Lao handicrafts; from household basics to international markets

|     Keoxomphou Sakdavong     |

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) – President of the Lao Handicraft Association Hansana Sisane pointed out that handmade products have been continually improving and gradually getting better known in international markets.

Laos is a small country but rich in culture, traditions and lifestyle with 49 ethnic groups, each having its own unique motifs, and their traditional knowledge in handicraft production is passed down from one generation to the next.

“The most outstanding feature of this local wisdom is weaving. Every Lao woman knows how to weave and is familiar with the whole process of textile production, whether in silk or cotton or for their own use. Traditional weaving is part of their lifestyle and every part of the country has unique designs from each ethnic group,” Hansana said.

When Laos began opening up and in the 1990s international visitors started arriving, handicraft producers started switching focus from items for household, daily and religious use to commercial souvenirs for tourists.

This was the beginning of the Lao handicraft industry.

Hansana Sisane shows the Naga pattern woven into silk fabric. – VIENTIANE TIMES/ANN

In 1998 the Lao Handicraft Association was established. “At first there were only six handicraft organisations but now there are over 1,000 with about 50,000 to 60,000 people related to it,” Hansana explained.

The association has initiated numerous activities to help improve the quality of local handicrafts. Producers have learned about market requirements such as standard sizes and preference for natural fibre.

Artisans are also getting assistance from overseas experts such as the Japanese to help them improve their products to meet domestic and export market needs.

The sector is also promoting outstanding product contests and fashion shows to help encourage and promote traditional Lao handicrafts and textiles.

Producers have also been actively participating in overseas events to promote their wares and now Lao handicraft products are better known among international consumers.

“Lao handicrafts have now been developed so there is more variety, better quality, and more sophisticated designs,” Hansana said.

“Our products have more variety than in the past. Big buyers used to come with their designs or producers followed instructions accordingly but now handicraft makers have their own designs to sell so they can preserve their own unique style.”

Local artisans design their products according to traditions in their village and adapt products from their everyday life combined with knowledge of the requirements of international markets. This lets them produce unique, practical and attractively designed products.

“This year, we are working on getting the Naga textile pattern officially recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). If we achieve this, it will be another step in elevating Lao textiles on the international stage,” Hansana said.

Every year, handicraft exports are increasing, mainly to Japan, Europe and the United States as well as within the region. “I might not be able to say how much in volume but every year it is increasing,” he added.

Exported handicrafts include textiles, wood and silver products and other items.

Hansana noted that handicraft preservation is now growing hand in hand with economic development, with many producers setting up learning centres where ordinary folk can learn traditional skills and pass them on to the next generation. Some producers have also written books about handicraft techniques to preserve traditional crafts.

“We have also proposed that the government initiate an outstanding handicraft producer award so that talented artisans can be honoured and their knowledge passed on to the next generation.”

Hansana said Lao handicrafts also combine well with the tourism industry as all visitors want souvenirs. With support from the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), producers have learned about the standards, design, packaging and market needs for handicraft products.

“Currently, we also have another project focussing on semi-finished products for decoration as this market is booming, especially in hotels, restaurants and other venues.”

This year the 17th Lao Handicraft Festival is held at Lao-ITECC in Vientiane and ends today. There are over 400 booths, with over 200 dedicated to handicrafts from every province in the country. There are also cultural exhibitions, product contests, workshops and handicraft demonstrations at the event.

The festival provides a meeting place for buyers and producers and allows artisans to share information so they can improve their methods and build business networks.