On a silken road

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 1995, 12:00am

ASKING Carol Cassidy how long it took to make the delicate silk scarf she was wearing was like asking a conundrum.

'What exactly do you mean?' asked the former United Nations expert who five years ago set up her own small textile business in Vientiane, capital of Laos.

'First we have to raise the silk, then we have to clean it and wind it and spin it and tie it and dye it, before we even start weaving it,' she said.

The actual weaving of a piece of that size and quality takes between three and four days, she conceded.

The work on show in Hong Kong is based on the silk cloths, shawls and tapestries that have been woven by the Lao people for centuries, but the colours and motifs have been adapted for a contemporary market. The pieces have already attracted the attention of museums throughout the world, including the Smithsonian in Washington.

The project first started when Cassidy went to Laos in 1989 as a weaving adviser to the United Nations.

She had already spent 10 years working as a handicrafts specialist for various international organisations.

The Laos Government wanted advice on how to develop their cotton textiles industry: she could only see that the silk industry needed urgent reviving if the skills were not to be lost completely.

'Laos has a complex weaving history; [but the United Nations] just wanted to help them make cotton shirts.' So she left the lucrative salary (last year her weaving business made a profit of US$20,000 - an amount she said she could have earned in just two months with the United Nations) and set up on her own.

Her workshop, in a restored French colonial building, employs 35 people, mostly women, who have all undergone two years of retraining in merging tapestry and weaving techniques and, somewhat controversially in Laos, English lessons.

Cassidy is also working with some 200 silk farmers from villages outside Vientiane, including families from the Hmong ethnic group who grew opium poppies before they changed their crops to the mulberries that silk worms need to survive.

The strong tradition of growing mulberries and nurturing silk worms had almost entirely died out after World War II.

Also exhibiting with Cassidy in Hong Kong is French architect Francois Greck, who is presenting two series of lithographs of Lao architecture. Since he arrived in Laos in 1989 with funding from the National Centre of Scientific Research to study the relationship between ritual and space for the hill tribes in northern Laos, Greck has become involved in projects to preserve and develop the traditional architecture of the country.

One series of lithographs, showing the traditional architecture of northern Laos, is based on a three-month study trip which involved trekking through about 600 kilometres of jungle trails, visiting people from 10 different ethnic groups. He spent time drawing and documenting the layout of the village and the houses.

One of the villages he visited had not seen a foreigner since 1942 when a European appeared out of the jungle, fleeing the occupying Japanese.

After Greck returned to Vientiane, and sweet-talked the bureaucrats who objected to his having travelled without a permit into returning his passport, he started working as an adviser for the government. He has helped design the new Parliament building in Vientiane, and is currently involved in restoring the ancient city of Luang Prabang. Lao Textiles and Lithographs at Gurr Johns, 1004 Dino Tower, Ruttonjee House, 11 Duddell Street until April 4. Carol Cassidy talks about Lao textiles tonight, Visual Arts Centre, 7A Kennedy Road, 6.30pm, $100. Francois Greck speaks at an Asia Society symposium on Saturday. Details: 2844 8787