Following my Project Bly post, you’ve possibly guessed that I’ve got quite a thing for travel. As the years have passed, I’m developing more and more of an interest in traditional craft techniques from around the world, and actively seek out those who are working at bringing these unique techniques to a wider audience. One of these companies, Passa Paa, were present at the Renegade Craft Fair last month where their textiles created in Laos were on sale. Simple graphic pieces with a story to tell are immediately gripping for me, so I asked Heather Smith from Passa Paa exactly how she goes about working within a different culture to create a unique product without losing any of the local integrity.
How did Passa Paa start?
I’ve been going to Laos for over 12 years – my sister lives there. But I trained in textiles in London where I went to Chelsea School of Art. I was working in London for a couple of years, and 3 years ago I left that job and decided to go and join my sister there (Laos). We had the idea to do a contemporary line of textile design. She already has her own textile company, which is more traditional stuff, but we also wanted to do contemporary, looking at ethnic techniques, ethnic motifs and trying to contemporise it. And also work with locals there, so working with local materials and local craft skills. So, hand appliqué, hand embroidery, sourcing all hand-woven materials, but I do bring in some things like leather.
How do you go about approaching people in Laos to help you with this?
Well, we do our screen-printing in my studio. There’s absolutely no screen-print culture there at all, it’s all woven, so I had to set that up. I researched a lot about where to get screen-print materials, make my tables, my screens, and I’m just trying to recruit local Laos people that might want to work in a studio. It’s not easy but I’ve got a nice team now, and so I’ve trained them in screen printing and I work closely with them. They’ve now been with me a year and a half learning the technique.
Do you speak the local language?
Yeah, I have to!
Do you sell well in Laos, or do you do most of your sales online?
No, not online yet. We’ve got a shop in town, in Luang Prabang – it’s quite a tourist town and we have a high season (which is now). So we sell locally there and we’re also doing trade shows and these type of retail shows. We’ve just started doing that this year, so slowly trying to bring it over, but most of our sales are local.
Hmong stripes silk scarf // $120
What else do you get up to? Is this completely full-time when you’re out there?
Yes, six days a week, but for the last 6 months it’s been 7 days a week. It’s been full-on! I’m actually here for the next month though. I’ve got a lot of design work to do which I’m actually going to try and sit down quietly and do here! It’s a lot of drawing, hand drawing, I’ve got a book and fabric with me, traditional stuff and then I work on that and scale it up or work on the computer so I can do that here. I’ll look for shops as well. I’m also doing an exhibition at Chelsea College of Art at the end of the month (i.e. November, ahhh it’s too late now!), I’ve got a couple of days to do a private view and see the students. That’s where I studied so I got back in touch with them .
Tell me more about the traditional patterns you use.
I’m looking to do each collection based on an ethnic group found in Laos. This collection is Hmong, so these motifs all come from Hmong batik or Hmong applique. So the next one for example could be Thai Khao or Akha, there’s a lot!
There must be so much inspiration in Laos.
Yeah, there’s something like 49 ethnic groups. My sister’s business has many contacts in different villages so I’ve got that resource to go over there and work with them.
That’s incredible, I admire you so much for doing it, I really do.
So inspiring, right? I can’t wait to visit Laos and see Passa Paa in action! If anyone has any recommendations for companies doing similar things with ethnic groups, please do let me know in the comments below. And to follow along, you can visit Passa Paa’s blog, facebook and twitter.