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Threads of Lao tradition

Motifs in Laotian textiles tell a story, reflect dreams and reveal the weavers’ beliefs. Carol Cassidy’s complex yet simple creations focus on colour, details and design.

Publication Date : 01-11-2012


Carol Cassidy’s works are more than just textiles; woven among the vibrant silk are the threads of her passion for the craft, her efforts to preserve traditions, and her determination to empower struggling communities.

Hailing from the United States, Cassidy has been based in Laos for the last 23 years, where she established her own textile business to preserve and nurture the tradition of hand-weaving silk. Lao Textiles has helped to not only to introduce traditional Loatian weavings to a global market, but also provided scores of women with a means of livelihood – and perhaps even more importantly, empowerment.

The first American to own a business in the country, she was granted permission by the government to set up her company in 1990. After spending years building a relationship with rural silk farmers, she now wholly relies on them for her supply of domestic silk.

Cassidy calls Laos “a weaver’s paradise”. “It has both a rich history in design and weaving techniques, and weaving is a national treasure here,” she says.

Over the years, her works have become renowned for incorporating and reinterpreting traditional Laotian colours, images, symbols and myths with a contemporary aesthetic, as well as using ancient local weaving techniques with a markedly artistic touch.

“We work with ancient and complex weaving techniques that include brocade, tapestry and ikat. I also experiment with new and original combinations; my goal is to create original designs with ancient methods.”

A recognised Guggenheim Studio Artist, Cassidy’s works have been shown at various prestigious exhibitions around the world, including the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco, in the United States. Her textiles will also be featured in a group exhibition, Out Of Southeast Asia: Art That Sustains, at the Textile Museum in Washington DC next April.

Her weavings, currently on show at Glorious Weaves at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art gallery in Petaling Jaya, are a gorgeous example of her ability to fuse the traditional and the modern. It is on until November 10.

“I love discovering hidden meanings in the animist pieces of historic Lao textiles,” Cassidy says. “I also love exploring their motifs and the way they tell a story, reflect dreams and reveal the weavers’ beliefs. I try to honour their work by revisiting their story and telling it again in a different way.”

She goes on to explain that some of her pieces begin with an exact replica of rare, historic Lao fabrics, which she then re-stylises, interprets and modifies, while other designs are purely contemporary yet inspired by nature and her surroundings in Laos.

“My passion for weaving over the past 40 years has given me experiences that are unique. I have intense focus on colour, details and design. My work often employs a complex construction but has a simplicity.

“Over two decades in Laos has seen my designs evolve. Most importantly, our senior Lao designers embrace this creative spirit as well.”

Even from the beginning of her career, Cassidy’s craft seems inextricably linked to rural communities and their development. Having studied weaving in Norway and Finland, she then completed degrees in fine arts, political science and women studies at the University of Michigan.

She then worked for eight years as a textile/fibre consultant for development programmes that improved the lives of indigenous women in southern Africa. On a CARE project, she trained women in Lesotho to produce hand-spun mohair yarn for export, and later, on a rural development project for the United Nations, she helped set up sustainable cottage industries for women in rural Lesotho, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

It was her work with the UN that initially brought her to Vientiane, Laos, where she worked as an advisor on a weaving project. The rest, is weaving history.

Cassidy’s efforts in the field of Laotian weaving extend beyond simply raising the craft’s profile; indeed, she contributed towards reviving the country’s weaving industry as a whole.

For this, Lao Textiles was given the Product Excellence Award by Unesco in 2001, and the first Preservation of Craft award from Aid to Artisans in 2002.

She continues to advise the UN and other development agencies on income-generating activities for rural women, and shares her model of success with weavers, artisans and audiences throughout the world.

Cassidy’s work has also made a tremendous impact on the lives of the Laotian female weavers she employs.

“I have worked with a generation of Lao women weavers who have enjoyed a lifetime of professional employment and all the benefits that come with it – better education for their children, better health, and improved life conditions,” she says, adding that she feels privileged to witness the transformation she sees in the community.

“In our 23 years in business in Laos, we have mostly the same staff, and we’ve watched our young weavers of 19 or 20 get married, have children, build houses and become middle-aged with family.”

Cassidy is convinced that textile traditions in Asia play a vital role in national identity as well as community building. Having advised weavers in Assam in northeast India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Vietnam and Myanmar, among other countries, she has been working closely for the last several years with a group of weavers in Cambodia who are landmine survivors.

“There is a great need and urgency in South-East Asia to focus on preserving textile traditions and other traditional crafts. Textiles are at the heart of many cultures here. I hope that my voice and experience can help play a role in raising awareness,” she says.


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