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The Legend of Sam Neua

The Legend of Sam Neua!

We couldn’t think of a better double entendre than “The Legend of Sam Neua” to talk about Mrs. Phan Phoumaneevong, known as Mae Thao Linthong. The woman is a legend and she weaves… legends and stories using her unique skills. And when we say unique here, we mean it in a literal way, she’s the only one in Laos weaving these designs. Let’s learn more about this legend!

Located in a remote area in the northeast of Laos, not well-known to tourists, Sam Neua (also spelled Xam Neua) is the capital of Houaphan Province. It is a place with a rich history and culture. Sam Neua was the headquarters of the Pathet Lao, the communist movement that fought in the Laotian Civil War.

Sam Neua is a good base for exploring the surrounding area, full of historical and cultural attractions.

During the war, the town was heavily bombed by the United States Air Force (Check out the work of MAG Laos to clear community land from unexploded bombs). However, the Pathet Lao held onto Sam Neua and eventually won the war in 1975. Today, Sam Neua is a peaceful town. It is a good base for exploring the surrounding area, which is home to a number of historical and cultural attractions.

Fascinated by these historical and cultural attractions and the stories and legends that surround them, Mrs. Phan Phoumaneevong, known as Mae Thao Linthong, has been sharing them for 70 years now. Not through words – spoken or written – but through textiles!

Living in Ban That Meuang, in the Sam Neua District, the 87-year-old woman learned how to weave after she got married at 17 years old. The weaving tradition of Sam Neua is an important part of the local culture. It is a tradition that is passed down from mothers to daughters. The weavers of Sam Neua are proud of their tradition and are committed to preserving it for future generations.

The Tai Daeng people, who are the main ethnic group in Sam Neua, are particularly skilled weavers.

Houaphan is where Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weavers Project started back in 2002. Learn more about its beginnings here. The weavers of Sam Neua are known for their beautiful and intricate textiles. The Tai Daeng people, who are the main ethnic group in Sam Neua, are particularly skilled weavers. They use a variety of natural fibers to create textiles that are both functional and decorative.

For her part, Mae Thao Linthong learned weaving from observing her neighbors. The first piece she wove was a sinh, the traditional Lao skirt, for her and her mother-in-law. As her skills improved, she started selling her pieces. She wanted her textiles to be different. So, after a while, she tried to create patterns herself.

That’s how she came up with an innovative way of weaving, a unique way of telling the story of Laos. She even won several awards from the Lao Handicraft Association for her unique creations!

Since the beginning, Mae Thao Linthong’s goal was to share the history, culture, landmarks, natural environment, and beauty of Laos on textiles that she could sell to tourists, all the while showcasing the skills of Lao weavers.

She can’t read or write but that doesn’t stop her.

No traditional motifs for Mae Thao Linthong! Sure, you’ll see some designs familiar to traditional Lao textiles like mountains and flowers but you’ll also see things you’ve never seen before on Lao textiles such as buildings, vehicles, the Lao flag, and even some writing. She can’t read or write but that doesn’t stop her. She asks her daughter to write what she wants to say and weaves it into her textiles.

Mae Thao Linthong uses exclusively the Discontinuous Supplementary Weft technique in her textiles. For this technique, two or more colored pattern threads are used to make the pattern. The weavers add the colored thread by hand as opposed to using a shuttle.

This technique is very time-consuming. Sometimes a weaver can only weave a few centimeters a day. The wider the cloth, the longer it takes. Even more so, when you weave the style of patterns Mae Thao Linthong does… Her favorite piece she ever wove is a map of Laos as it shows the whole country.

She gets her inspiration from books, pictures, and also from her travels. Her daughter, with whom we talked, told us that after Mae Thao Linthong visited Luang Prabang years ago, she created a piece depicting famous Luang Prabang landmarks; Wat Xiengthong, Phosy Mountain, Wat Visoun, and the Royal Place. She was also inspired by Vientiane where several of her children live and wove a piece featuring That Luang and Patuxai, among others.

Mae Thao Linthong has 9 children – five daughters and four sons. She taught all her daughters to weave but as they all work in government offices, they weave only in their free time, and mostly simple sinhs and scarves.

She regrets that none of them will be able to continue this work she started 70 years ago. She wished she could stop time and was strong enough to continue weaving and telling stories about Laos. But takes solace in the fact that her stories about Laos found a place in many homes of Laos lovers around the world…

Visiting Laos? Come check out the latest pieces from “The Legend of Sam Neua”, Mae Thao Linthong’s collection.

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