LT Logo

July 2003

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 full-time job!”

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 collectible."

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 current level.

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.