Kelly Leonard: Two Months in Laos

The February guest speaker was Kelly Leonard.

I feel incredibly privileged to be the recipient of the first Freda Neale Grant awarded by the NSW Spinners and Weavers Guild to promote weaving. Growing up in Mudgee in the 1970’s I first became interested in learning to spin from the local Spinners and Weavers Guild. This interest in natural fibres and sustainable ways of art making has stayed with me, laying a foundation for my artwork today.

I am a hand weaver who uses my body to work with a floor loom to lift the shafts necessary to weave. Through this process I feel connected to the tradition of weaving. My early weaving training was with a second-generation Bauhaus weaver, Marcella Hempel, a German master weaver who wove prototypes for industry. Her emphasis on the importance of sound craftsmanship and the development of a signature style has underpinned my own approach to the art making process. With the process of weaving comes a lot of thinking time. I’m interested in how people engage with objects and materials through their senses.
The sustainability of communities that rely on production of hand weaving to maintain patterns and traditions is an issue that is very important to me. The Freda Neale Grant was used to undertake an art/weaving residency in Laos in 2007. There, I spent two months on a silk farm researching sericulture, silk reeling, natural dyeing and weaving. Eco-friendly processes and the value of craft practice to create niche markets are key issues informing my work.
My objective for future professional goals is to promote an interactive exchange of information and connectivity between artisans, educators, administrators and others affiliated with artisan enterprise development. I have both a Masters of Art and a Masters of Arts Management to support professional craft making and promotion. The locally made and the hand crafted needs to be supported, nurtured and valued. The value of the handmade, of material we can touch, becomes increasingly important as our reliance on digital technologies increases.
My grant application was to take a weaving residency at a silk farm run by Lao Sericulture near Phonsavan in Xieng Khuang Province in northern Laos during September and October 2007. The aim of the residency was to provide an opportunity for artists to expand their technical and artistic talents, exchange ideas, share knowledge and experiences. More information about the company can be viewed via the web at
During my stay on the silk farm, I learnt the whole process of silk production: how to grow mulberry trees, raise silkworms, reel the silk, weave silk yarn and natural dyeing. Photography, personal journal entries and the weaving of samples recorded information learnt. Overall, it was an immensely enlightening experience to visit a country where weaving is so intrinsically valued.
Unexpectedly, a favourite part of my residency was rearing the silkworms. For the duration of a silkworm cycle I gathered and hand chopped mulberry leaves three times a day to feed the silkworm babies that I reared. After watching the worms grow and shed their skin five times over thirty days, it was an exciting moment when they finally spun their silk cocoons. Next, I learnt traditional methods of hand reeling the silk from the cocoons and thread twisting to make the thread stronger for weaving.
The use of natural dyes to colour the silk thread is actively promoted on the silk farm as a way to maintain tradition and to advocate sustainable methods of production; no chemical alternatives are used. The dye materials are seasonal and often gathered by villagers and brought in to the farm to be processed ready for dyeing. Petals and seeds were dried, leaves soaked and fermented, resin dried and pulverised and stored. Dye materials used included lac (a tree resin formed by an insect), indigo, turmeric, marigold, mud and bark.
Laotian weaving techniques are different to the European techniques of weaving I had previously studied and the looms are different in construction to the ones I had used in Australia. In Laos, I saw the most incredibly sophisticated weavings being produced on looms seemingly held together with pieces of plastic string. Laotian weaving techniques learnt included complex supplementary weft methods of tapestry, brocade and weft ikat.
At the silk farm, the weaving environment was very different compared to my own working environment in Australia. Working with weavers who were paid by the piece for their weaving proved to be a challenge for me as I was used to my weaving being a leisurely and solitary pursuit. Most of the women learn to weave when they are eight years old from their mothers and grandmothers and consequently are incredibly skilled and fast at weaving. The women rely on weaving for the economic support of their family and local village. It was estimated that at least seventeen families benefit from all the processes involved in the production of just one scarf produced at the farm.
During my stay at the farm I developed knowledge of the importance of sustainable methods of natural silk production. Kommaly Chanthavong, Nobel Peace Prize 2005 Nominee, established the farm in 1995 with her husband, Nuliam. Their goal was to create income in a socially and environmentally responsible way for the Lao people. Partnerships have been established with over 200 village families who are given training at the farm in silkworm rearing, reeling, weaving and natural dyeing. They are taught traditional weaving techniques that are at risk of being lost, hence maintaining the integrity of Laotian culture.
In addition to my original proposal, I also travelled with a small group of American textile enthusiasts and weavers to villages near Xam Neua in Hua Phan province in the north of Laos to see the context for local woven textile production. I met a young Laotian weaver, Chan, who had received a weaving scholarship to study at the farm in Xieng Khuang. When Chan returned to her village she would pass on the skills learnt to other young women. Chan’s father was unable to work because of ill health and she supported her family through her weaving.
I also visited Luang Prabang where Lao Sericulture has a shop to gain understanding of the impact of tourism on the marketing of Laotian textiles and textile design. This added to my knowledge of the social, economic and environmental sustainability of the silk industry. I am an advocate of the power of grassroots organisations to organise socially and environmentally sustainable product design and markets and I was able to observe how Lao Sericulture achieved this. My aim is to apply what I have learnt to local models of sustainable craft production.
Through the residency, I developed skills to disseminate knowledge about the technical, social, aesthetic, symbolic aspects of weaving and dyeing. I developed specific skills in analysing Laotian woven fabric and methods of pattern making and this could be disseminated through teaching opportunities, community art projects and talks to textile groups and galleries. I developed specific skills in weaving silk as an extension of my current weaving practice. I am currently making a body of work to be shown at an exhibition called Fabricated at The Vanishing Point — Contemporary Art Gallery, 565 King Street, Newtown, Sydney NSW 2042 on April 24 to May 4, 2008.
In the future my focus is to develop networks between Australia and other international weaving cultures to promote the status of weavers and to protect craft integrity.
For more information about the silk farm contact:
Mulberries, Lao Sericulture
Phone: Vientiane +856 221 241 217
Phone: Luang Prabang +856 71 254 594
Lao Silk and Craft
Boby Vosinthavong
Representative, Lao Sericulture Company
Phone: 03 98732418

3 Responses to Kelly Leonard: Two Months in Laos

  1. Leah Oliver says:

    I have some silkworm moths laying eggs. I need to find a mulberry tree! Or grow one! In time for them to hatch. Im in Sydney. What to do?

  2. Prue says:

    When I was a child in Brisbane, we “bought” silkworm eggs every spring when the mulberry leaves came in. Whoever we bought them from managed to store the eggs from the time they were laid until the next leaf season: perhaps in the fridge. We had ferocious ants so couldn’t keep them alive.

  3. Prue says:

    The definitive web site for all things to do with silkworms is where Michael Cook talks about his worms.