When I was 29, I decided I needed a change of scenery. I had a close friend in Laos who could help me find work and a place to live, so I bought a one-way ticket there. The evening I arrived, my friend, Megan, gave me a welcome present—a Lao sinh. It was a length of handwoven fabric, meant to be taken to a tailor and sewn into a garment. This was the first piece in what became a large collection and the beginning of what I’m sure will be a lifelong appreciation of Lao textiles.
Before arriving there, I knew nothing about Lao fabric or clothing, but I quickly became familiar with sinhs, which are traditional garments that are handwoven and still worn on a daily basis by many people in Laos. They are almost always bought as a length of untailored fabric. Some sinhs are one piece, like these:
Others are borders that you then complement with a length of silk or cotton to make a complete garment, like these:
Side note: I wish I knew the story behind the moose!
Traditionally, a sinh is sewn into a large circle, which is wrapped around the waist and connected in two spots with hooks. The sinhs in this photo are tailored in the traditional style:
You can also have sinhs tailored in more modern styles—as wrap skirts or pencil skirts. An example of that is here:
One day, one of the TAs in my class was wearing a stunning sinh in very bright colours. When I asked her about it, she directed me to a shop she often visited. That shop became one of my favourite places in Vientiane, and I spent many hours kneeling on the floor, sorting through different sinhs and borders, and talking with Euay Tok, who owned the shop.
It seemed that most of the pieces in the shop were older. They often looked like they had already been worn or used. I realized that many of the traditional tailoring styles avoided cutting the fabric too much, maybe partly to preserve the piece of weaving, so it can be used and reused. You can see a style like that here:
Any market or mall or festival I went to in Vientiane had booths with stacks and stacks of raw silk, which is a fabric commonly used for sinhs and matching blouses. (I’m including a picture of my ‘I’m-so-excited-to-be-here’ face since I imagine those of you reading this are like-minded and can relate.)
Cotton was less common, but I did eventually find a shop in my neighbourhood with this beautiful, buttery-soft handwoven cotton:
Because sinhs are still used as a daily garment, hand weaving is still a relatively common skill, and many people have large looms outside of their houses. One day, I had a conversation with a weaver who showed me how her loom was set up for a particular pattern. She told me that this pattern had been passed down for generations in her family. When the style is very intricate, a loom is dedicated to a particular pattern and will be used for only that pattern for years.
After a year in Laos, I moved back home. Before I left, I weighed all of my bags to see how much more fabric I could buy and pack. I have a lot of this still today in my stash, made into garments hanging in my closet or displayed in other ways around my home, like this gorgeous woven/embroidered beauty hanging on my wall:
I have a deep appreciation and love for Lao textiles and hope to return one day for a textile-focused tour of the provinces. However, as Lao sinhs are of course deeply connected to Lao culture, and I am not the right person to explain that, I asked a friend to help me out with some more detailed explanation. Below is some information on sinhs and the role they play in Lao culture from Viengsamai Souksavanh, who is a 29-year-old Lao woman living in Vientiane.
There are many ways sinh textiles are used in Laos. If people go to work, they wear a formal sinh that is not in bold colors. Around the house, people wear a sarong type of sinh (Sinh Tem) that is not made on a loom like formal sinhs. These sinhs around the house don’t require a lot of tailoring.
At weddings, there are more bold-colored sinhs for guests to wear, and the sinhs should be worn with a matching wedding shirt. For other events, it’s not so important if the shirt and sinh match perfectly, but for weddings, it’s really important.
If you are getting married yourself, there is a really special kind of outfit. A bride’s sinh should be worn with a shirt that has a collar that matches it and a pabieng, which is similar to a scarf but it’s a very specific kind of textile for offerings and religious ceremonies (you can see one in the picture below). The family and wedding party should also match the textiles of the bride. Red, blue and silver are special wedding colours. But mostly, the wedding textiles should be chosen based on the bride’s taste. In the past, there was more of a tradition of mothers passing their wedding textiles down to their daughters for weddings. These kinds of traditional sinhs are hard to find now. They are like antiques.
When you go to give offerings at the temple or to the monks, you also have to have a matching sinh and ‘pabieng’.
For funerals, the proper sinh should be a dark one, not very colorful.
Sinhs have changed a lot in the last couple of decades. In the past, you could only wear the traditional sinh style, tailored to hook the fabric at two places on your hips. That was the only way to tailor a sinh.
Now, there are two tailoring methods, the traditional one and a more ‘revealing’ style that sits lower on your hips. You can also tailor the fabric into skirts now. Some people wear long skirts, and some wear short skirts.
Each province has its own kind of style for making sinhs. Usually, houses in villages and sometimes in the city have a ‘hoop’ (loom) underneath the house. The houses are usually built higher off the ground outside of the city so nearly everywhere you go you will see the hoop underneath the house. Some houses in the city still have a hoop around the house, especially when there are older people or people working hard to preserve this tradition. Mothers try to teach their daughters how to weave on the loom to make the sinh fabric. Families most often learn to do the style of their province or tradition.
The places where the best sinhs are made are Xieng Khouang and Samneua. These two areas have very special designs. They have a similar style and are famous for having beautiful sinhs.
Luang Prabang has a higher ‘foot’ (border), and there is a story woven into the sinh. For example, animals may be woven in, and the fabric might include a pattern that tells a story.
Savanhkhet has a special style, ‘mat mee’. The lines are white and purple in this style.
Champasak has a style called ‘sapai’. That is the name of a village in Champasak. It’s similar to ‘mat mee’, but the detail is smaller in that style.
These traditions around sinh fabrics help to tell a story about your province. Each design is like a special mark of your culture and traditions. It can identify where you came from.
For selling and buying them, there is a different kind of identifier if the sinh came from China or Laos. Now, Chinese factories make sinhs. They don’t use the ‘hoop’ like our tradition but machines. I can always tell really clearly whether a sinh has come from a machine or a hoop because the attention to detail is obvious with a ‘hoop’. The ones from the machine are like plastic surgery.
If you talk to someone who wears a sinh, it might be just normal day-to-day wear. But when you go to the ceremony after someone has died, for example, and you see everyone wearing a sinh from a different area, it makes you feel like each person has a story to share. You can see some beautiful outfits and different designs that show culture and tradition.
Vieng lives in Vientiane, Laos, where she works for the Lao Rugby Federation.
Misha lives in Kitchener, Ontario, where she works as a language teacher. She sews and embroiders in her spare time.