Phontong Handicrafts Cooperative

This handicraft cooperative began in 1980 and works with Lao weavers and basket makers in lowland villages around Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Kommaly Chanthavong directs the co-op, and her husband Noulieme manages finances. Craftswomen intersperse weaving with housework and childcare. Once a dying art, weaving skills and traditions are being revived by Phontong, which provides lessons and free raw materials to artisans. The cooperative also helps artisans with wood carving, basket weaving, silk production and cattle raising. Ten Thousand Villages has purchased handicrafts from Phontong since 1989.

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Weaving Heritage Carries On

Increased orders from Ten Thousand Villages have brought another group of village weavers to the Phontong Handicrafts network of artisans in Laos. A recent order for a new product (embroidered silk scarf, item 7700360) has provided work for 13 weavers who had previously only been able to sell their products in the local market. The women have all come to the village, called Ban Na Ngom Khao, from Hua Phan province in northern Laos in recent years.

Their story of resettlement from the northern provinces is similar to that of many thousands of other Laotians. In the rugged mountainous north, they practiced slash and burn agriculture and lived several days walk from a health clinic, or roads that would lead to other services or goods that they couldn't provide for themselves. Life became very difficult, and some families began to leave. In 1999, several families arrived in this new area, about 37 miles from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Eventually, other families from Hua Phan joined them, were given land on which to build their houses and tried to make a living. They had no land on which to plant rice, however, and there were not many opportunities to earn money.

Some of the newcomers knew Kommaly Chanthavong, director of Phontong Handicrafts, since her family had also come from a nearby village in Hua Phan province. Many of the women are weavers, like Chanthavong, but most had no looms or money to access the materials that they would need to weave. They also had little food for their families, so Chanthavong and her family purchased land on which they could grow rice. Later they bought more land for growing teak trees and mulberries, which could support silkworms to provide silk to the weavers. With funds from Ten Thousand Villages and others, some of the women received training to raise silkworms and mulberry plants, and others received training in weaving and dyeing techniques.

Now 25 families have settled in this village. There are many looms underneath the traditional wood and bamboo houses, placed there to provide a shaded workspace. Just like their ancestors, their houses accommodate one loom for each female member of the household. New generations learn from their elders the intricate weaving patterns, starting with four-inch-wide strips that will become beautiful borders on traditional skirts, called "sinh".

These families have better lives and a brighter future, thanks in large part to assistance from Chanthavong and Phontong Handicrafts. The 13 weavers who worked on their first order from Phontong look forward to many more. They hope that interest in their weaving will continue for years to come so that their younger sisters, daughters and granddaughters will be able to carry on their rich heritage of weaving.

Jane Snider
Mennonite Central Committee Laos handicraft designer

Textiles Represent Tradition and Employment

Phontong Handicrafts Cooperative works with Laotian silk farmers and weavers, providing orders and vital, supplemental income. The cooperative facilitates the transportation of the silk fibers to artisan women in villages throughout Laos. The women weave the silk into beautiful textiles like pillows and table runners.

Noulieme Chantavong, Deputy Director of Phontong, shared that despite their skill, Laotian artisans face several challenges. Transit prices from the landlocked country are high, which makes it hard for Laotian artisans to be price competitive with artisans in other countries.

Despite these limitations, silk farmers and weavers value the supplemental income they earn. The additional income allows them to provide for their families. They can send their children to school without growing opium or burning the forest for more land to farm.

Additionally, Chantavong said, it allows them to learn a practical craft that they can pass on to their children. For example, weavers use the second quality silk to create their own clothing and instruct children in weaving.

He said, "If you give money, they will buy [clothes] from the factory. If you buy a product, they will make a product and teach their children the tradition [of weaving]."

Silk Production at Lao Sericulture

Lao Sericulture is a fair trade silk farm located in Xieng Khuang province in northern Laos. Weather conditions only permit silk farming for seven months of the year. During silk season, the farm can support 300,000 worms at a time.

Silkworm eggs are purchased from Laos and Thailand because of the high-quality silk they produce. When the eggs hatch, the small worms are fed mulberry leaves, their steady diet for the twenty-five days until they grow to their full size, less than one inch. The worms require temperature-controlled and sterile conditions. After they are given time to grow, they are placed on screens or special baskets to begin spinning their cocoons. Each cocoon is spun from one long, thin strand of silk.

When the cocoons are complete, they are collected and watchfully boiled in hot water, which causes the silk to unwind. It takes 80-100 thin strands to make one silk thread. After boiling, two of these threads are twisted together to create an even stronger strand. This thread, made of 160-200 cocoon strands, is what is used in weaving.

The silk is naturally yellow and quite stiff because it contains a gum. Skeins of raw silk are boiled in a mixture of water, ashes and dye. The ashes de-gum the silk. After boiling, the skeins soak in tamarind water to make the dye colorfast, then in rice water for softening. The silk is finally ready for weaving.

At Lao Sericulture, one silk cycle of 300,000 worms produces approximately 90 kg of silk. The farm also provides silkworm eggs to local villagers who raise worms that the farm buys back as cocoons or unprocessed silk. Lao Sericulture sells about 2,000 kg. of silk each year. The farm also offers mulberry tea, jams and cider.

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