An Unassuming Sign
Along the streets of Vientiane past the rows of cafes and coffee shops there is an oval sign. “Lao Textiles Carol Cassidy” written in plain English curves around its center and marks the entrance to one of only a handful of all-handmade woven textile companies. “It’s a niche market,” they tell me. Handmade artisan fabrics is often the desire of those who can afford such personalized luxury, even amongst those who market mass luxury. But while the business aspect of how a textiles company even survives (which they credit to a 1995 textile fashion expose in New York) is fascinating, I found the creative process, artistic collisions, and inner workings of the loom all the moreso.
I learned the company specializes in three types of woven product Ikat, Supplementary Weft, and Tapestry.
A form of weave in which the fiber itself is tied and dyed through a process called blocking. When thread is blocked it is wrapped so tightly in places that the dye is ‘blocked’ from staining the thread. However, dying fabric on the thread level requires all the more precision on weavers part because it is up to them to ensure the pattern lines up exactly.
Features two types Continuous, and Discontinuous. In a Continuous Supplementary Weft, no additional thread is added to the project as it progresses. Fabric woven with this method is ‘double sided’ in that the negative side retains a clean and presentable look.
Conversely, Discountinous Supplementary Weft is when additional thread is added facilitating more complexity and colors that can be added to the project on-the-fly. The negative side of this fabric isn’t presentable as the added thread is cut once it’s woven in.
The simplest of the types in that the warp threads cover the weft threads and the changes in warp color determines the resultant pattern.
Okay…so why did I just spend five minutes giving you a textiles lesson?? Because what I learned next about Supplementary Weft caused me to geek out in a way I really wasn’t expecting.
Enter the heddle, the hand-woven template fabric (that can take a month or more to create) fed into the loom that dictates the pattern. I was told that while most people in a textiles community in Laos would know how to weave, only a handful would know how to create a heddle. This is like saying “most people might know how to use a computer, but only a handful would know how to program it.” In this way, the loom’s heddle works very similar to the old-school computer punch card because the end-pattern is determined by it. Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to find a primitive computer when I walked into a fabric shop either (sorry about the orientation of the video)…
Walking slowly into the woods
When you look at all of this (or do a quick Google search for ‘loom parts’) you quickly realize that this craft is massively technical blending several hard sciences together and cloaking them in art. But that Google search, or me traipsing (or stumbling even) into a textiles company is like parachuting into the woods. Once you cut the harness from the tangled mess, you unceremoniously drop into an eco-systems worth of complexity. The artists themselves don’t experience the craft that way, however. To them, it’s been a slow stroll in the woods. They’ve taken their time to acquaint themselves with each component never rushing to a finish line. It’s just that after enough strolling you finally get someplace.
So yes. Most art has a zillion technical nuances, but for us it should always be about the process of creation and never about the destination.