Carol Cassidy - Weaving Treasures
By Liza Linklater
As a child, Carol
Cassidy loved to rummage through "all of those old clothes" in her grandmother's
attic. One wonders if she could ever have imagined that as an adult she would be
creating intricate textiles for London art collectors, New York designers,
museum curators and Thai royalty.
Cassidy's grandmother was a tailor who lived in an old Woodbury, Connecticut
home built in the 18th century. Today, Cassidy's showroom and studio are located
in a 19th-century French colonial home half-way around the world in
downtown Vientiane, Lao PDR.
How, you may ask, did a young American girl from Connecticut end up as an
internationally recognized textile artist living in one of the world's least
developed countries? She arrived in Laos almost 15 years ago as a UNDP (UN
Development Program) textile specialist sent to assist in the development of
their skills. Cassidy soon recognized that Laos was a "weaver's paradise". When
her UN tour finished, she decided to go into business for herself to realize
what the UNDP had constrained her to achieve.
Laotian silk weaving thrived from the 1300s until the start of the First World
War By 1989 when Cassidy and her husband reached Laos; they were exposed to some
aspects of the rich past of Laos’s weaving tradition. Cassidy savoured the
impeccable woven silk she found and was certain that the rich fabric would be
cherished by collectors from around the world. With her boundless energy, talent
and drive, Cassidy has been proved right in her assumption. Her showroom is now
a must on everyone's visit to Vientiane, and most of the steady stream of
callers leave with at least one of her creations.
So far, Cassidy has been weaving an imaginative and nomadic course throughout
her 46 year life. She started weaving at 17 and after studying all aspects of
weaving in Norway and Finland and receiving degrees in textile design and
women's anthropology at the Universities of Michigan and Helsinki, Cassidy
worked on women's textile development projects in several southern African
countries and the Caribbean before coming to Laos.
Prior to setting up her company, The Lao Textiles Company, she commissioned some
market research in Paris and New York to determine if there would be a market
for museum quality textiles and hand-woven art. The results were affirmative so
Cassidy, and her husband, a former UN rural development specialist she had met
in Africa, invested their life savings of US$200,000 and became the first
Americans to own and incorporate a company in Laos after the country opened its
doors to foreign investment in 1986. The company now employs about 50 weavers,
dyers and bobbin-winders who carry out her designs on looms that she designed
herself. In fact, everything had to be done from scratch.
She had to identify weavers who still retained the knowledge and complex weaving
skills. She found some in Vientiane and others came from all over the country.
She located rural families raising silkworms, encouraged mulberry production,
persuaded villagers to spin the thread, trained her weavers for 8 months,
designed, modified and built specialized looms, researched and recreated the
designs, and persuaded the Laotian government to provide her in 1990 with one of
the first business licenses given to a foreigner.
Moreover, the house which at the time served as studio, showroom and home, had
to be restored. Cassidy, her husband and two children, now live in another
location. The open-air studio is located behind the main house.
The company finally had some work to sell in 1992 and made its first reasonable
profit in 1995. Since then, she has recovered her initial investment and has
made profits. In 1995, Cassidy also held a major exhibition at the Fashion
Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York and no longer felt like she was
operating "in a cocoon".
The weaving techniques utilize tapestry, brocade and ikat. The complicated
process uses selective dying before the pattern is woven. The silk is coloured
by chemical dyes from Germany that are computer matched to the colours of
traditional dyes such as saffron and indigo. Cassidy dyed the silk herself for
the first three years. She oversees every detail of the business.
Cassidy does not have to worry about losing her weavers. They are paid well and
also receive 3 months paid maternity leave, a pension and health benefits. She
contends that "as one of the first business people in Laos I wanted to set a
good example" and she certainly has established a laudable standard. Cassidy
wants to see more of the staff involved in management so that all the knowledge
is transferred and eventually become part owners.
In the beginning, Cassidy admits that "lots of psychological issues" were
raised, particularly a resistance to the idea of a Westerner wanting to create
contemporary interpretations of the traditional designs. However, she eventually
persuaded her weavers that they could maintain the integrity of a 150-year-old
tapestry design by using colour and motifs in different ways. Cassidy's artistic
journey has been enhanced just by "watching the staff realize that everything is
possible and we can do anything". Furthermore, Cassidy stresses that her
weavers are "part of the dream because we shared an idea and watched it emerge
and grow into a strong viable product".
