The weaver who helped resurrect an endangered Lao artform

When President Obama took the stage at the Asean Summit, he stood at a podium decorated with traditional Lao textiles, made by the first American company allowed to do business in the country since the Vietnam War. Special correspondent Mike Cerre profiles the weaver whose company has improved diplomatic relations and economic stability and helped save an endangered craft.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to Laos, a country of rich and deep history scarred by American bombing during the Vietnam War.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports now from the capital, Vientiane, on how one American woman helped heal frayed ties between the U.S. and Laos by preserving tradition there one thread at a time.

MIKE CERRE: The first American president to address the Lao people, from a podium decorated with traditional Lao textiles made by the first American company allowed to do business here since the end of the war.

CAROL CASSIDY, Lao Textiles: They actually arrived in Laos, found us and found something that we had in the colors that were appropriate, red, white and blue.

MIKE CERRE: How this American weaver from Connecticut and her Ethiopian-American husband helped save an endangered traditional craft, in a country ravaged by a secret war the U.S. waged here during the Vietnam War, is the stuff of Southeast Asia lore.

Like Jim Thompson, the legendary former CIA agent who launched the Thai silk industry after World War II, before he mysteriously disappeared, Carol Cassidy helped resurrect the traditional Lao textile trade after their war.

CAROL CASSIDY: He had a great idea, which was to build a business based on traditional skills. That’s something that, here in Laos, at Lao Textiles, we have done as well.

One of the important distinctions is, I am a weaver. I have devoted my entire life since the age of 17 to weaving one and designing.

MIKE CERRE: When she and her husband came here nearly 30 years ago as U.N. development advisers, full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Laos had yet to be restored. Americans were still viewed somewhat suspiciously by the communist Lao government, the U.S. having been on the losing side of the Laos civil war and communist takeover.

CAROL CASSIDY: So it was really this rebuilding of Lao-American relations, that we have felt that. And my husband and I, who we built the business together, he is much more diplomatic than I am. And I think it’s been very helpful navigating the complexities.

MIKE CERRE: They eventually set up a textile business of their own with a core staff of weavers from the north, many of them the wives and mothers of the Pathet Lao communist forces who had been living and working out of caves during the nearly 10 years of U.S. bombing.

CAROL CASSIDY: So, our technology is very simple. It’s portable. When they fled the bombing, they were able to take with them simple technology and be able to keep their family traditions.

MIKE CERRE: The work is incredibly painstaking, from the hand-dyeing of the silk, to spinning the silk yarn, and reproducing traditional designs from memory, using traditional Lao looms many consider to be the inspiration for the first computers and binary code.

CAROL CASSIDY: The important part is this vertical heddle, because that the storage system, and that is the floppy drive. This is the program, and the strings below, every string down there represents one row of program.

MIKE CERRE: Carol produces world-renowned textiles for top interior designers and architects around the globe.

CAROL CASSIDY: This is part of the dying art, which is the creation of complex patterns. And this is the skill Boua and Chan both learned from their grandmother and their mother.

MIKE CERRE: Her real passions and commitment has been using her weaving expertise to help empower local women, which she first started doing as a U.N. adviser in Africa.

CAROL CASSIDY: Most of the artisans are indigenous people, rural people. They are not the most visible and they don’t have a voice, and that’s really what I have been trying to do working with these communities.

MIKE CERRE: Carol Cassidy may have started her career as a globe-trotting weaver, but over the years since she’s been here in Laos, she has become more of a cultural ambassador, an evangelist for the role that traditional arts and crafts can play in the economic development of the country.

CAROL CASSIDY: I feel that an important part of who you are is through your heritage, and it’s through your past. In Laos and in Southeast Asia in general, textiles are among the most important parts of their past.

So, your uniqueness is expressed what you wear, how you wear it, what you weave. The director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, was here earlier this year, which was a very important visit, because we had the opportunity to show her that stability, ethnic identity, employment, women empowerment, culture is all interwoven in what we’re doing here at Lao Textiles.

MIKE CERRE: Carol lives and works out of a French colonial home in the center of Vientiane, where she also raised two children. Her husband and business partner, Dawit Seyoum, takes cares of the operational side of the business.

It’s run more like an extended family co-op, with many of the original weavers and their children still working with them.

CAROL CASSIDY: Because we have been able to retain our staff for more than 25 years, through our pension plan, through our health plan, we have been able to then weave these extraordinary projects.

MIKE CERRE: She has experienced firsthand the many changes Laos has undergone since coming here in 1989, when the only way to cross the Mekong River into Thailand was by boat. Vientiane, the capital, had no traffic lights or buildings taller than a palm tree, and everyone in her neighborhood knew each other.

CAROL CASSIDY: And you go away for a month, and this was all old buildings that came down, and I guess it’s going to be a hotel.

MIKE CERRE: As successful as her business has become, both as an enterprise and a model for maintaining traditional textiles, her biggest concerns are with the latest assaults on traditional weaving from the modern reality of mass production of textiles throughout the region.

CAROL CASSIDY: Oh, no, this wasn’t made in Laos. We don’t have the industrial capacity.

The extraordinary part of Laos is that we still handcraft high-quality, excellent textiles.

MIKE CERRE: Having embraced the Lao culture as completely as she has over the years, she has faith that traditional weaving will somehow withstand yet another challenge to its legacy.

CAROL CASSIDY: Where your spirit goes in life, in marriage, and death are all interwoven into the story of the textiles.

Source: PBS. Date: September 7, 2016