A Work in Progress

ACTA - Posted on 31 October 1999

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Learning Lao Weaving

In early October 1999, ACTA central region coordinator, Amy Kitchener visited Lienkham and her oldest daughter, Pheng, at home in Fresno where they have begun their weaving project. The large floor loom, made by Lienkham’s husband Phouvanh, is set up outside on the back terrace where the natural light makes seeing the tiny threads easier.

The Emerging Project

Lienkham and PhengAs a first project Pheng weaves an “easy” floral pattern as the “foot” (tin sin) or skirt border. At the time of these photos she has 8 to 10 days invested in her cloth. Her mother, Lienkham, takes only three days to complete a skirt foot in this pattern. Pheng says, “For me it would take the whole month maybe.”

The two work together on weekends when Lienkham returns from her job making guitar strings in a San Luis Obispo factory. Pheng works in Fresno and can continue weaving during the week while her mom is away, “but I’m afraid if I make a mistake I don’t know how to go back. I need supervision,” she says, laughing.

From time to time, Lienkham points out the mistakes when Pheng skips a thread. Daughter marvels at Mother’s keen eyesight coupled with her decades of experience of internalizing the complicated weaving patterns. “Sometimes she’s over there cooking and I’ll ask her if I’ve got it right. And she’ll say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s right.” I say, “You’re not even watching me!”. She looks up and says, “Oh, it’s right.”

Lienkham weavingAs she continues working, she explains, “My Dad hasn’t seen me doing this yet. When he sees he’ll be amazed because I had started learning back home and he won’t think I remember how to do it.” Imagine the pride of a father whose daughter masters one of the most valued skills for Lao women and simultaneously holds down a full time professional job as she begins raising a family.

Pheng feels that straight weaving is relatively easy compared to the highly complex process involved in setting the design up in the stringing of the loom and placement of the pattern sticks.

Lienkham watches Pheng WeavingWhen Lienkham was 12, she remembers how her aunt set the first design up for her to weave. Some of the sticks for the patterns fell out after she had worked and worked on it and, “I would count how many flowers up and down and look and think, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ I just cried it was so hard.”

After Pheng finishes this weaving piece, she will learn another relatively simple design and learn to set the pattern herself by counting every thread and placing the pattern sticks, then weave it, so she will be able to work from start to finish on her own. She’s thinking about making a pa bieng (women’s shoulder cloth) or even a tablecloth.

As Lienkham’s friends drop by and see her loom set up, many get excited as they remember the way they used to weave back in Laos. A couple of them have asked to come weave on the loom.

Pheng WeavingSome of Pheng’s friends are amazed she has decided to learn. “They say, ‘Oh, man—You come to the United States and you’re still doing that?’ They’re making fun of me. ‘Yeah,’ they say, ‘You work so hard, you work all five days already and then you start working with that?’ I think most of them really would like to learn, but they don’t have the time. That’s the main thing.”

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