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Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos
Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos, a part travelogue and silk weaving primer, take armchair travelers on a picturesque and delightful journey to Lao’s Houaphan Province where authors Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck developed warm relationships with the silk weavers of the hill tribe community of Xam Tai.
Right from the very start, Hirschstein, Beck and their two sons, Ari and Zall, welcome the reader to Xam Tai with the sweet introduction of meeting children from the community. After a series of greetings and introductions, soon a woman from the village approaches them. Once pleasantries are exchanged, the couple inquire if there are any weavers; she leads them to her home to show them complex four-posted loom and her textile in progress.
Their reaction to the textile in progress is awe. “The silk shimmered like a jewel—a burst of opulence and intricacy and precision in reds, yellows, and purples that reached deep and sure. The bold Escheresque geometric pattern—was this a man standing? Was this rice awaiting harvest?—defied the ‘simpleness’ of our surroundings.”
Combined with the stunning photographs by Joe Coca, the couple’s narrative is all show—captured in a spectacular manner by the images, enticing the reader to abandon that comfortable armchair, book a flight to Laos and travel to Xam Tai.
Divided into five parts, the travelogue portion (parts one and two) of the book provides a geo-political history of the region and background on its ethno-cultural roots. Mingled between these chapters are stories of master weavers within the community, such as Nang Tiip, Xam Tai’s most productive weaver, who typically spends seven to eight hours a day at her loom.
Parts three and four delve into the art of creating the textiles with a strong chapter on the art of Xam Tai design motifs—a unique fusion of of animist and Buddhist traditions. “…motifs born from animist traditions symbolically focus on accessing and placating the world of spirits and the after life. This world is of strange blends of creatures, and the human efforts to illuminate and gain access and influence over the unknown. These cloths often have elements asymmetry and are woven in highly complex mirror-image patterns that easily hide the motifs and deceive the eye,” write Hirschtein and Beck. Whereas Buddhist motifs emphasize the natural world in contemporary times. These forms tend to be geometric with an emphasis in symmetry and balance. The latter chapters focus on cotton and silk production, silk reeling, the art of natural dyes, which include recipes for several colors, and a impressive weaving primer.
How to best describe Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos? A brilliant tome that will satisfy textile lovers, travelers, and anyone with an interest in southeast Asia.