The Sillk Road: Silkworms to Nagas

On show at Fibre2Fabric from August – December 2006.

Laos Annamite Mountain view

In the foothills of the Annamite Mountains, millions of silks worms are eating their way through tonnes of Mulberry leaves. This exhibitions follows their story, even after the silk worms are long gone their earthly efforts are spun, dyed and woven into a myriad of motifs, the most illustrious being the Naga.

About silk worms

Laos woman boiling the silk worms

In Lao there are 2 types of cocoon, white and yellow cocoons. Both white and yellow cocoons are found in the north, while only yellow cocoons are found in the south. Both are native to Laos. This type of silkworm eats only mulberry leaves and the scientific name isBombyx mori. There is a second type of silkworm in Laos called the Eri silkworm (Philosymia riccini). This moth originates in India and can eat a variety of plants such as castor leaves, cassava leaves, and papaya leaves, but not mulberry. The unique thing about this moth is that silk yarn can be spun from cocoons even after the adult moth has emerged. The types of silk that these worms produce are very different. The Eri silkworm produces a much coarser rougher silk, when reeled and spun the yarn is thick and inconsistent, very nice for wearing as a scarf.

How to look after silk worms

Try to find a cool climate and a relatively dark place; a good place for cultivating silkworms is under a stilted house in Northern Laos. Firstly take a sheet of A4 and cover it in silkworm eggs, you will need approximately 5,000. In Laos these eggs are kept in a wrapped cloth above the open fireplace in the kitchen for approx. 15 days. When the worms emerge from the place them in a bamboo basket with a supply of finely chopped mulberry leaves. A series of baskets must be arranged to accommodate the growing worms. A worm lives for around 28 days, it grows to be 10,000 times it size. Silk worms need to be fed three times a day. The growing worms will eventually eat around 80 kgs of Mulberry leaves. When the worms starts tossing its head around it is ready to pupate. In a natural environment the worm would look for a twig to attach itself too, a good idea is to make a frame from bamboo, aHang Log. Over the next four days the pupating worm will excrete over 300 metres of silk filament. One must take absolute care to not let what is now a moth emerge from the cocoon, if this happens the filament is damaged and cannot be spun into silk. Some moths should be allowed to complete their cycle, as eggs need to be collected for the next harvest. A moth lays 300- 400 eggs.

Did you know that?

  • After boiling the cocoon the dead silk worm can be fried and eaten
  • 1 kilo of raw Lao silk costs on average 180000 kips
  • A single filament of silk is stronger than the equivalent of steel
  • 10 Kg of cocoons produces 1 kg of silk
  • 200 gs can be hand reeled in one day
  • Two qualities of silk. Pueak mai and mai ngot

Cultural Beliefs

Some Lao people are scared of silk worms, these people should stay away from the silk worms. Tai Daeng believe that if someone shows or says something to the effect of being scared in front of the worms, the worms will all die.

Three dyed silk threads, red, black and white are worn around the neck to keep away bad spirits. These threads need to be taken to the village shamen where a ceremony is takes place to empower the yarns to keep away bad spirits that might want to enflict harm or illness.

A local myth tells the story of a family that reared silk worms. The mother gave a long silk yarn to her husband who made the yarn into a fishing net. He in turn gave the net to his daughter who went off to go fishing. After a short time the daughter noticed something in the net, it was a small Naga. The Naga pleaded with the girl to set him free, the daughter did so and was rewarded with an invitation to visit the Naga Kingdom under the water. After much hesitation she went with the Naga, his parents were so grateful to the girl for saving their son’s life. When she left the Naga World she was given some white and yellow ginger. On returning to her village she re-counted the story to her family and when she showed them the ginger, it had magically turned into silver and gold. The family was now rich.

Boiling the worms-reeling silk yarns

Laos woman boiling the silk worms

Around 30 cocoons are boiled in a pot, so that their filaments become loose. A stick is used to stir the water, as the cocoons move around their filaments attach to one another and when the stick is drawn out a silk yarn emerges. A curved bamboo frame known as akong sow sits on top of the pot. This equipment is hand-made it has a small hole for the silk yarn to pass through. The majority of silk in Laos is hand reeled. The reeled off silk is collected in bamboo baskets and stones are placed on top to stop any breeze from tangling the unspun thread. The outer part of the cocoon has thicker more uneven filaments whilst the inside is finer. Care is taken to reel the two differing qualities into separate baskets. The fine quality is know as sihn ngot(top quality) and the other pueak mai.

Did you know that?

After the cocoons have been boiled the worms make a tasty dish. They can be fried with garlic or simply dipped in salt and eaten with sticky rice.

What is Sericin?

