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Sunday, January 4, 1998

Weaving All the Colors of Laos Into Silk

By Sherry Buchanan

Vientiane, Laos – “Nobody wanted the house because a Japanese general was decapitated here,” says Carol Cassidy, sitting in the handsome French colonial house in the center of Vientiane that she and her husband restored, just down the block from the Lao Revolutionary Museum and across the street from the Wat Mixai, where Buddhist monks in saffron robes are hard at work repairing the temple’s outer walls.

Cassidy, a 39-year old American, married with two children, arrived in Vientiane in 1989 on a UN assignment and ended up six years and a couple of gray hairs later reviving the rich tradition of silk weaving in Laos that was slowly disappearing following decades of war and conflict. The region of Sam Neua, in the northeast of Laos, home of Hmong and other tribal Thai villages, in particular, has one of the most intricate weaving traditions and was also the headquarters of the Lao People’s Party.

Cassidy, a cigarette in hand – “I’ve just started this smoking again, I shouldn’t really be doing this” – is showing me around the Japanese general’s former headquarters, now showroom for rich, supple, thick silks that shimmer in the afternoon light. Her inspiration comes from traditional Lao colors and images: the betel nut stain, the saffron of monks’ robes and the indigo of the clothes worn by the Hmong hill tribes she gets some of her silk from, the wet and dry sands of the Mekong, temple motifs like the naga, the serpent protector of Southeast Asia., and lotus leaves, red-lacquer flame trees, bamboo mat weavings or the soul-cleansing ceremonies of the Mekong when thousands of lighted candles float down the river.

She is being compared to Jim Thompson, the American who revived silk production in Thailand, although she says: “Jim Thompson silks are mainly surface paintings on silk. We do structured weaving and brocade.” Her structured weaving and brocade wall hangings are in the Textile Museum in Washington, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Asia Society in New York and the Silk Road Gallery in Westport, Connecticut, and she is holding her first one-woman show of 150 pieces in the United States at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York through Sept. 30.

Behind the house, hidden from the road by tropical flowers and trees, 18 weavers, three bobbin winders and quality controllers work in the airy workshop, the looms ticking away, a ballet of legs and arms and one sore back for the young American intern who just arrived and, as an apprentice weaver, is not used to the eight hours a day at the loom nor to the 35 degree (95 degree Fahrenheit) heat.

Cassidy, an experienced weaver, dyed her own silk for the first three years. Now a Moscow-trained Laotian geologist does all the dyeing. She trained most of her weavers, as none had any previous experience in silk weaving; she introduced Swedish looms to weave fabrics wider than traditional Lao widths and suitable for the international market and a system of quality control and is now encouraging weavers to improvise on traditional patterns. Chansoun Phommalin, also known as Aout, now manages the workshop and weaves his own designs.

For Cassidy, her first US show as a homecoming. She left Woodbury when she was 18 and borrowed $500 from a friend to go study weaving in Norway. “I was the odd duck, the underachiever, the basket weaver,” she says, deadpan, her dark eyes laughing behind her glasses. After getting a degree at the University of Helsinki, she studied weaving, political science and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and went to work for the United Nations, first in Lesotho, then Mozambique and Laos, managing rural development programs to improve women’s lives. It was when she visited the women in villages of Laos that Cassidy saw beautiful antique woven silk pieces with intricate designs, designs that were being lost and replaced by much more simple patterns on polyester.

It was 1989 and Laos had just opened its borders. There were few international visitors. Laotians needed permits to visit foreigners. There were few cars or restaurants, no faxes or phones but Cassidy, who always had a passion for textiles, knew she had come to a crossroads. She applied for a foreign business license and quit the United Nations. The Laotian government gave her ownership approval.

With her business finally turning a small profit, she can afford to employ 28 people, pay good wages and offer three months’ maternity leave.

And Vientiane is no longer cut off from the outside world. Her fax rings nonstop and so does the phone. Japanese and Thai buyers drop by to see the fabrics. They ask a lot of questions and want to know where such magnificent silk comes from. A group of Laotian journalists come on a trip. There’s the order for the German residence in Vientiane to finish

“The lesson is you pave your own way and find a creative solution,” says Cassidy.

 Sherry Buchanan is a journalist based in Hong Kong.