Lao Family Community Inc., 3536 Carlin Springs Rd., Suite 14, Baileys Crossroads. Visitors welcome; call 379-0196. Lao weaving will be demonstrated during the Asian-Pacific Heritage Week festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 9 in front of the Washington Monument; at the Northern Virginia Folk Festival from noon to 6 p.m. May 10 at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center, 3501 Second St. South; and at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 6.
Kim Kouangthi stares at a piece of fabric that has woven into it a picture of the That Luang, the royal monument in Vientiane, the capital of her native Laos. Occasionally, her fingers count the threads of the weaving before stopping to puzzle out the design.
Turning to a large loom, Kim slips a double strand of cotton thread between two strands of the "warp," throws her shuttle across and beats it in. Then her eyes go back to the woven picture of That Luang, the design she is trying to reproduce.
The copy on her loom is a first draft, but to the untrained eye it looks flawless. American weavers, accustomed to working out patterns on paper before committing them to the loom, are stunned by this woman's computer-like grasp of the complex.
But Kim Kouangthi has had years of experience; she was educated at her mother's knee to be a weaver.
For nearly 30 years, Kim worked with her family of weavers in the northern Lao Thai Dam tribe. Recently, Kim joined the tide of people leaving Laos and came to this country as a refugee. Although she left behind many of her material goods, she kept in her head the knowledge of an art that has been passed down through centuries.
In the last few months, those memories have served Kim well, as she has tried to help others in the Lao community here hold onto their cherished traditions while working to make a new life.
Through a 6-month-old organization called the Lao Family Community Inc., Kim is working to copy and preserve traditional weaving patterns and, in turn, teach these patterns to fellow refugees.
With a $50,000 grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Lao Family Community offers weaving instruction to as many as 10 Lao women for three months. The women also receive English instruction, orientation and field trips to help them toward self-sufficiency in their new home. The first group of 10 women has just completed the course, and a new group recently began classes.
Once a student completes the course, the Lao Family Community will build a loom in the home of any woman who wishes and will help her market her weavings through area craft fairs. So far, three home looms have been built.
"If they just sat at home," says project director Somchanh Vinaya, "they would go crazy. We want to give them mental health, to give them a purpose through the weaving."
The weaving course is a reawakening of an old skill to most participants. Lao women usually learn some weaving when they are young, and most families produce enough wrap skirts and men's sarongs to clothe their own members. Some, like Kim's family, develop a cottage industry in weaving to generate extra income.
"The whole family is involved in this," says Somchanh. "The children transfer the thread onto spindles, and the men build the looms. An older girl might work as an assistant to adjust the loom on an intricate design."
"We are trying to recreate that family feeling here at the center and help the women to support each other," adds Somchanh, who fled Laos in 1975 and has helped sponsor more than 100 of her countrymen. "Many fled to protect family and to start a new life for their family in this country. Many of the women here are elderly and all alone -- their husbands have been killed, their sons are lost."
A visitor to the classes, held in a large, loom-filled room in a Bailey's Crossroads office building, sees the constant support the women give each other in relearning and re-remembering an old art.
In one corner, Khanthalyma Sirichanh, an older woman in a traditional Lao skirt, sits before a loom that looks like the beginning of a gigantic macrame project. As she throws a purple shuttle through white threads, her elderly friend, Peu Seuasokseng, sits next to her, quietly watching.
Suddenly, with no visible prompting, Peu jumps up and adjusts one of 19 bamboo pattern sticks (maikua ) that act as heddles to coordinate the fabrics in the design. Then she turns a long, flat board (mailap) to raise the strings (warp) in the area where the design is being worked. Khanthalyma throws the shuttle a few more times, and Peu does her magic again.
The type of loom the two women are using is known as a Thai Dam loom, which Mattie Bell Gettinger, a weaving expert from Washington's Textile Museum, describes as a "computer. But it's more like an abacus than a calculator. The loom is similar to what we call a harness loom in this country, but by moving those pattern sticks up and down, the weavers keep track of the cloth's design. It's so exciting to have something like this in our own back yard."
Most of the designs in progress reflect this same mathematical quality -- perfect geometric shapes, angular elephants (symbols of Laos), cross-stitches and square dots and designs within designs within designs.
Using cotton instead of the traditional silk, ("because this is a colder climate and also it's cheaper," says Somchanh,) the designs are flat, intricate and tightly woven. Some include "supplementary" designs tied into the weft or included in only part of the pattern.
"Some people think the Lao embroider over their weaving -- it looks like cross-stitch," says Gettinger. "But it's usually part of the weaving."
The women learn these intricate patterns through Kim's simple explanations and store them in their practiced memories. Nothing is written down "because many of these women are illiterate," Somchanh explains. "But they can count and do math. After all, that's what weaving is -- a kind of math."