The reeled silk is rigid as it is coated in sericin. Silk worms produce silk filament through two glands under the mouth, known as spinnerets. When the liquid meets the air it hardens and the silk filament is coated with a gummy substance called sericin. It is removed by boiling the silk in soapy water. Before the raw silk can be boiled it must be spun in to manageable quantities known as skeins. After being spun and boiled the silk is soft and ready to be dyed.

Did you know that?

Organza is woven raw silk yarn that hasn’t been de-gummed.

Natural Dyes

Row of Indigo dying pots

Natural dyes are still used in many parts of Laos. It is a labour intensive process that requires detailed knowledge, experience and a diverse range of resources. Some dyes have cultural beliefs that are still respected, whilst others are only available at certain times of year. For example Khang, an insect wax is only available before the rainy season and women cannot prepare the dye solution if they are pregnant or menstrating. Dyes can be divided into cold and hot dye solutions. To fix the colour there are a variety of mordants used, such as Alum (hinsom), Ash Water (nam dang) Iron (nam lek) and limestone (boun).

Cultural Beliefs

Indigo pots have white cotton tied around the neck of the pot. Indigo dye contains a male spirit that mustn’t leave the pot. If it does the dye will die. A knife is always left on the lid of the pot to safeguard it from unwanted spirit attention.

The process of preparing and dying with Khang, the wax of an insect, must be done alone. Many weavers will isolate themselves whilst dying with khang. Even in a formal setting such as training, the teacher will insist that weavers are alone when dying. Other rules include that one shouldn’t be pregnant or menstruating.

Weavers of Northern Laos

Introduction to Tai-Lao Peoples

This exhibition focuses on the weaving and pattern making of the Tai peoples. Tai peoples’ origin can be traced back to the Yunnan area of China, where they were known as Tai-Kham-Sui-Kadai. Due to expanding Chinese Dynasties they started migrating southwards around 8 A.D.

Tai means ‘people of’, so the word following usually states which area they are from. Nowadays one will often hear Lao people refer to themselves as Tai-Vieng for example meaning they are from Vientiane. In Huaphanh Province there are many communities of Tai Daeng and Tai Dam, meaning red and black respectively. Their origins can be traced to the Red and Black Rivers in Yunnan that flow southwards towards Viet nam . The weavers in these two groups are renowned for their intricate pattern making using the floor loom.

The Tai-Lao are generally shamanic people with a strong belief in the afterworld. Nowadays Buddhism is becoming more popular and links to animism or shamanism are looked upon as old-fashioned, thus Buddhist beliefs are increasingly used to interpret icons. Usually textiles depict stories of ancestors spirits traveling to the afterworld, stories of Nagas and their influences on life around them, Siho – the half lion half elephant figure and motifs inspired by nature and daily life. These motifs appear in various forms of the many different sub ethnic groups of the Tai-Lao and using a number of techniques.

What is a Naga?

A Naga patterned textile

A Naga is a mythological water serpent with unparalleled magic powers. They come from an underwater kingdom called Badan. They can assume the form of other beings such as animals and humans, Lao legends tell of love affairs between Nagas and humans. Generally they are seen as benevolent beings, that protect and save humans from illnesses, hunger and bad spirits. When they are angry Nagas use their powers to create floods, storms and other natural disasters, or inflict illness and even death.

The word Naga is from the Buddhist language Pali, in Lao a Naga is called a Nak. Nagas are a prominent feature in temple design, the spikes you see on temple roofs are in fact the horns of the Naga’s head. Usually at the entrance to a temple there are effigyies of a multi-headed Naga emerging from a Ngeuk’s mouth. A Ngeuk is a water dragon and is the same to animists as the Naga is to Buddhists. Nowadays, as more people lean towards Buddhism it is difficult to get clear definitions on the Ngeuk. Our research has lead us to villages in Huaphanh and Xieng Khouane Provinces, when speaking to weavers and village elders they say that a Ngueak and a Nak is essentially the same motif, the differences being the Nguek has a longer tail and a Naga has a shorter head with horns. Many interviews reported that Nagas are good whilst Ngeuks are bad. The Naga is important to the animists as it is believed to be an ancestor spirit, whilst Buddhists revere the Naga as he saved Buddha from the floods.

Cultural Belief

Boun Bang Faithe annual rocket festival marking the beginning of Buddhist Lent is also a fertility festival in which rockets are fired into the sky. The rockets represent Nagas leaving their underwater Kingdom in order to force the sky gods into giving adequate rains for the rice season.

Shamens are needed to communicate with the spirits in times of illness and for problem solving in the village. A number of different spirits can be called upon such as ancestors, animals or the spirits from the sky and forests. Shamens wear a variety of clothing depending on their ethnic group. Tai Daeng for example have to wear 9 or 7 layers depending on the gender of the animal that was slaughtered. Tai Dam shamens only wear women’s clothing. When the ceremonies takes place cloths with various motifs are hung around the altar. The Naga motif takes a prominent place as they are needed to keep the spirits in order.