Cassidy has never had to do any advertising -- she relies on word-of-mouth and
it works when an exquisite, rare product is involved. She didn’t even have a
sign outside until September 2002, when a beautifully painted wooden one was
installed in front of her workshop. Most of her customers are foreign and 80
percent of the work is exported. Commissions generate approximately 60 percent
of sales. American and European designers order everything from upholstery,
curtains, and wall hangings to tablecloths. With continual increases in foreign
orders and demands, Cassidy often feels as if she is "a buffer between 'high
end' New York and rural Laos". Lao Textiles had just designed a spring/summer
collection for Barney’s (New York).
An order for curtains will take up two looms for nine months as the weavers can
only finish a few centimetres a day on a complex pattern with four-colour
inlays. The workshop produces no more than 30 to 50 pieces a month. It can take
weeks to weave a scarf or shawl, and months to weave some of the complex wall
hangings. Prices vary widely depending on the techniques and designs. Scarves
can start at US$45 and go up to US$125 and wall hangings start at US$150 and go
up and up! For museum quality work, prices are US$1,200 and up.
Besides all of this, some of Cassidy's pieces can actually be found in the
collections of international museums and she still manages to have at least one
major exhibit of her wall hangings every year – as has been done in places like
New York, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, Phnom Penh, Kathmandu, and Bangkok.
Cassidy believes that "each exhibit gives me the chance to step back and look at
the elements which later enable me to push on to the next level.” She’ has
recently exhibited at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in San Francisco in 2004.
Called “Interpreting Tradition, Woven Silks of Laos”, the exhibit will travel
around the USA for several years. Several international venues are also
considering hosting it.
Cassidy has also received some awards recently. In January 2001, she was the
first recipient of the Preservation of Craft Award presented by Aid to Artisans,
a US-based non-profit group working globally to promote traditional artisans. In
2002, Lao Textiles received a Certificate of Excellency from UNESCO for its
quality, workmanship, colour and overall design.
Over the past three years, Cassidy has been active advising numerous other
weavers in the region on how to help revive and renew their traditions. In 2001,
she worked in Assam, India with the Naga and other ethnic weavers, and in Hanoi
for UNESCO with South and Southeast Asia weavers. In 2002, the team at Lao
Textiles conducted training in Laos for the Cham weavers of Vietnam. She also
continues to work with rural and urban weavers in Laos.
Since 1999, she’s been advising a group of disabled weavers in Cambodia who
recently launched a new label of hand-woven silks (using her designs and
colours). Cassidy markets these mostly overseas, but has some stock in her
Vientiane showroom. Items from this Carol Cassidy Cambodia collection are
currently on sale at the Asia Society in New York City. In April 2003, she was
invited to Bhutan to look at future potential there. As she says, “Much to do,
many places to go and much work to be done. Preserving weaving traditions is a
Cassidy is often compared to Jim Thompson the American who built a silk empire
in Thailand. Cassidy takes issue with this association because she is herself an
artist and a weaver who has always focused on collector's pieces not on mass
production. She is not a preservationist, as all of her work bears her own
modern stamp and as she says, "The elements are traditional, but the complete
design is my own creation." Posters for exhibitions convey this message well by
stating that Cassidy "has fused Western design ideals with centuries-old weaving
skills from Asia to create beautiful works that are both practical and
Cassidy's work also combines one-of-a-kind art with entrepreneurship -- a rare
combination. It will be interesting to see how this blend evolves over the next
few years. The company could expand to meet the demand -- today orders sometimes
must be turned down -- but, as an artist, Cassidy strives to maintain the
quality and integrity of the creations by continuing to limit the output to its
Most of all, Carol Cassidy has contributed to a renewed appreciation for Laotian
textiles by the people themselves. This truly is one of her greatest
achievements. Many Laotians are now creating high-quality work as well. It is
hoped that the revitalization of this intricate cultural art form will thrive
long into the future.