Yao Mien women are expert embroiderers, spending many hours from the time they are young to master the three main stitching techniques and to create colourful and complex motifs. The Mien say that a woman’s abilities can be judged by her embroidery – a dexterous, patient embroiderer will make a hardworking, dedicated wife and mother.
TAEC has been working with a cooperative of Yao Mien embroiderers in Luang Namtha Province for over six years. In 2012, TAEC supported Famjoy Sehli, the head of the cooperative, to show their work at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.
Traditionally inhabiting the remote highland areas of northern Laos, Akha traditional clothing consists of heavy indigo-dyed cotton adorned with applique and embroidery work. Akha women are particularly well known for their silver headdresses, which indicate marital status and geographic and ethnic affiliation.
The whimsical Akha Djepia crafts TAEC promotes were developed over several years by a French artist with a remote village in Phongsaly Province and is now a self-sustaining craft association called Akha Biladjo. TAEC is proud to support this successful community-based project, stocking a wide variety of dolls, jewellery, and ornaments. TAEC also works with Akha Oma women of Phongsaly, selling products such as wine bottle carriers based on traditional leg wraps.
The Kmhmu are the second-largest ethnic group in Laos, whose ancestors are considered to be the original inhabitants of the country. The Kmhmu traditionally practiced shifting cultivation of upland rice, and are known for their intimate knowledge of the forest and forest products.
Kmhmu men are skilled bamboo and rattan basket weavers, and most household tools can be made of these materials. Kmhmu women traditional wove using backstrap looms, but this skills has largely died out. However, they still make bags using the strong Liana vine, which they harvest from the wild, then dry, twist into rope, and crochet. These natural bags and pouches come to TAEC from Oudomxai Province, where a government project helps to train and coordinate the village producers.
The Hmong are one of Laos’ most famous ethnic groups, with a large overseas diaspora, particularly in the US. Maintaining a strong cultural identity, different Hmong sub-groups have distinctive traditional clothing. Nowadays, they are worn only on special occasions.
In particular, Mong Njua women are well known for their resist-dyed (batik) skirts made with hemp and cotton. Woven using a combination backstrap and frame loom, the hemp cloth is painted with beeswax designs and dyed with indigo. The beeswax is then boiled off to reveal the pattern in white. Traditionally, this cloth is embroidered, appliqued, and pleated into a traditional knee-length skirt, a process taking up to nine months to complete. TAEC has adapted Mong natural textiles into bags, hats, and pouches.
The Katu are a small ethnic group living in the Annam Mountains of southern Laos and central Vietnam. Due to their remote and inaccessible habitat, the Katu have kept many of their cultural traditions. They believe in nature spirits, and also have a concept of a powerful (female) Creator Spirit inhabiting the Sky.
Katu women weave textiles on a backstrap loom – an ancient technique for creating cloth. Cloth is often decorated with beads, and sewn into simple skirts and tunics for wear. TAEC works with cooperatives of Katu women from Salavan and Xekong Provinces, promoting their backstrap loom textiles of cotton, banana fibre, and beads.
The Ta Oy are an ethnic group from the far south of Laos, and similar to the Katu, traditionally lived in the Annam highlands. The masks and wood carvings of the Ta Oy were traditionally used to represent ancestors and spirits and adorn their community houses. However, nowadays they are primarily used for decoration and sale.
These mask are made by Ta Oy men and women in Champassak Province, who migrated from Xekong in the 1980s. The design of the masks is first roughly chiselled into wood, and the whole piece is charred in a fire. Then, the burnt wood in scrubbed off with a natural brush made from a dried coconut shell and polished with clear wax. TAEC has been working with this community since 2010.
The Tai of Laos include a number of different ethnic groups who are primarily valley and riverbank dwelling peoples. These include the Tai Lao, Tai Lue, Tai Dam, and Tai Daeng, most of who practice paddy rice farming and have adopted Theravada Buddhism.
The Tai groups are famous for their silk and cotton textiles, hand woven on frame looms that are a ubiquitous village sight under their stilted homes. Girls learn to spin cotton, reel silk, and weave at a young age, helping their mothers and female relatives with simple tasks at first and graduating to more complex designs and techniques as they gain experience. Textiles are used for tube skirts, shawls, blankets, bags, and ceremonial cloths. TAEC supports Tai weavers of silk and cotton, from Houaphan Province in northern Laos, to Savannakhet Province, in the south.