The Legend of the Angry Naga in Moung Phouan.

There was a village in Xieng Khouan Province in which all the villagers died but one. A hunter caught a white deer and bought it back to the village. The chieftain divided the meat between all the families except one, a widower who the villagers had ostrisiced. A massive storm came, there was a mud slide and all the houses slipped into the river, except of course the widower’s who survived. It is believed that the deer was infact a Naga who had taken the form of the deer to come onto land. Nowadays certain unusual animals remain untouched in the forests due to the believe that it could be a Naga.

What’s the use of a textile?

Textiles were (and in some areas still are) used in all aspects of daily life from ceremonies to the household. Some of the uses are listed below. Textiles depict stories of ancestors spirits traveling to the afterworld, stories of Nagas and their influences on life around them, Siho – the half lion half elephant figure and motifs inspired by nature and daily life. These motifs appear in various forms of the many different sub ethnic groups of the Lao-Tai and using a number of techniques.

  • Pha Bieng Scarf for the upper body (used by Buddhists)
  • Pha Hom Blanket
  • Pha Sabai Healing cloth
  • Sihn Skirts
  • Pha Phok Long Funeral cloth
  • Pha Kaan Head cloth
  • Pha Phii Mon Shaman Cloth
  • Pha Mong Mosquito net decoration
  • Pha khan mon A love gift handkerchief
  • Pha Tung Prayer Flag

A girl would weave items as a dowry, she would give her groom’s family the items and then traditionally the woman would move to the man’s family house. A weaver is Muong Vien told us that she wove 40 floor cushions, 12 matress, 2 blankets, 2 long pillows, and a curtain to separate the newly weds space in the house. This took her 3 months in total. This doesn’t break any rules of excess some weavers would make skirts as well.

Girls would also weave small items and give them to boys they sought the attention of. The most common form of love gift was a small handkerchief, in some areas girls wove and made red bags. During the American War, girls wove small pieces and gave them to soldiers for good luck.

Setting up the Loom

Women setting up a pattern on the loom

The first stage of course is building a loom, usually the men of the village do this. They will also make the combs, the shuttles, the beater and other weaving and spinning equipment. The warp needs to be made and the pattern needs to be set in the heddle. Then weaving can begin.


The warp, the yarns stretched lengthwise on the loom to be crossed by the weft.

The weft, the yarn woven into the warp to create the cloth.

In order to make the warp the weavers need to calculate how many yarns the warp will contain. The comb determines this, each comb has a set number of teeth. The teeth of a comb are counted in measurements called lop. Each lop has 20 teeth. Each tooth of the comb contains 2 threads. So a comb of 10 lop needs 400 silk yarns for the warp. On average weavers make warps 50 metres long. So a weaver needs to make 400 yarns 50 metres long. This is done by spinning yarns onto large spools these are put on a frame called kong kun, that holds 10 spools. The weaver wraps the silk yarns around the supporting columns of their house. Once the warp has been made the yarns needs to be thread through the comb and tied to the loom. This process is called supe hup.

Cultural Belief

Weavers will leave a knife sitting on the warp yarns if they haven’t finished tieing (Supe hup) the yarns to the loom, otherwise a mischievous spirit will make a muddle of the yarns.

Making Motifs

Example of Discontinious Supplementary Weft or chok

This exhibitions focuses on the weaving technique called Discontinious Supplementary Weft or chok. Chok is a decorative technique in which a pattern is introduced using additional yarns on top of the plain weave. To the untrained eye it can look as though the pattern has been embroidered onto the cloth, however the woven pattern creates a perfect mirror image on the back of the cloth. As with all weaving techniques the overall motif is formed by weaving row upon row. Some motifs are made up of over a thousand different rows. It is well known that the most skilled weavers in this technique are from Huaphanh and Xieng Khouan Provinces, primarily the Tai Daeng and Tai Dam ethnic groups of these regions.

Cultural Belief

If the shuttle hits a man or boy whilst the weaver is working, it is said he won’t marry.

Research Information

The information in this exhibition is the result of numerous field trips to Huaphanh and Xieng Khouan Provinces. We would like to thank the weavers and villagers of Ban Dow, Xam Tai, Muang Vien, Ban Na Nyang, Nong Haet, Ban Na Kha, and from the OckPopTok workshop. A special thanks to The Lao Women’s Union and LEAPSS Project for contacts and information in Xam Tai District.

An extended thank you is made to the Jim Thompson Foundation for believing in our project.


  • Legends in the Weaving: multiple authors
  • Lao Textiles: Patricia Cheesman
  • Lao Textiles and Traditions: Mary Connors
  • Infinite Designs, The Art of Silk: Duangdeuane Bounyavong

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