Before we came here, we read many of the articles on this blog to get a first impression of what we can expect from our journey to the Lao PDR. Besides many interesting articles on many different topics, especially the two articles about fabrics and sinhs by Lena and Laura arose our interest,1 and so we were very excited about getting our own sinh in our first week in Laos.
Already on our first day on the market we were surprised by the great variety of marvellous fabrics and patterns, and admired all Lao women for their beautiful and colourful skirts. Of course, we also bought fabrics for our very first own sinh. We all have far more than just one sinh by now because there are so many different and beautiful fabrics and patterns – so we just could not stop ourselves from buying more and more. The many visits to our local tailor’s made us curious about how the fabrics are actually made before the tailor gets to adjust the sinh to the measurements of the woman.
As soon as we were more familiar with all our tandem-teachers, we realized that especially Ms Khamsee Thanbounhueang – a science teacher at Ban Phang Heng lower secondary school – always wears unique sinhs. When we found out that she actually weaves her own sinhs, we asked her if she would be willing to teach us more about weaving and the fabrics and patterns of the traditional Lao sinh. We are very thankful that Ms Khamsee found time to do an interview with us although she is very busy. The “good soul” of Ban Phang Heng Secondary School, Ms Saysamone Singhalath, kindly helped us and Ms Khamsee to bridge any remaining language barriers.2
At this point, we would like to draw attention to the remarkable linguistic and communicative achievement in the English language on the part of both Ms Khamsee and Ms Saysamone. Neither of them teach English or studied English, and Ms Khamsee only joined our tandem-project over the past two years, for a few hours each week, on top of her regular workload. (Editor’s note: Now and then it seems appropriate to mention that the volunteers also invest their work, expertise, time, and cooperation without renumeration.) This made it possible to now exchange very valuable and first-hand information about the weaving traditions in Laos.
Interviewers: Who taught you how to weave?
Ms Khamsee: My mother taught me how to weave when I was eight years old.
Interviewers: Do all of your family members weave sinhs?
Ms Khamsee: Yes, they do. All women can weave, but not the men. Some men can weave but only a little bit. In my province, which is in the north of Laos, all women can weave.
Ms Khamsee’s family is originally from Houaphan province, which is in the northeast of Laos, located directly on the Vietnamese border. (Ms Khamsee now lives with a few of her family members in a village in Vientiane Province close to the school in Ban Sikeud, where she works.) Houaphan province is considered as one of the poorest regions in Laos. However, it is widely known for its textile traditions: Saleu and Nasala villages in Xiengkhor District, for example, are famous for the women’s skills at weaving and handicrafts. Especially the group of Tai Deang are very well-known for their weaving skills within the whole country.
Their products are now also sold in crafts and souvenir shops in the major towns. Each woven fabric can be considered a unique piece of art, especially because the women weave all their patterns from memory and do not use any pre-drawn templates.
Tourists rarely visit this province – only those who are interested in the caves go there.
Why do we mention the caves? During the bombing campaigns in the wartime of 1964-1973, with 580,000 raids, “the soil was poisoned, which made the cultivation of cotton or hemp impossible, and families had to flee from their houses, leaving their looms and weaving instruments behind” (cf. Beck & Hirschstein, 2017, n.p., quoted in Kummetz, 69). It is estimated that many weaving techniques and textiles were lost in that period (cf. Kummetz, ibid.). Weaving was not entirely abandoned, however, as some weavers hid in caves with their materials in order to keep their heritage undamaged – and probably also to keep occupied during the “Secret War” years, as one souvenir shop owner in Vientiane explained to us.
Ms Khamsee still knows her heritage. We asked about the weaving process.
Interviewers: Is it difficult or easy to weave?
Ms Khamsee: It is difficult, but I like it. I weave every day. Sometimes one or two hours after school but I weave more on the weekends.
Interviewers: Do you only weave or do you also embroider?
Ms Khamsee: I only weave.
Interviewers: Which tools do you use?
Ms Khamsee: I use the shuttle loom.
Interviewers: Who built your weaving frame?
Ms Khamsee: My father built my weaving frame.
Interviewers: Do men always build weaving frames?
Ms Khamsee: Yes, because it is hard to make it and put the frame together. You can also buy it, but if you buy it from someone, it is more expensive.
Interviewers: Which fabrics do you use?
Ms Khamsee: I use cotton and silk.
Interviewers: When you buy fabrics and threads, what do you need to take into consideration?
Ms Khamsee: I need to take into consideration the quality of the fabrics. The threads should be smooth and strong and they should be without irregularities.
In order to use the threads for weaving, they first must be coiled on a spool. For this process, Ms Khamsee uses a self-made wheel to prepare the thread for weaving with the shuttle loom.
Interviewers: Do you buy finished sinhs at the market and change the patterns?
Ms Khamsee: No, I do not. I make everything by myself. But when I buy silk on the market I sometimes dye it by myself. I put it into hot water and then I mix it with the silk and the pigment.
Interviewers: How do you traditionally clean the sinh?
Ms Khamsee: Normal cotton sinhs can be cleaned by hand or washing machine but for the silk sinh it is better to wash it by hands. You have to use a special washing liquid and iron it.
Interviewers: Are there any specific colours for the sinh that are only worn for special occasions?
Ms Khamsee: There aren’t special colours. But for example at a Baci or a wedding the person or the couple can decide which colour they want to wear and therefore also decide which colour the guests have to wear.
Interviewers: And are there any special patterns for the sinh?
Ms Khamsee: There are special patterns which have special meanings.1 I weave animal patterns like the pattern of a swordfish, peacock, chicken and flowers so that the Sinh looks pretty.
Interviewers: Do you use the patterns for one ethnic group or can anyone wear your sinhs?
