The Dressmaker

An old loom at a relative’s house

Tuesday 7 November 2006 

The main purpose of our visit is to commemorate the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death.  Mom is in charge of preparations for the boun (festival) that will take place in a few days.  Invitations have to be mailed, donations to the temple must be gathered, and the menu needs planning.  The cooking alone will require a small village’s cooperation.  Amid the chaos, there has been little time for fun adventures, but we managed to squeeze in a few, such as our trip to the dressmaker.

As a teenager, I usually wore Mom’s traditional outfits to temple. When I outgrew them (and her), she sent my measurements along with some money to Mae Somboun, who selected the fabric and design.  There is no shortage of dressmakers in Vientiane, but Mae Somboun only trusted two in particular to do the best work at a fair price.  The whole process was entirely out of my hands, which is generally how I like things of this nature.  Now, for the first time, I was able to participate in an experience that is commonplace for young women growing up in Laos.  So even though I was never much interested in fashion, I won’t deny that I was excited.

Image credit:

Both men and women wear silk outfits; however (not surprisingly), Lao women have added a creative flare to reflect modern trends. The sinh (silk skirts) now come in an endless array of colors and patterns; you can even find them with zipper closures, rather than the old-fashioned wrap-around, secured with a hook, snaps, and pins.  The blouses have become more daring: V-necks, sweetheart, halter, or one-shouldered necklines can be seen on younger women.   In contrast to these changes, traditional looms and ancient techniques are still used to dye and weave the silk into textiles.

Our adventure began at Talat Sao (Morning Market), where I was given the daunting task of selecting fabrics.  I have at least two major weddings to attend during this trip and nothing suitable to wear to them. Although excitement was definitely high on my list of emotions, a deep dread also lurked in the pit of my stomach.  I was always terrible at shopping for clothing, having been born without an innate sense of fashion.  I could only hope that my peers would cut me some slack but decided, if anyone pointed and whispered, I would blame it on growing up in America.

At the market, I was overwhelmed by the rainbow of options.  I wished my cousin, Nang Xan, didn’t have to work so she could rescue me.  Her sense of style would be admirable even for Western clothes.  If I left it up to Mom, I would end up with a matronly style, which is not the look you want at age 24. Finally (two hours later), I managed to pick out a few yards of silk material that weren’t too horrible (I think), and we headed to the Dressmaker’s shop.

She lived in a modest-sized house with tiled floors, out of which she also ran her business. Her large foyer was filled with racks of fabric in various stages of transformation; it was clear she was in high demand.  There was really nowhere to sit, but she pushed chairs among all the clutter and handed me several pattern books.  Mom and Mae Somboun instructed me to select the style of blouses that I wanted.  This task was to be even more challenging than fabric selection, considering my brain was already on sensory overload from the first task.  When I get to this point, I am likely to make a hasty decision, just so I can go home.

Examples of new-age blouses (image credit:

Another two hours passed.  By this time, I was not only overwhelmed but also starving.  I could hear the three other women talking about me over their cups of herbal tea.  It was clear from their tones that choosing a design is a serious matter that shouldn’t be rushed – we would stay there until evening if necessary.  Dreadful.  Stomach rumbling, I finally pointed out two different designs.  The Dressmaker grinned: Good choice, she said with a nod.

I left with a headache and famished enough to eat my arm, all the excitement having drained from my being, ever since the first hour of fabric shopping came and went.  Mom thought it was humorous and reminisced with Mae Somboun about the tantrums I had as a child when she took me shopping (usually ending with me hiding inside a clothing rack). Somehow, those excursions no longer seem so bad.

Did I say this was one of our “fun adventures”? The only fun part, I concluded, is when you pick up the finished product and try it on. Everything else aside, there really is nothing quite as flattering or comfortable as clothes that are tailored for you.  That, my friends, is the one and only time you will hear such an admission from me.




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