buy it.

So we started encouraging rural producers to bring us raw materials here in Vientiane and then I selected five Lao weavers and we had a year and a half training with the limited amount of local silk we had. I did all the dyeing myself and I had a history of dyeing through my training and my work in Africa. I started by actually replicating Lao pieces colour by colour, thread by thread, design by design. So actually teaching our weavers to recreate the quality that their grandparents had produced. And that was how Lao Textiles started!

By about 1992 we were able then to start to sell; we had a few piece to sell. Over the last 13 years the company has grown. We have about 50 employees. We have a silk supply from a farm that we worked with in Laos in the North with a woman called Madame Pomerie and she has been working tirelessly with us for the past 13 and 14 years and she now provides us with a very high quality Lao silk, brings it to Vientiane, where we boil it and clean it, twist it and dye it and design it, we weave it and we export it.

So there are about 485 families that are engaged in the sericulture, then we have about 50 employees here and we have no turnover in the business so these are all women who have a permanent job here in a place where it impacts on their relations with families, how they're viewed by society, partly because of the very good salaries they get here by local standards. We have health schemes, pension schemes, so we've introduced a lot of quality of life issues that have really improved their lives, but we don't see something like that until a few years... and it has a strange effect on the husbands whose wives make much more than they do.

So there's really been a lot of social change and it's not all positive because there's been a lot of displacement of people because there's a social expectation that a women wouldn't be earning so much more than their husband and difficulties in families because it's expected that he would earn the most. So it's not without issues.

We had one of our oldest weavers pass away this summer but we've had very little change amongst the core of the weavers over the last 12 / 15 years. So that's some of what we've been doing now on a creative front. What we started with is that we teach traditional techniques then we moved into more creative interpretations.

There's a piece here that's sort of an ethnic collage and it encompasses Animist ideas, Buddhist imagery. It has brocade from the Tai ethnic group, then you have the tapestry that you have from the Lue people. Some of the pieces are these hybrid piece and we also have pieces like this one where I've taken the traditional image of the Naga, based it on the traditional Lao piece that's just round the corner [points] and then that is the interpretation of that [points to another piece].

So it's been a lot of years here, and one question that everyone asks me that I'd like to clarify - I live here. I live here year round... I live here from January to January. I don't commute from any other part of the world. I lived in Laos before elevators, before the bridge across the Mekong, before we had international dial. And so life has been challenging a lot, but has become easier in the last 5 / 6 years, especially with the Internet.

We do a lot a business online and lots of digital imagery stuff. We have clients come here... endless stories... graduates like young people like yourselves, who had visited and say we didn't buy anything before because we didn't have any money at the time and now I'm working in New York and want something special for the wife... so do you have anything in blue? [laughs]. And so today we've sending a DHL package - where we took digital images and asked what they wanted. So it's very common that we do a lot of original work.

We also work with design firms around the world where we do very sophisticated colour match projects with a specific design. With that we'll take an image of what we think it should look like and what the colours are and pieces on the loom. And it also contributes to educating the client who may or may not know much about the fabric that they're buying because for them fabric is something which you go into a shop and buy. But for us it's about farmers that raise mulberry, that fed the worms, and got an additional income and employment to stay in the village, bring it to us where we employ people here who are able to have a good living by processing that.

So every piece is a unique piece of art. We are able to find a market where people understand quality and we're able to keep a lot of the traditional skills and society in place. And it's a little bit different from just walking into a store and buying a piece of fabric. So we have a CD presentation and through the website we're able to educate people a bit about that. And so it's actually a marvelous way to have the market understand where the product is actually coming from.

We do lots of education regarding techniques, how the product was made, what makes it so special. And Lao weaving is really special. It's special because of the technique. It's special because of the design. It's special because of the silk. And there's a uniqueness that many people in a standardised world are looking for.

We try with our products we have something really fun. We have this tassel which is really fun, to be put on a knob, or a key, or an old chest. This is an imperial cushion based on an old design from the Chinese court where the emperor would sit with his hands up on his chair and so his robe would wrinkle.

