One Western woman has been keeping alive an ancient tradition in one of the world’s least developed countries. Liza Linklater visits Carol Cassidy, the head of a world-class weaving studio in Laos.
As a child, Carol Cassidy loved to rummage through “all of those old clothes” in her grandmother’s attic. One wonders if she could ever have imagined that, as an adult, she would be creating intricate textiles for London art collectors, New York designers, museum curators and Thai royalty.
Cassidy’s grandmother was a tailor who lived in Connecticut, in a house built in the 18th century. Today, Cassidy’s showroom and studio are located in an early 20th-century French colonial home on a pothole-ridden street halfway around the world in dusty, downtown Vientiane, Lao PDR.
How, one may ask, did a young American girl from the States end up as an internationally recognized textile artist living in one of the world’s least developed countries? She arrived in Laos almost 15 years ago as a UNDP (UN Development Program) textile specialist sent to assist women to revive and develop their traditional weaving skills. Cassidy soon recognized that Laos was a “weaver’s paradise”, and when her UN tour finished, she decided to go into business for herself.
Laotian silk weaving thrived from the 1300s until the start of the First World War. But in the 1980s, only some of the rich past had survived the years of French colonialism, Japanese occupation and American bombing. Cassidy savoured the impeccable woven silk she found and was certain that the rich fabric would be cherished by collectors from around the world. With her boundless energy, talent and drive, Cassidy has been proved right in her assumption. Her showroom is now a must on everyone’s visit to Vientiane, and most of the steady stream of callers leave with at least one of her creations.
Cassidy started weaving at 17, and after studying all aspects of weaving in Norway and Finland and receiving degrees in textile design and women’s anthropology at the Universities of Michigan and Helsinki, Cassidy worked on women’s textile development projects in several southern African countries and the Caribbean before coming to Laos.
Prior to setting up her company, The Lao Textile Company, she commissioned some market research in Paris and New York to determine if there would be a market for museum quality textiles and hand-woven art. The results were affirmative so Cassidy, and her husband, a former UN rural development specialist she had met in Africa, invested their life savings of US$200,000 (Baht 8,600,000) and became the first Americans to own a company in Laos after the country opened its doors to foreign investment in 1986. The company now employs about 50 weavers, dyers and bobbin-winders who carry out her designs on looms.
But in fact, everything had to done from scratch. Because many of the old techniques were disappearing, she had to identify weavers who still retained the knowledge and skills. She found some in Vientiane and others came from all over the country. She located rural families raising silkworms, encouraged mulberry production, persuaded villagers to spin the thread, trained the weavers for 18 months, designed, modified and built specialized looms, researched and recreated the designs, and persuaded the Laotian government to provide her in 1990 with one of the first business licenses given to a foreigner.
The company finally had some work to sell in 1992 and made its first reasonable profit in 1995. Since then, she has recovered her initial investment and has made profits. In 1995, Cassidy also held a major exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York and no longer felt like she was operating “in a cocoon”.
She has accomplished all of this is a very poor and isolated country run by a communist government that upon her arrival had no foreign investment regulations, nor stipulations for investment protection, no tourists, and no direct international telephone lines (idd). So you might understand how demanding it must have been to establish this enterprise. No small feat indeed.
The weaving techniques utilize tapestry, brocade and ikat; the complicated process uses selective dying before the pattern is woven. The silk is coloured by chemical dyes from Germany that are computer-matched to the colours of traditional dyes such as saffron and indigo. Cassidy dyed the silk herself for the first three years. She oversees every detail of the business.
Cassidy does not have to worry about losing her weavers. In a country where the average annual income is US$350 (Baht 15,050), Cassidy pays her professional “weavers of art” between US$80 (Baht 3,440) and US$220 (Baht 9,460) a month. They also receive an unprecedented (for Laos) three months paid maternity leave, a pension and health benefits. Even while being trained the weavers receive US$50 (Baht 2,150) monthly.
Cassidy contends that “as one of the first businesspeople in Laos I wanted to set a good example” and she certainly has established a laudable standard. Aout Chansouck, Carol’s principal, and only male weaver, was making US$20-30 (Baht 860-1,290) per month and his only possession was a bicycle before he connected with Cassidy. Now he has an air-conditioned house, a truck, and supports numerous family members. His life has improved significantly and he continues to thrive as an artist. Cassidy wants to see more of the staff involved in management so that all the knowledge is transferred.
