A journey into the wonderful secrets of Lani Phaseuth and her carpets
In early 2019, I first discovered Magic Lao Carpets in a dusty alley in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Only a small handmade sign indicated the magic, unfolding behind the high grey wall.
During this first visit, I was completely captivated by the beauty coming out of the hands of the young women, working at the big looms in the workshop. As I walked around in the workshop, I also had my first glimpse of the complexity of the entire pre-production process.
Perhaps the quiet hum of the spinning wheels hypnotized me: On the spot I decided to have my own silk carpet made. Co-owner Lani Phaseuth allowed me to photo document the entire process and share her secrets with me. The following seven months became a fascinating journey into a marvelous symbiosis of Lao traditional design and the 5.000 year old tradition of handicraft in Turkmenistan.
My carpet is also a love story – between Lani and her husband Ismit, who came to Laos from far away Turkmenistan more than 20 years ago. Ismit brought the proud handicraft traditions from his homeland. Lani contributed with the beauty of Lao design. Together they created Magic Lao Carpet, which is also a social enterprise, offering training and employment for disabled Lao youngsters.
My personal learning experience started at Lani’s silk farm an hours drive from Vientiane. On a stifling hot Saturday morning Lani and her staff took me around in the mulberry fields and in the outhouses, where the worms are eating their way through their short life. Please click here for the story of my meeting with the greedy little bastards.
About a month later, the worms had done their job. I returned to the workshop to learn about the next steps, that is how to get the sticky stuff removed from the fine tread. The worms only deliver some stiff and unattractive mess, which is impossible to use without further processing.
“First, to do the degumming we boil the yarn with lye from the rice straw ashes to make it shiny and soft. This takes about 30 minutes at 80-90c. When the yarn has dried up, we wash it one more time with iron sulfate in the water to remove all the glue. The process is relatively easy but takes time and lots of water – about 60 liters per 2 kilos of yarn. After that we wash the yarn many times in water to remove all the glue,” Lani explained.
Please click here to learn more about how you get that raw silk right.
Colors from Mother Earth
With the month of June comes the monsoon, and stiffling hot turns into stiffling hot and humid. I am back to learn about the production of natural colors and the dyeing process.
Somehow, Lani manages to keep the workshop pleasantly cool without any air-con. Only mechanical ventilation is bringing about a gentle breeze in the workshop. The humming fans, the giant pots with boiling water, the cracking fire wood, a couple of water hoses and the spinning wheels are joining each other in a minute symphony. It is all very, very nice.
Lani shows me some samples of dyed yarn. The beautiful dark red color, called Burgundy, is going to be very prominent in my carpet.
“We use natural dye only from trees and plants. The Burgundy color comes from the roots of the Madder plant,” Lani explains to me.
The Madder plant has been known since ancient times for its powerful acid in the roots, which are harvested after two years in the ground. These are the roots, which will deliver the base color of my carpet. The yellow color is based on one of the acclaimed beauties of Laos, the Dok Chan flower, which has become a national symbol.. Click here to understand how you create those magnificent colors.
One million knots
The month of July brings another big milestone in the creation of my carpet. Three young women – Enkai, Kuan and Xud – have now started the knotting. They have a big job in front of them. It will take them around 130 days to tie the more than 1 million knots, required for my carpet.
“It is very time consuming to produce the carpets, but it is not difficult. If you can tie your own shoes, you can also make a carpet,” Lani’s husband Ismit says with a grin.
He has carried the craft with him from his native Turkmenistan. His home country boasts a 4.000 year long tradition in handmade carpets. Click here to meet Enkai, Kuan and Xud and learn about their efforts.
In October, I come back to check on progress. I meet the most amazing sight in the workshop. The knotting is done, and Enkai, Kuan and Xud are getting ready to cut the carpet loose from the loom.
The real beauty of the three colors – burgundy, honey and golden yellow – cannot be captured fully by my camera.
In less than a month, I will be able to pick up my carpet. I have already decided the location on the floor of my Hanoi bedroom. It is going to be a very nice feeling to put my bare feet on the incredibly soft carpet on the chilly winter mornings of northern Vietnam.
It is November 14, I am back to Magic Lao Carpets to witness the final steps. There is a vague smell of alcohol in the open air area outside the workshop. My carpet has been brought out on a small table.
Cotton is rolled on a small stick and dipped in the alcohol, and then ignited. The flame is gently rubbed against the carpet centimeter by centimeter to burn any tread sticking out from the smooth surface. It is a slow and very meticulous process. Once it is done the carpet is having a final surface wash with vinegar diluted in water.
Next, my carpet is drying out a little in the autumn sun. I want to do a final shot from above. I see a small balcony on the 2nd floor.
“If you want to shoot from up there, you have to crawl out there through the window,” Lani says with that wonderful, shy’ish smile that I have come to know so well. I get up there and call down to Lani and her staff to join hands and circle around their wonderful piece of work. Click-click-click and then click – it is not easy to make all these women look up at me at the same time.
While they roll my carpet and wrap it for the trip home to Hanoi, I send a silent thanks to the 100.000 worms and the 30 people, who have been involved in the making of my carpet in the past seven months.
In the evening at my home in Hanoi, the first thing I do is unpacking the carpet. I roll it out in the living room. My very weird dog, Bo Nam Dinh hates anything new in the house and sniffs suspiciously to the carpet. I tell BND right there that I am going to kill him, if he ever pees on that carpet or scratch it with his clawy feet.
Then I sit down, taking in the beauty of the pattern and those three magic colors, based on Madder roots and the Dok Chan flower. I am thinking about my good fortune that I got the opportunity to learn about the small, complex world of the silk craft. Then I let my left hand feel the surface with a few slow strokes.
“A true silk carpet will feel like the belly of a small kitten,” Lani once told me. It does, indeed.