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Lao- Tai Textiles and the Mythic Imagination by Ellison Findly


Tai Daeng door curtain.

Tai Daeng door curtain.

Lao-Tai Textiles and the Mythic Imagination

With Ellison Findly, The Scott M. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Religion and Asian Studies, Trinity College Saturday, March 12th, 2016, 10 a.m. Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum

Admission: Free for current members of the Textile Arts Council $5 for students and members of the FAMSF, $10 General Admission

Textiles do things. They keep us warm, protect us from the sun, and make us feel beautiful. In northeastern Laos, however, textiles do other things as well. They bring babies, keep evil spirits at bay, heal us, and take our spirits to heaven when we die. Not only are these exquisite weavings the central vehicles of artistic expression, but they are also catalysts for personal and social rejuvenation.

Among tribal groups like the Tai Daeng, weavers create “performative designs” on shawls, skirts and hats, by combining parts of realistic figures into new ones that, like amulets, radically transform human lives. Weavers add lion feet to elephant legs, serpent bodies to elephant trunks, and serpent heads to bird bodies. They add tree branches to human torsos, create flying boats of serpent skins, and place riders on air-born elephants. Such figures are powerfully transformative precisely because they are hybrid-because an elephant alone is just an elephant, but an elephant-serpent has the power of both animals multiplied several times over. In this way the designs are “mythic,” not copies of everyday reality but born from the imaginations of both the weaver and shaman.

Ideas for designs come from the deep recesses of human consciousness. While a weaver may say that a given hybrid design, “comes from my mind,” observing the interaction of weaver and shaman suggests something additional. Weavers hear shamans describe actions of imagined figures during healing and funeral rituals, and then return to their looms to weave their images. In so doing, weavers make a “canon” of designs that they commonly share, but are embellished with individual flourishes. Thus, designs emerge from both the trances of shamans and the minds of the weaver, such that textiles with hybrid designs are thought to do things: they resolve problems, alleviate fear, and effect momentous changes in people and their circumstances.

Ellison Findly is the Scott M. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. She teaches courses in Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese philosophy, and has published articles and books on the Indian Empress, Nur Jahan, women in Buddhism, Buddhism and donation and the Indian philosophy of plants. She published Spirits in the Loom: Religion and Design in Lao-Tai Textiles in 2014, and is finishing a companion volume, Tending the Spirits: The Shamanic Experience in Northeast Laos, due out soon. For these projects, she collected antique and traditional Lao- Tai textiles in Hua Phan province and for the past three years has given gifts to various museums in the U. S. and Lao PDR, one of which is the de Young Museum. The gift to the de Young includes shamanic skirts, shawls, hats and banners, as well as protective body wraps and door curtains.


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