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Saturday, January 6, 2001

American Crafts Her Success Story in Laos

Carol Cassidy has revived silk weaving in the Asian nation, where her company is one of the few prospering businesses.

By David Lamb

Vientiane – Among the victims of Laos’ tortured 20th century history – which included French colonialism, Japanese occupation and American bombing – were traditional Laotian silk weavers, whose complex , stylised designs had for a century attracted admirers and customers throughout the world.

By the time an American UN worker named Carol Cassidy arrived in Vientiane in 1999, weaving was a dying art. Decades of social upheaval and wartime dislocation of entire villages had forced weavers to find other endeavours. Exports had dried up. Old techniques had faded and were no longer being passed form mother to daughter. Synthetics had replaced silk and cotton on the wooden looms that remained.

In the wreckage, Cassidy saw opportunity. And in the decade since she arrived in the impoverished communist country that has neither a constitution nor computers, and only one paved highway and 16 international telephone lines, Cassidy virtually single-handedly has revived silk weaving. She has turned the company, Lao Textiles, that she runs from an old French villa in one of the country’s few business success stories.

“This was truly unique to Laos,” said Cassidy, 44, a Woodbury, Connecticut, native who studied weaving at the University of Michigan and the University of Helsinki in Finland, and spent seven years in Africa teaching mohair weaving.

“The traditional designs were abstract and diverse, and each was an artistic expression of the weaver. What I’ve tried to do is revive that creative spirit,” she said.

Today, with 32 weavers operating hand looms and 3,000 farmers supplying silk from their mulberry trees, Lao Textiles turns out 30 to 50 “one-of-a-kind” pieces a month, mostly for high-priced foreign markets. Cassidy’s weavings – from US $100 (Bt 4,300) scarves to curtains and wall hangings that can cost thousands of dollars and take months to produce – are sold in a handful of upscale stores, grace museums in Europe and are commissioned by designers representing Hollywood and Danish royalty.

“Every single piece is different,” she said. “The weavers’ skill had faded, but it hadn’t been lost. They’re making things now they didn’t think they could do 10 years ago when they’d say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that’. Now, with the creative aspect of weaving revived, they’ve come around to the idea they can do anything.”

Cassidy became the first American licensed to run a business in Laos when she founded Lao Textiles in 1990 in the wake of government free-market reforms. She turned her first profit five years later – a rarity in a country that many foreign businesses have given up on because of communist obstacles.

“Yes, there are frustrations, but Laos is in transition, and I’ve found that the government’s attitude is, ‘We’re making changes and will help you adapt’,” she said. “When ministers have promised me something, they’ve always kept their word.”

Cassidy also has gained favour by providing her 48 employees with benefits unheard of in Laos, including four months maternity leave, pensions and full health care. An experienced weaver can earn $200 a month, many times the salary of a university professor. The result is that Lao Textiles has practically no turnover.

In reviving an old skill, Cassidy has saved a cultural heritage that traditionally helped define one’s life.

Intricately woven silk fabrics were used to indicate the status of the dead. Women often wove skirts to prepare for their own funerals. Parents believed clothing had talisman power for babies, and the newborn were wrapped in fabrics that took weeks to design and weave.

“I want Lao Textiles to keep being innovative and fresh,” Cassidy said. After all, it’s not how much you sell or what something costs that counts. What matters is the gratification of the customer who will live with what you’ve created.”