Weaving for life
Miles from nowhere, in remote Laos, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives forage, grow, and prepare natural cotton, hemp, jungle vine, and silk yarn for weaving at the Marcelline & San (M&S) “Fabric for Life” looms in Vientiane and Vang Vieng. These skilled women are part of the M&S initiatives commenced with the objective of preserving age-old traditions and developing a cottage industry in Laos’ unique handwoven fabric sector.
M&S is the handwoven fabric business of Lanjan Holdings Sole Company Limited, founded in 2016 by Sri Lankan-born Laos resident Jeetendra Marcelline. Jeetendra’s passion for weaving heritage began on his first visit to Laos in 2013. During extensive travels in the mountainous northern regions, he was mesmerized by the weaving skills in traditional villages.
The beauty, durability, and malleability of natural fibers set alight Jeetendra’s creativity and he was inspired to design fabric comprised of only natural yarn and natural dyes. Observing life and patterns in Mekong lands, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Egypt, Persia, Europe, and North America, particularly from the ancient world and modern romantic era, and from cricket, M&S created the collections Saeng, Whiter Shade of Pale, Palanquin, Mae Nam Kong, Vieng Chan, and Savan.
Women are at the heart of the weaving tradition. Since its inception, the team has traveled extensively to remote areas and learned of the constraints and challenges facing the weavers. Together with the villagers, the team commenced programs to ensure supply and build capacity. In doing so, M&S eliminated the technical, financial, and commercial risks that growers and weavers typically face, and household income was supplemented.
The M&S Outgrower programs in Luang Prabang and Houaphan support partners with up-front working capital and purchase of all yarn produced at a pre-agreed price. The M&S Home Weaver program was designed with the objective of providing weavers looms, yarn, and training to work at home, with the freedom to attend to their day-to-day responsibilities. To ensure quality, the process is supported by video calls and regular visits.
M&S incentivizes staff to grow professionally and personally. All of the team are provided with opportunities to develop their craft, learn foreign languages, and innovate. Regular study tours to heritage sites are aimed at learning about weaving heritage and improving design.
Facilities are developed after consultation. The site of the looms, Hor Tamhuk, was chosen considering travel distance, ensuring that journeys are less than thirty minutes from home to work.
Fabric is craft, symbolism, creed, tradition, persona, and identity. “Protecting nature, culture, and tradition are key drivers in our activities. Our weaves depict the tangible and intangible heritage of Laos, its intellectual property, and our common human heritage,” says Yom, Head Weaver at M&S. These underlying values are imbued in the team, with passion and pride prerequisites at every stage.
For every type of use, a suitable and affordable texture could be woven, which is part of the ethos. The modus operandi focuses on the empirical patterns with the correct mix of natural yarn and technique, allowing for innovation, adaptation, and scalability to meet bespoke customer needs.
Every texture and motif has been developed over many years with careful research. Tests at international laboratories are carried out at various times during the entire process to ensure that all yarn, tear strength, and shrinkage meet or exceed industry standards.
A seamless value chain design, planting, procuring, preparing, spinning, weaving, and finishing is based on prudent organization at every step, coupled with in-parallel guidance and supervision. Yom, the Head Weaver, supported by Jeetendra, is involved at every stage. Experienced eyes, binary minds, and dexterous hands produce rolls of fabric that meet the desired quality, durability, and style.
M&S’ vision is couched firmly in the precept that in order to survive and grow, creating a cottage industry, with efficient supply and economies of scale, is vital. Securing raw materials on a regular basis together with in-time production is critical for building a competitive business, meeting timelines, and riding the cycles of international markets.
Demography and lifestyle changes threaten the weaving heritage. As Laos rapidly transforms from land-locked to land-linked, the sector faces changes caused by increased trade, including cheaper synthetic yarns and textiles, rising freight costs, wage inflation, and competition from better-organized economies. As the young seek more lucrative job opportunities in Laos and the region, the baton is not being passed to the next generation.
Lessons “learned by doing” are many. Jeetendra shares “There is much to do for weaving to survive and grow. The overriding aim should be to grow Laos’ weaving sector by encouraging long-term investment and support for all stakeholders in the fledgling years. Fiscal incentives, such as access to finance for training and working capital, are some policy measures that would help enormously. Registering trademarks and securing geographical intellectual property certification would enhance the Made in Laos brand, protect natural competitive advantages, and garner higher value for handwoven fabric. Ethical and accurate labeling would build trust in domestic and international markets and showcase authenticity. Exemption from certain taxes and duties would help relieve some of the budgetary constraints and free up working capital for all weaving businesses, and in turn, allow them to support weavers and growers at a grassroots level.”
A Lao proverb notes, “Before you walk, you must crawl.” M&S has crawled through many challenges since its inception. Today, against the backdrop of the magical sound of looms at Hor Tamhuk and in the villages, with the collective experience of its staff and partners, including over 30 women, M&S is positioned for expansion, supporting the livelihoods of all stakeholders, and championing the incomparable weaving heritage of Laos.
For more information on Marcelline & San products, visit lanjanholdings.com
Text by Jeetendra Marcelline
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Phoonsab Thevongsa & Souksamlan Laladeth