A Pattern in the Threads

Honoring textile traditions in Southeast Asia

[Editor’s Note: Eve Blossom’s article first appeared on HAND/EYE this past June. This month, starting on October 18th, at Eileen Fisher in Wellesley, MA,  Eve will be celebrating the launch of her new book, Material Change. She will be offering a presentation and discussion about Lulan Artisans on October 24th at ABC Carpet and Home located at 888 Broadway at E19th Street, starting at 6:30 pm. On October 26th, she will be presenting at Autodesk Gallery San Francisco at One Market Street. For NYC reservations, please contact margaret@lulan.com, RSVP by October 20th. For San Francisco, please email eventSF@lulan.com]

It was 1992, in a marketplace in Hanoi, North Vietnam. Chickens wandered about, clucking madly. Vendors sold everything from flowers and vegetables to toys and jewelry. Fish swirled in barrels, freshly pulled from the nearby Mekong River. Myriad chockablock stalls displayed herbs and spices. The aromas of mint, cilantro, turmeric, pepper, and ginger mixed headily in the air.

The waves of tourists who would later visit Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam had not yet arrived. The United States still limited its commerce with Vietnam under a lingering provision of the Trading with the Enemy Act that wasn’t lifted until 1994.

Stepping into the streets of Hanoi was like stepping back in time. Electricity was irregular due to frequent brownouts. Intersections had no traffic lights. Most Vietnamese rode bicycles, some used motorbikes, and the occasional car.
I was in the middle of a yearlong exploration, after a two-year stretch at the respected architecture firm Gensler. Travels in Southeast Asia took me through Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Indonesia, via deafening motorbikes, rickety buses, compact trains, and primitive boats. Along the way, I stopped at every open-air marketplace I could find and immediately sought out the textile vendors. As a designer, I was intoxicated by the beauty and craftsmanship of their wares.

Moving deeper into the Hanoi market, I came across a section filled with fabrics, sarongs, and scarves of every color and texture—silky and smooth, or thick with a rough weave. Traditional woven sarongs, in deep purples, indigo blues, and strong reds, ikats, and rich brocades were everywhere.

I stood transfixed, cradling a piece of fabric in my hands. As my eyes traveled its length, admiring the soft texture and fine craftsmanship, something stirred deep in my soul. The intimate, human scale of the fabric resonated.
With translation help and a flurry of hand signals, I discovered from Anh, the woman behind the tables, that the cloth had been made nearby.

The next morning on the back of Anh’s motorbike, we visited some of the nearby weaving villages. Anh led me around, showing me her world. I saw for the first time a scene of bustling activity that I would experience again and again throughout Southeast Asia on what would become regular trips to the region.

Houses were raised to protect them from flooding, and in the sheltered, open-air spaces underneath sat women at wooden looms. I heard the clacking of looms as they tightened down the threads. I saw the dyers boiling water, mixing dyes, dipping and then hanging the silk to dry in the sun.

The women talked while their deft fingers set the warps with colorful thread in a method passed down through generations. Many weavers described the work as meditative. However, in reality, despite the calm, these people lived precariously. As farmers and weavers, they depended on their crops’ success and the fabric they sold in the village or market. Financially, it was unpredictable. Economic desperation sometimes makes some families vulnerable to human traffickers, who promise jobs or other prospects. Over the years, I came to understand how fair wages, education, and community support cannot only sustain the weavers' craft but also protect them from exploitation.

Surrounded by the methodical sound of the shuttle carrying the thread back and forth between the warp and the mesmerizing sight of the spinning wheels, my mind, too, began to spin.

After many twists and turns throughout many years, in 2004, I founded Lulan Artisans, a for-profit social venture that designs, produces, and markets contemporary textiles through partnerships with artisans in Southeast Asia. We sell home-furnishing products as well as accessories.
We integrate high design with traditional weaving techniques while honoring the deep social and cultural traditions and wisdom within the artists’ communities. We work in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and India. Our gifted artist partners spin the fibers, dye the threads, and weave the cloth. Their looms are hand built, their raw materials naturally grown. One of our main objectives is to create jobs and prevent human trafficking by creating stable economic options and stability within these communities. Discerning the specific needs of each individual community, Lulan offers different tailored benefits, such as education.
Years of in-depth work with Lulan’s weaving partners have shown that true sustainability has six critical components: ecological, economic, social, cultural, communal, and personal.

One of Lulan’s primary goals is to effect systemic social change. We are creating not just a set of well-crafted textiles, or even a viable model for artisan products, but something larger: an ecosystem solution that works at the product, service, and community levels. Our “bottom-up” philosophy invigorates ancestral artistic processes and creates value by honoring values.

Eve Blossom was trained as a designer/architect with an astute eye for design, Eve discovered a passion for the hand-woven textiles of Southeast Asia while spending two years restoring French villas in Vietnam. During her travels throughout the region, she met master weavers, learned their stories and was moved by their remarkable talents and spirit. To learn more about Lulan Artisans, please visit www.lulan.com.

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