The first time I met Takeo is was at the Lao festival in Sebastopol, CA. Over the next couple of days as we were exhibiting together I got to learn a bit of her background and the work she was doing to preserve Lao traditional weaving. As we packed up our booths Takeo offered to give me a tour of her weaving museum and house on my next visit to Vientiane. I was curious to see the old weavings she had rescued and the process she had developed to recreate these masterpieces.
A few month later I was dropped off in front of Takeo’s house and shop. The shop was loaded with precise duplicates of old traditional pieces and updates of patterns for scarves and wraps. The museum held the real masterpieces that inspire her work. Here is where Takeo began her story.
Saravan Province where she was born has always been known for it’s weavings of cotton and silk. Tribal groups created every stitch of clothing for the familes daily life, funerals and wedding dowry. Takeo’s father was a revered teacher who focused on raising the education level of the ethnic tribes in the region. He became well known and caught the eye of the Royal Government who brought him to Vientiane to become a member of Parliment representing Saravan.
Takeo’s mother was a known master weaver, and when she wore her handmade sinh skirts and blouses to Royal functions, everyone noticed and gave appreciation for her talent. Takeo had little interest in weaving at that time. She was focused on her education and living the lifestyle expected in a family considered well-to-do in Laos. She was looking to Paris and college for her next phase of life.
You can imagine the pleasure the French men had as young Takeo sauntered down the Champs-Elysees in her traditional Lao garments. She also embraced the mini skirts of the time and attended embassy parties in tradition attire and the nights on the town in her mini skirt. All was comfortable and exciting in Paris. Not so in Laos as the war was starting to grind in earnest, her life was about to change.
Takeo’s father had left the government before the real fighting had broken out. He was fortunate to not be put on the black list and pushed into exile or worse. The door shut quickly on Laos and Takeo had to struggle to get home to find and help her family.
Their house in Saravan was gone, burned to the ground, and all their possessions had been lost except for some books her father had buried. They had to flee with no money or posessions to Vientiane to eke out a new life from the ruins. Takeo started by raising chickens to sell and growing food in a plot next to their meager dwelling. With her background education in France she eventually found work teaching the children of administrators in the French embassy. This created enough revenue to feed the family, buy a small rice field and to build a modest house they could rent to visitors of the government. In 1982 she became a tour guide and noticed the attraction of foreigners to the woven Lao sinhs (skirts).
All during this time Takeo saw many exceptional traditional weavings being sold on the street and in the market by destitute people trying to survive. Takeo started buying these traditional relecs and found a passion and a hold on some of her past memories of pre-war Laos.
She still had no knowledge of how to weave, but as her collection grew, she ran into weavers who had moved to Vientiane to escape the war that had the skill and dying knowledge to rebuild the patterns. This inspired Takeo to start her weaving gallery and textile preservation efforts in earnest, it was 1984.
Starting a business was not easy in Laos, the government forbid any private business ownership. Takeo was one of a few women entrepreneurs who started weaving groups that eventually changed the way the government viewed private enterprise and opened the path for others. Takeo traveled around Laos collecting information on old natural dying processes, recreating the colors she saw in her masterpieces and sometimes working all night long to get a certain color just right. She also built a group of weavers with the high level of skills needed to decipher the old patterns and recreate them. Her house is now stuffed with these re-usable patterns, some taking 1000 rods to create.
Today Takeo is world renowned. She travels to Europe and the US for exhibitions, and produces many woven products for Obis and other ceremonial garments for Japan. The collectors that flock to her museum and store are mainly from Asia and Europe where there is a higher appreciation for exceptional hand woven products.