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Motifs: Lao textiles or the stories they tell...

Motifs: Lao textiles or the stories they tell…

Motifs in Lao textile are deeply symbolic. In fact, many Lao people and anthropologists can determine the ethnic group and marital status of the weaver, the region and function of a piece by simply looking at the textile.

Since “the traditional craft of Naga motif weaving in Lao communities” is being considered for Intangible Cultural Heritage designation at the upcoming UNESCO ICH conference, we thought it would be interesting to talk about some motifs that feature prominently in Lao textiles.

Lao textiles are full of symbols and motifs. They represent the stories of Lao people. Instead of writing it down, they weave these stories into textiles. Motifs link the human and the spirit world. They can also tell you if a person is married, his/her ethnic group, and where he/she is from.

Some motifs are mythical creatures of legends and folktales such as siho (half lion and half elephant). Others are inspired by the natural environment: trees, flowers, clouds, water, lightning, birds and animals.

Animals and mythical creatures

Religious beliefs play an integral role in textile design; often depicted are ancestor spirits, the afterworld, temples and stupas. Animal and mythical creature motifs are frequently used in the arts in Laos.

The Naga is a mythological water serpent with unparalleled magic powers…

This is partly because animals are thought to have special powers. Many are animals from the zodiac. Another reason is because of the important role animals played in the epics that accompanied the introduction of Buddhism into Laos. The Naga motif is perhaps the most frequently used. At Ock Pop Tok, the Naga is featured in several of our wall hangings and sinhs, the traditional Lao skirt. Do you know what the Naga looks like?

If you’ve ever walked around Luang Prabang, exploring temples, contemplating the local architecture and traditional clothing, you have probably seen many serpent or snake-like motifs. This is the Naga, and the Naga is everywhere. A Naga is a mythological water serpent with unparalleled magic powers.

All about the Naga

Nagas can assume the form of other beings such as animals and humans. A Lao legend tells of a love affair between the Prince Naga and a beautiful weaver. Generally Nagas are seen as benevolent beings that protect and save humans from illness, hunger and bad spirits. When they are angry, Nagas use their powers to create floods, storms and other natural disasters, or inflict illness and even death.

Women will weave Naga motifs on their sinh, or traditional skirt, for protection, strength and guidance. Young brides-to-be or newly-weds wear sinhs with Naga images as a symbol of fertility. Watch this video and follow us around Luang Prabang to learn more about the Naga!

Another powerful and popular motif is the hong (a mythical bird). Hongs are considered as creatures of great beauty, and are sometimes used as metaphors for female beauty among upper class women.

The Siho, part elephant, part lion

One famous character in Lao textiles is the siho, which means lion elephant. The siho lives in the forest. Part lion, it is strong and fierce. Whereas its elephant part shows that it is careful, patient and kind. The elephant also represents wealth, respect, strength and prosperity, and is thought to have rain-bearing powers.

You will see siho woven mostly into wedding blankets. Watch our video “Wild Fabrics” and follow us into the Lao jungle at Mandalao Elephant Conservation to learn more about the siho and… elephants.

In some stories, the ancestors are interpreted as frog men or gibbon men. The frog represents rain and reproduction. The crab symbolises resourcefulness and the promise of a bountiful harvest, while birds are seen as a sign of freedom. Some folk tales narrate the stories of birds keeping weavers company then transforming into handsome young men to marry the girls.

Inspired by nature

In addition to motifs which are products of the weavers’ imagination drawn from folk tales, we also see motifs replicating plants. They include flowers, vines, young stems, petals and seeds, and the surrounding natural environment.

Some motifs are more popular with specific ethnic groups…

This is how we also see in Lao textiles; stars in the sky, the sun and its rays, mountain chains, river currents or cloud patterns. For instance, the zigzag pattern you can see on our rugs or cushion covers was inspired by the river flow and mountains. This is a popular pattern among the Tai Lue ethnic group who would traditionally live nearby rivers and mountains for their bountifulness. 

Another traditional motif you can see in our Ko Keyo rug for example, is the hook. This motif is inspired by rice harvesting, more specifically the use of traditional rice harvesting tools like Koh or koh keiw, hence our Ko Keyo rug. The daily life of many Tai Lue families indeed revolves around rice farming.

Through our textiles, we keep the stories and traditions of Lao culture alive. Rice, particularly khao niao, is part and parcel of Lao culture and holds a special place in our textiles. Watch this video and follow us in the rice paddies of Luang Prabang to understand the important role rice plays in Lao culture.

The different textiles

Did you know that traditionally the purpose and use of textiles within a community directly influence a woman’s role in a village setting? Textiles were a gateway for a woman to show that she could be a good wife. Ahead of her marriage, she would carefully prepare a number of items such as a decorated mattress, pillows, bedsheets, mosquito nets and curtains for her new home.

Stay tuned for another blog dedicated to the different uses of textiles…

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