Ms Khamsee: No, I do not use the patterns for one ethnic group. Everyone can wear my sinhs. But there are different patterns and clothes for different ethnic groups.
There are 49 different ethnic groups and up to 120 sub-groups in Laos . Many people tend to categorize the ethnic groups into “language families”: Therefore there are five big language families. The biggest one is the Tai-group which makes up 65,5% of the population. Most of these people are Lao or Thai-Lao and there are several sub-groups which mainly live in the north of Laos (cf. Loose 2017, 339). Another big group, which makes up 25% of the Laotian population, is one of the older migrant group belonging to the Mon-Khmer people. The Mon-Khmer people came to Laos from Cambodia between the 6th and the 8th century, and nowadays they are spread all over the country (cf. Loose 2017, 339). Thirdly, there is the group of the Miao-Yao people. They immigrated from China during the 19th century, and nowadays they mostly live in the northern parts of Laos (cf. Loose 2017, 339).
Last, there are two smaller groups: the Tibeto-Burmese and the Sinitic group. Both groups only make up 3-4% of the population (cf. Loose 2017, 339). However, it is important to keep in mind that each language family still consists of many different ethnic groups and sub-groups. Therefore, there are many differences: Each ethnic group has unique traditional habits and also wears special clothing according to their beliefs. Records can be found in Lao museums, for instance the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang.
(We explored the traditional habits and beliefs of one small ethnic group in the south of Laos during one of our trips in Laos: Check out our photo-reportage on our Live documentation or click on Live documentation/Team VII/Exploring Laos/The Bolaven Plateau).
As sinhs are worn by all women in this country and among all ethnic groups, we wanted to know more about the popularity of patterns and their complexity.
Interviewers: Are there any popular patterns?
Ms Khamsee: It depends on the money, the more money you have the more special sinhs you can buy. Animal and flower patterns are very popular.
Interviewers: How long does it take to make one sinh?
Ms Khamsee: It is up to the patterns. If it is easy it takes two or three whole days. If it is difficult it will take a week but usually it depends on the weaver’s skills.4
A sinh consists of three parts: The “houa sinh” (the waistband), the “pheun sinh” (the body/main part) and the “tdin sinh” (the hem). The “pheun sinh” can be seen as the center of the sinh, therefore it is the most important part but also takes the longest to weave. There are different techniques to weave the “pheun sinh”, which also depend on the design of the pattern.5 The fabric can be weaved as one vertical piece with the pattern duplicated. Here, the tailor later has to make a horizontal cut and sew the two pieces together. In the second technique the fabric is also weaved in one piece. In contrast, the pattern is not duplicated but designs are often stitched with one seam whereas the sinhs with horizontal designs are weaved with two seams.
Next, we wanted to find out more about the “sinh trading business” and Ms Khamsee’s personal preferences.
Interviewers: For whom do you weave?
Ms Khamsee: I weave for women who are interested in my weavings and in the patterns and I weave for myself. Everyone can order a sinh from me.
Interviewers: How much does it cost?
Ms Khamsee: One sinh costs around 200,000 KIP. If I use only silk, then it is more expensive and costs up to 1,000,000 or 2,000,000 KIP.6
Interviewers: What is your favorite colour and pattern?
Ms Khamsee: I like dark blue, navy blue or green. I like animal patterns, like swordfish, snake, or peacock.
Lastly, it is important to mention that the women in rural areas wear sinhs everyday whereas women in the larger cities do not wear traditional clothes as much anymore. However, when it comes to events and ceremonies, most women (both in rural areas and cities) wear beautiful traditional sinhs made out of silk. The sinhs made out of cotton are often worn by women in rural areas because cotton sinhs are more comfortable to wear when carrying out daily tasks – cotton is said to breathe better in comparison to silk (cf. Weir 2015).
This interview answered many questions that we had, but did not quite know how to find answers for until Ms Khamsee gave us her very personal insight into her weaving and the weaving tradition in Laos. We are also very thankful that she invited us to visit her at her new home near Ban Sikeud to do this interview.
Text by M. Linder & N. Wickmann, with notes by I. Martin
Photos & videos by M. Linder
1 Ariane Kummetz (Team V) researched this topic for her State Exam Thesis (Lao weaving as cultural heritage – a cross-curricular storytelling project for primary school, 2018). Each pattern, color, and motif bears meaning. They are the unique fingerprints of an ethnic community, i.e. carriers of identity. They preserve cultural heritage and “tell” stories.
2 The English phrasing or translations of Ms Khamsee Thanbounhueang’s answers were edited in places for better readability.
3 The map of the provinces of the Lao PDR can be found here.
4 The regular length of a sinh fabric before the tailoring process averages out at three to four metres.
5 More detailed information about this cf. the State Exam Thesis by A. Kummetz (note 1).
6 1,000,000 Lao KIP are about 103,00 € or 116,50 $ according to the current exchange rate (as of 10/02/2019).
Kummetz, Ariane (2018). Lao weaving as cultural heritage – a cross-curricular storytelling project for primary school. 117 pp., with Appendix: Glossary, Didactic material, interviews 26 pp. (summary forthcoming in new series “Language education and global citizenship“, 2019).
Loose, Stefan (72017). Südostasien – Die Mekong-Region. Stefan Loose Travelhandbücher. Ostfildern: DuMont Reiseverlag.
Weir, Emi (2015). Wearing a “sinh” or Lao skirt – a brief guide for foreigners. https://matesai.com/blogs/news/wearing-a-sinh-or-lao-skirt-a-brief-guide-for-foreigners.
Beck, Maren & Josh Hirschstein (2017). Above the Fray. Traditional Hilltribe Art. http://www.hilltribeart.com