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Falling in love with Lao culture

Vientiane Times interviews Maren Beck, an American woman living in the state of Oregon. Since first visiting the country in 2005, she has been fascinated by Laos' weaving tradition, especially the scarves and shawls (phaa biang, phaa sabai) and the long skirts (sinh) worn by women. She has set up a loom in her home studio and enjoys showing other women this intriguing aspect of the Lao lifestyle.

Maren weaves a long scarf at her home in Eugene, Oregon,
USA. --Photo Malaithong Bounyaxay

Q: Can you introduce yourself and explain what attracted you to Lao textiles?

A: My husband and I first visited Laos with our two young sons in 2005 as tourists, and we quickly fell in love with the people, land and pace of rural Laos. In 2007, in part because of our experiences in Laos, we formed a business, Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art, which sells hand-woven silk and other textiles to an American audience. We travel to Laos once or twice every year, staying several weeks on each visit; the naturally d yed, hand reeled, handwoven silk textiles we find in Laos are, we believe, the finest in the world.

Q: What makes you want to weave these textiles, even though you yourself are not Lao?

A: The textiles are stunning and intricate. We are particularly smitten with the textiles of Xamtai and Kuan districts in Huaphan province. Over our years of visits, we have made many friends in this region who have not only been important for our business, but have also taught us a great deal about how silk is raised, processed and woven, and the regional textile traditions. We are grateful for the Lao Tourism Office in Xamneua district for providing us with translators (some of whom are now good friends) and other help for all these years.

Q: What is it about Laos that particularly interests you compared to other countries?

A: Our years of visiting and study have resulted in a new book written by my husband, Joshua Hirschstein, and me: Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos (Thrums Books, 2017). Our book is a celebration of the weavers, the traditions, and the silk textiles themselves. It not only tells our story of becoming good friends of the weavers in Xamtai, but it also teaches about how the traditional textiles are made, and what they mean to the Lao peop le who make them. The book shares many beautiful pictures of the people, the land, and the textile art taken by Joe Coca, a renowned American photographer.

Our home and business is in Eugene, in the state of Oregon in the United States. At our studio in Eugene we have a full-sized Lao loom to demonstrate to our customers how the complex textiles are woven. Although neither my husband nor I are really weavers, we do like to teach people about how the intricate textiles are made, and the traditional meanings of Lao textile designs and motifs.

We can't explain why we have fallen in love with Lao textiles and the Lao “way of life”. Some of the weavers in Xamtai have joked that we must be half Lao, which would sure be a surprise to our American parents! We do know, however, that the unique beauty of the textiles and inherited profundity of the traditions speak to our hearts.

Q: Do you feel that Lao customs are a strong draw in attracting visitors from all corners of the world?

A: The friendliness of the Lao people and their inherited traditions, especially regarding the beauty, precision, and vitality of the natural, hand-woven textiles, has drawn us to deeply appreciate the unique qualities of Laos, and our customers and readers in the United States are often surprised to discover such a vibrant traditi on exists at all, let alone in such a beautiful setting. As the world learns more about these unique qualities, certainly Laos can anticipate a growing audience of visitors.

By Phon Thikeo
(Latest Update September 5 , 2017 )

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