In the beginning, Cassidy admits that “lots of psychological issues” were raised, particularly a resistance to the idea of a Westerner wanting to create contemporary interpretations of the traditional designs. However, she eventually persuaded her weavers that they could maintain the integrity of a 150-year-old tapestry design by using colour and motifs in different ways. Cassidy’s artistic journey has been enhanced just by “watching the staff realize that everything is possible and we can do anything”. Furthermore, Cassidy stresses that her weavers are “part of the dream because we shared an idea and watched it emerge and grow into a strong viable product”.
Cassidy has never had to do any advertising — she relies on word-of-mouth and it works when an exquisite, rare product is involved. She didn’t even have a sign outside until September 2002, when a beautifully painted wooden one was installed in front of her workshop. Most of her customers are foreign and 80 percent of the work is exported, with half of the work commissioned. American and European designers order everything from upholstery, curtains, and wall hangings to tablecloths. With continual increases in foreign orders and demands, Cassidy often feels as if she is “a buffer between ‘high end’ New York and rural Laos”. Lao Textiles just designed a spring/summer collection for Barney’s (New York).
An order for curtains will take up two looms for nine months as the weavers can only finish a few centimetres a day on a complex pattern with four-colour inlays. The workshop produces no more than 30 to 50 pieces a month. It can take weeks to weave a scarf or shawl, and months to weave some of the complex wall hangings.
Some of Cassidy’s pieces can actually be found in the collections of international museums and she still manages to have at least one major exhibit of her wall hangings every year. She has exhibited in places like New York, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Bangkok. Cassidy believes that “each exhibit gives me the chance to step back and look at the elements which later enable me to push on to the next level.” She’s working on a major exhibition scheduled to open at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in San Francisco in 2004. Called “Interpreting Tradition, Woven Silks of Laos”, the exhibit will travel around the USA for several years. Several international venues are also considering hosting it.
Cassidy has also received some awards. In January 2001, she was the first recipient of the Preservation of Craft Award presented by Aid to Artisans, a US-based non-profit group working globally to promote traditional artisans. In 2002, Lao Textiles received a Certificate of Excellency from UNESCO for its quality, workmanship, colour and overall design.
Over the past three years, Cassidy has been active advising numerous other weavers in the region on how to help revive and renew their traditions. In 2001, she worked in Assam, India with the Naga and other ethnic weavers, and in Hanoi for UNESCO with South and Southeast Asia weavers. In 2002, the team at Lao Textiles conducted training in Laos for the Cham weavers of Vietnam.
Since 1999, she’s been advising a group of disabled weavers in Cambodia who recently launched a new label of hand-woven silks (using her designs and colours). Cassidy markets these mostly overseas, but has some stock in her Vientiane showroom. In April 2003, she was invited to Bhutan to look at future potential there. As she says, “Much to do, many places to go and much work to be done. Preserving weaving traditions is a full-time job!”
Cassidy is often compared to Jim Thompson, the American who built a silk empire in Thailand. Cassidy takes issue with this association because she is herself an artist and a weaver who has always focused on collector’s pieces not on mass production. She is not a preservationist, as all of her work bears her own modern stamp and, “the elements are traditional, but the complete design is my own creation.”
Cassidy’s work also combines one-of-a-kind art with entrepreneurship – a rare combination. It will be interesting to see how this blend evolves over the next few years. The company could expand to meet the demand – today orders sometimes must be turned down – but, as an artist, Cassidy strives to maintain the quality and integrity of the creations by continuing to limit the output to its current level.
Most of all, Carol Cassidy has contributed to a renewed appreciation for Laotian textiles by the people themselves. This truly is one of her greatest achievements. Many Laotians are now creating high-quality work as well. It is hoped that the revitalization of this intricate cultural art form will thrive long into the future.
Lao Textiles, Ban Mixai, PO Box 5088, Vientiane, Laos.
Tel: (+856) 21-212123; fax (+856) 21-216205, Ccassidy@laotextiles.com
You can find the Vientiane showroom by asking directions at any of the hotels, restaurants, or just about anywhere in town.
Prices vary widely depending on the techniques and designs. Scarves start at US$45 (B1,945), wall hangings start at US$150 (B6,450).