By Paula DiPerna
Monday, May 27, 2013
The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., showcases Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles, a project as inspiring to the heart as it is glorious to the touch. On view through Oct. 13.
Credit: Carol Cassidy.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Silk is an essence of Asia, and it's especially beautiful when the making of silk can be linked to improving living standards and healing torn lives.
Each Cassidy piece is one-of-a-kind and represents both thousands of years of history and the chic fashion dynamics of today.
Cassidy's pioneering work also shows how business can drive social benefits. Her company has helped preserve threatened weaving traditions of Laos and created work and training for scores of women in Laos and Cambodia.
Working with landmine survivors from nearby Cambodia is Cassidy's latest effort to expand the benefits.
Cambodia was one of the most heavily mined battlefields in the world, especially from 1970 to 1998 when the country was a battleground between North Vietnamese, communists, insurgents and Cambodian and U.S. troops.
All sides laid mines, and it is estimated that between 4 and 6 million mines remain in the country, spread over a contaminated area of roughly 700 square miles, comparable to the area of the city of London, affecting nearly half the villages in the country.
Only 25 percent of the victims of killing and maiming by landmines were soldiers, with civilians bearing the brunt of the horror. Today it is estimated that some 40,000 Cambodians have lost limbs from landmines, including many children and women.
Over the past 15 years, Cassidy has also used some of her proceeds to support Weaves of Cambodia, a local nonprofit, and the weaving has been one of the few sources of employment in the remote province of Preah Vihear.
Silks from this effort should soon be available in a retail shop in central Siem Reap, to be located in the Angkor Children's Hospital.
An academic and trained weaver, Cassidy founded Lao Textiles in 1990 after many years working as a textile advisor in Africa.
In 1989, she had moved from Maputo, Mozambique, to Vientiane, Laos, with a U.N. weaving project and was soon swept away by the intricacies and rich motifs of the country's traditional weaving, each with a distinct and specific ethnic or tribal style.
After decades of war and economic deprivation, silk weaving was disappearing as a skill. Synthetics had begun to overwhelm the market, displacing hand-woven materials and threads.
Cassidy began collecting traditional pieces, buying them from local weavers, so that she could study the intricacies of the pieces and create a kind of reference library for posterity.
She soon decided to set up a weaving studio that would integrate ancient designs with contemporary vision. She got permission from the government in Laos to set up the first American business in Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Today, she employs roughly 50 people, mostly Laotian women who have learned to design and weave. Many are now earning professional incomes derived from the artisanal work of their mothers and grandmothers.
One employee who has been with Lao Textiles for 23 years has been able to build a house, put two children through school and support her extended family. Cassidy provides health insurance and maternity leave to her employees.
She also has expanded to include raising silk worms, silk spinning and dyeing and her network of suppliers and workers has grown to reach hundreds of families throughout Laos, each turning over income today from the textile techniques of the past.
According to Cassidy, inspiration in all forms derives from the environment and the colors, themes and motifs from the past, which are then worked into new contemporary styles. For example, a serpent-like creature known as the crested naga appears on an antique shaman's head cloth and is considered a protector of life.
Cassidy's contemporary design repeats elements of the original but depicts the naga rising up in a contemporary totem-like approach.
She has written that the horizontal bands and traditional techniques used in a single woven skirt of the Lue tribe has been the inspiration for many of her fabrics. Cassidy mixes all her colors from pigments and also experiments with natural dyes to create new hues and looks.
Paula DiPerna is a strategic international policy consultant and author. She has written numerous articles, documentary films and books, including the novel "The Discoveries of Mrs. Christopher Columbus: His Wife's Version" (Permanent Press).
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