Experts on Lao textiles all seem to agree that the most sophisticated pieces, in terms of both design and colour scheme, are produced in the region around Sam Neua. A fashion revolution followed the political revolution in 1975, when the victorious communists abandoned their headquarters near Sam Neua and moved into Vientiane. The wives of the new leaders enthusiastically sported the Tai Daeng styles of Sam Neua, and it wasn’t long before the look caught on. Today the bold, spidery patterns of Sam Neua textiles are a favourite all over Laos.
Among Lao textiles, the work of the Tai Daeng and Tai Nua stand out. Classified by ethnologists as “tribal Tai”, these ethnic groups are related culturally and linguistically to the lowland Lao. However, unlike the lowland Lao, they are animists for the most part, though Mahayana Buddhist influence can be seen in their textile motifs. These groups believe that death is the most important rite of passage in a person’s life, and the funeral ceremony is correspondingly elaborate. To prepare for it, a woman will weave a special skirt to wear to the grave. A geometric design woven into the waistband of the skirt will serve to ward off spirits that might attempt to block her passage into the “Garden of Golden Mangoes”. Another significant textile used by the Sam Neua cultures is a “shaman’s shawl”, worn by spirit mediums while performing healing ceremonies. Symbols on these shawls are remarkably similar to those found on bronze frog-drums of the sixth-century BC Dong-son culture which was centred in northern Vietnam. Other motifs found on Sam Neua textiles include the swastika, a Hindu symbol that was adopted by Mahayana Buddhism, and the stylized “third eye”. Perhaps the most striking and the most “Lao” of the Sam Neua motifs are realistic naga imprinted in the textiles by tie-dyeing.