One woman, through her Greatness of Spirit, has restored the art of silk weaving in her country, Laos, has established a thriving social enterprise for the women in her country and has empowered her society to create colorful tapestries of hope for themselves. To say that 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Kommaly Chanthavong has woven for herself an amazing story is an understatement.
Silk is usually associated with wealth and status, its sheen and luxurious feel fit for pomp and circumstance. It would thus be an anachronism in a state of destruction and dearth. In postwar Laos, however, it was this natural protein fiber woven into fabric that became a lifeline to thousands of displaced families, thanks to an enterprising woman who refused to remain a victim and refugee of war.
Picking up the pieces and carrying on with life, Kommaly Chanthavong revived the art of silk weaving, an ancient tradition handed down by generations of mothers to their daughters, but now nearly forsaken. Her initiative opened livelihood opportunities for poor women, restoring their dignity and rescuing their families from destitution and despondence.
In 1976, she started a silk-making cottage industry with 10 other women weavers. They would sell their textiles in the morning market and in government shops. Encouraged by the government’s support for cooperatives, she organized the group as the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative in 1980. It spawned other enterprises, mostly in support of silk production – sericulture, mulberry farming (silkworms eat only mulberry leaves), dye-making, even cattle-raising.
Now vastly evolved, the organization also provides tools and training in skills like fabric dyeing and the use of looms; cultivates the artistry of hill tribe women; and opens markets for products locally and abroad.
Similarly, the product line has diversified, from silk shawls and scarves to silk protein soap and face cloths to mulberry teas.
Now operating as Mulberries and Phontong-Camacrafts Cooperative, Kommaly’s social enterprise involves a network of 3,000 farmers, weavers, and artisans from 200 families in 35 villages. It is the only self-sustaining handicraft cooperative in Laos today.
And all Kommaly wanted was “to help the villagers” in the aftermath of war.
Her family was no different from those villagers, having lost their farm and their patriarch during the French Indochina War when Kommaly was barely in her teens. Amid the bombings, she, her mother and two sisters fled their village and sought refuge in the jungle.
Unable to find means of subsistence, Kommaly trekked for days till she reached the capital, Vientiane, taking with her some heirloom silk items and her passport to a better life: the silk-weaving skill she learned from her mother when she was five years old.
In Vientiane, she stayed with an uncle, a soldier, whom she chanced upon halfway through her journey. While studying, she wove silk and sold the fabric to be able to send money to her mother.
“I learned the traditional techniques of Lao weaving and the use of natural dyes practiced in my hometown [Muang Pern] in a northern mountainous province in Laos. The town is known for its complex supplementary weaving and its wooden straddled handlooms,” she once told a tapestry symposium at an Australian university.
Supplementary weaving is a technique in which additional threads are woven into the textile to form decorative patterns.
“The patterns and motifs are woven on wooden floors in humble surroundings. They signify who we are, our dreams, our hopes and the natural world around us,” Kommaly said.
In Vientiane, she met her husband, Noulieme Chanthavong, who is also her business partner (she is director of the cooperative, he is advisor and manager of finances). The young couple settled in Phon Tong village on the outskirts of the city, where she saw many displaced families, also from the northern region.
From among them came the 10 women of her weaving circle, which easily blossomed into a sisterhood. Every day the women came to her home to weave, share a meal and talk about their lives. Being productive lifted their spirits, their sales was a bonus.
Hearing about their success, the government commissioned them to weave ribbons for the uniforms of military and police officers and men. The new business emboldened the women to spread out to other villages around Vientiane and expand their weaving network.
A year after Phontong Handicraft Cooperative was formed, the government sent Kommaly to Vietnam to attend a management training session and later to Moscow for a marketing course.
In 1990 the cooperative partnered with Camacrafts, a non-profit group that markets Lao handicraft to provide income for village women. The joint venture enabled Kommaly’s cooperative to assist Hmong people (an ethnic group in the northern mountain region) in redesigning their traditional embroidery, applique, and batik crafts, and marketing their handicrafts.
At about the same time, the cooperative began working with Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade organization, with stores in the US and Canada.
With production and markets ensured, Kommaly now focused on supply of raw materials. She and her husband conducted research and feasibility studies in Thailand and observed silk farming methods in Japan. Then they established the Lao Sericulture Company, also called Mulberries.
In 1993 the government granted the couple 40 hectares of land in Xieng Khuong province to start a model farm in sericulture. The project sought to rebuild the economy in the countryside, through traditional silkworm-raising and silk fiber production practices.
The land was barren and — like other lands near the Ho Chi Minh Trail running from North to South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia – it was laden with unexploded ordnance. It took two years to clear the land of bombs with the help of bomb experts. Only then could the planting of mulberry trees begin.
The mulberries organic silk farm has trained a thousand farmers from 14 provinces in silkworm farming and provides jobs for some 3,000 individuals.
Kommaly explained the interdependent activities at the farm when she addressed the symposium in Australia.
“Farmers raise cattle and use the manure to fertilize the plants. Cuttings from the mulberry trees are transplanted in the fields and watered twice daily for three to six months. The silk worms are fed three times a day and kept in sanitary conditions in the rearing house for 28 to 30 days of the silkworm cycle, until the time when they begin to spin their cocoons,” she said.
“Plants are used for dyeing, and other plants attract insects. The nests and by-products of the insects are gathered and used to create dyes…Nothing is wasted in the production of organic silk fibers,” she added.
According to her, Lao silk worms produce a finer, more delicate fiber than Thai or Chinese silk worms. However, she has developed a hybrid worm that produces thicker, stronger fiber.
“I have also developed a special piece of equipment to combine reeling and spinning the silk to be done in one process rather than two separate steps,” she said. Reeling is the process of separating the raw silk fiber from the cocoon.
Amid the success of her social enterprise, Kommaly remained first and foremost a mother, preserving the tradition of passing on the weaving know-how to her children. All three are now part of Mulberries, with one daughter helping in the marketing of products in Australia, another in the US. Boby Vosinthavong is general manager of Phontong/Camacrafts Cooperative and Lao Sericulture Company, and manager of Lao Silk & Craft, Melbourne. Sompasong Loc Chanthavong is Mulberries marketing manager, while Souphaphone Chanthavong is a designer.
Souphaphone once said that when her mother was a young girl, the villagers called her lazy because she wanted to read and write instead of doing housework, which included weaving.
Kommaly did both. She earned a diploma in nursing at the Ecole des Infirmiers et Infirmieres, Laos. However, six months into her training at the Sriracha Hospital in Thailand, she quit to concentrate on helping her family — later her countrymen – survive. More than the body, it was the nation’s soul she sought to heal.