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The new Silk Road

By Melody Kemp - posted Monday, 14 September 2009

Part 1

Vientiane Laos: At the age of 13 Kommaly Chantavong walked over 600km to Vientiane from her home in Lao’s northern province of Huaphan. She walked though a war zone in bare feet. All she took were heirloom pieces of woven silk, legacies from her grandmothers.

Later when the war ended and refugees, many of them women, plied the streets of Vientiane, Kommaly used money earned by nursing to buy looms. She hoped that by rekindling the interest in weaving, refugee women could make money.

In a radical policy reversal, the revolutionary President, Kaysone Phomvihan granted her 40 hectares of land in Xieng Khouang, significant for its silk history. Previously the hard-line Pathet Lao had labeled silk weaving as bourgeoise. Women had to hide their looms or weave cotton. But silk never died.


Women would dream of silk while they wove proletariat kapok. Silk went underground, women weaving at night to maintain skills and to remember patterns. They feared jail or destruction of their looms. Small shops were closed, silk confiscated. In the mid 1980’s silk reappeared, being allowed for some ceremonies, but women were still wary. On the outskirts of the capital Vientiane, women went back to silk work, hoping to survive out of the direct sightline of the party apparachiks.

Kommaly began to build, breeding to combine tough Lao natural silk with the length of Thai and Japanese filaments, and tempered with softness. She researched natural dyes and planted a dye garden and walked for 6-8 hours per day to villages teaching, encouraging and buying. She set up weaving and silk houses where young Lao, both men and women turned out beautifully crafted organic silk fabric of the type that underpins Lao culture and pride.

Eco-textiles are taking the world by storm, the environmental and public health costs of conventional textiles having been recognised. Creative industries are recognised internationally as being a profitable part of the economy. In the midst of financial depression people are remembering that Roosevelt stimulated the US economy by among other things giving a boost to the creative sector. Thirty-five years later, Shui Meng Ng a Singapore sociologist living in Laos told me, the majority of rural villagers in Laos still get most of their reliable household cash from textile products. But the international development juggernaut trundles on, oblivious to the potential under its very nose. Little if any policy attention, much less funding, is given to support an industry that already exists, is environmentally neutral and embedded in the culture. While this story concerns Laos, the issue is broader.

Kommaly, a humble woman who has won two UNESCO craft awards, receives a modicum of support from NGO’s. In the absence of serious overseas connections and production advice, Kommaly’s business, upon which the lives and wellbeing of literally thousands of Laos depend, is still just getting by. Her only design input is from her daughters and the odd traveller who stays at the sericulture farm. “I need to be able to fix colours naturally to guarantee our products” she tells me.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation nominated 2009 as its year of natural fibres. Thinking that Lao would be awash with activities, I twice contacted the Food and Agriculture office in Vientiane to find out what was planned. No response. Madam Anoumone Kittirath, Deputy Director General of Lao’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce did not know of any activities planned for Lao. The FAO had not been in touch. Mr Somsanouk Mixay of the Lao Handcrafts Association (LHA) had the same response. This in a country that celebrates natural fibres every day. Its elegant men and women wear silk as a matter of course. Silk has fostered trade with its neighbours for centuries and is as Lao as sticky rice and unexploded bombs.

Carrying a pejorative taint and a faint whiff of patchouli, the word handcrafts are not taken seriously in international development circles. Handcrafts - the middle i makes the word handicrafts seems even more diminutive - have been debated by gender consultants - some arguing that they cement women into lowly paid menial jobs, never mind pride, cultural relevance or environmental soundness. Largely ignored by the male consultants unless a business model is attached, some mining companies eager to prove their CSR credentials, invest in and encourage small village projects. On the whole, handcrafts have been left to languish, a symbol of a bygone age.


Handcrafts are arguably a subset of creative industries (or creative economy): a set of interlocking industries and activities that create content, such as web pages or jewellery, and things that previously did not exist such as textiles. Economic contributions from creative industries have been increasing, particularly as manufacturing industries have become increasingly automated and process-driven. They are like all creative industries, able to be improved, expanded and modified to suit global tastes.

Mr Khampheng shows me his new motorcycle. It’s a gleaming red with a basket on the front. Already sitting on the bike is his 8-year-old daughter who he is about to take to school 6km away.

“My wife bought this motorbike by weaving and selling pha sinhs (traditional Lao skirt) to passing traders” he told me. “I am just a farmer. The bike helps me take chickens to market.”

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About the Author

Melody Kemp is a freelance writer in Asia who worked in labour and development for many years and is a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in South-East Asia. You can contact Melody by email at

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