And we have these little cushions where we have the traditional lion-elephant. This is the female and this is the male and the human figure on the back which gets its strength from the lion and the elephant. So there's a little story that goes with it but it's also beautifully done. There is quite a range in the type of things we do.

And we export to Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, London. We're very global even through we're very small and we're not getting bigger because I realised that when you had to look after every piece and every stage of the production of every piece it's very difficult to be a large company. We have a small niche of the market where people appreciate what we do and we hoping we make a good little business.

360: So, who are the direct beneficiaries? How are you 'changing the world by degrees'?

Carol Cassidy: Who are the direct beneficiaries? Oh so, 485 families who have 8 to 10 people per household who raise the silk so that comes to approximately 5000 people that have a direct cash income from raising mulberry and producing silk. They bring it here to my workshop where we employ approximately 50 people who have a household of about four to six to eight people per household. They make more somewhere generously between twice and ten times the national income. So their families are able to have their children go to school, have healthcare, be able to have a better quality of life. They can buy a piece of land, build a house, put electricity and water in their home.

And of course I live here and earn a living and I love it! And I don't work for the UN I work for myself... and then I have all my other staff who also work here.

360: The ladies that work for you, do they then come from the ethnic minorities or do you train them when they come to Vientiane?

Carol Cassidy: That's a mixed answer. We have a variety of ethnic groups and some of them come here already with diverse weaving skills, all of them undergo a three month training because depending on which ethnic group they come from they may or may not have a specific technical skill in a particular technique and we like that they should have a broad range of techniques so we have those three months, but initially those core weavers had a longer training.

360: Who does the designs, is that just you?

Carol Cassidy: No. We have my supervisor and he's been with me since I started. He does a lot of the designing. He gives some of that to individual weavers on occasion if it's not an order for a client. And there are periods when we have more creative times and there are periods when we just do things from orders. And then of course myself.

360: You talked about doing this in Africa, and now here. Do you think at some time you're going to move on and spread the love somewhere else?

Carol Cassidy: Right now I'm doing quite a lot of work in the region. I've been giving advice to a group in Cambodia and one in Vietnam and other ethnic groups in India in North-East India which is remote and very hard to get to and they had a severe decline in their traditions and I've been working with them to revive their weaving traditions. I've been invited to Burma to look at theirs so I'm working in the region in an advisory capacity helping various ethnic groups to use this model, the Lao Textiles model, to preserve their traditions and create a viable solution to make it internationally competitive and to help other women in other groups all over the region.

And I've just participated in September in a textiles preservation workshop in Bangkok where we looked at the Thai model and what advice we could give them and help to make their products more viable for an international market and they have a very significant and important textile industry.

And the question, back to Africa specifically? Or just globally? I'm already in a sense... I was very focused on Laos and it's been a very long and difficult road to this result, you know. It's 14 years of very hard work. It's only in the last few years that I've had any surplus energy to be able to advise in a regional capacity and I have been going back to Africa.

I was back over there this year looking at handicrafts in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa and I think there's a lot of potential. And I'm not sure if I'd move back there at this point but I still go back and continue to look at ways in which we could integrate products from there - there's a lot of wonderful traditions.

What makes global craft so special is the uniqueness of each of these cultures and how you interpret them and, for example in Zambia, there's a really unique resisti I spoke to you about, Ikat, very much like you see here [points] and in Southern Africa they make a paste and they use it for dyeing which creates a batik look. So we have their local interpretation of a resisti, different to an Indonesian or an India or a Japanese, so quite interesting.

You also have the whole South American - Peruvian, Guatemalan, Bolivian, Mexican - a lot of the icons are very similar to the Lao. And I traveled just in Mexico and Nicaragua and still find that there would be lots of interesting different techniques to see. But at the moment this region keeps me pretty busy.

Written by S. Ben, Edited by F. Roberto