Kommaly Chanthavong: Mulberries: Lao Sericulture

The guest speaker at the April meeting was Kommaly Chanthavong. Her daughter Bobby acted as her interpreter.

Kommaly learned the traditional techniques of Lao weaving and the use of natural dyes in her home town in the north of Laos which is known for its weft ikat, warp ikat, complex continuous supplementary weft, tapestry weaving, plain weaving and discontinuous supplementary weft. The Vietnam war forced her to move from her home in 1960 and she later trained in Thailand as a nurse. But in 1976 she started a weaving group in her home in Vientiane with 10 desperately poor women who had been displaced by the war. Thereafter she became director of a handicrafts cooperative and in 1993 established a model farm in silk production and cattle raising on 40 hectares of land in her mountainous northern province.

In 2005 Kommaly was nominated among 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize for artistic excellence and her contribution in strengthening the social and economic position of Lao women and their families. Many of the techniques she uses are of her own invention. She demonstrated her way of reeling silk from cocoons.
Kommaly set up a pot containing 60 silk cocoons on a small stove. After boiling them she separated one strand from each using a tool similar to a small straw broom. These were then taken over some reels and wound by hand onto a bobbin.
The silk cocoon has three layers, each layer has a different texture. The outer layer has a rough texture and is used for warp. Inner layers are used for weft.
Kommaly started her silk farm with the idea of using everything with no waste. Mulberry leaves can be used for making tea, mulberry fruit can be used as a dye, the cooked worms are eaten as a source of protein or fed to chickens and fish, the silk fibre is used to make goods for sale. Funds from these products go back into buying cattle for the farm and other supplies for the villages. 3000 people from 200 villages benefit.
The silk worm cycle takes 45 days and the Lao silk comes in two colours. To produce knitting yarn 10 groups of 60 threads are twisted together. They harvest silk a minimum of six times per year. Some villagers raise the worms, some dye and others weave. Each part of the process is performed by different people. Traditional Lao silk worms are more disease resistant than the imported hybrids. Hybrid crops need to be raised in a more controlled environment.

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