Image: All images by Gregg Stradiatto
Unless you’ve been to Laos or northern Thailand, it’s unlikely you’ve encountered piet — but, this eco-fibre is worth getting to know.
Piet (pronounced pee-yaht) is a jungle vine that is knotted and crocheted to make into totes, crossbody bags, string bags and pouches. A fibre long-used by Khumu communities in northern Laos, piet is at once raw, rustic and absolutely modern.
Eco-friendly, Sustainable & A Cultural Craft
Piet (Pueraria phaseoloides) is a forage and cover crop that is also known as puero or tropical kudzu. The plant grows particularly well in the central highlands of Laos, as well as in northern Thailand and southern China. The creeping or coiling vine grows up to 10m long, while its roots stem soil erosion. Piet’s roots harness water and stem soil erosion. A leguminous plant, it helps fix nitrogen in the soil, adding natural fertility. Piet can be cut and dried as hay and can be stored as feed for livestock.
Khumu ethnic communities use piet to make bags for carrying tools and for collecting and foraging herbs. Thin, fine fibres are knotted to make bags and sacks. Thicker fibres are knotted into wide bands and then attached to baskets. The piet band rests on the forehead of the wearer, while the basket hangs behind. The baskets are then used to hold herbs and crops from the fields or firewood from the forest. Piet is extremely strong and lasts an incredibly long time. Its strength allows it to be used for carrying light items, as well as heavier items like metal tools and wood.
Piet is often compared to kudzu fibre from Japan. Centuries ago, kudzu was used to make weave panels to make obi. However, the painstaking labour of turning the fibre into yarn resulted in its decline. Like Japanese kudzu, Lao piet has an interesting sheen or lustre that isn’t seen in cotton or hemp and is different from silk.
In Laos, piet is collected in the summer months. The stems are boiled to help soften the bark. The bark is removed by washing the fibre in the river, and then dried again. Once dry, the thick stems are split into thinner fibres and then handspun into yarn. The process from plant to yarn, and the process of turning the yarn into bags takes tremendous time, patience, and skill.
Khumu women make the bags in the evenings usually after completing their field and domestic work. The fibre is knotted with the help of a small wooden stick-like implement. In the past, highly skilled women created tiny, fine knots that can be seen in vintage examples of the work. Nowadays however it’s rare to see such skill.
The Intersection of Tradition & Contemporary
“Piet fibre is completely eco-friendly. There’s great potential for it in contemporary life, and it would certainly help the Khumu artisans who make the bags,” says Rachna Sachasinh, founder of Tikkiwallah, a Chiang Mai-based textile company. Rachna is a journalist and has worked within the craft sector for over two decades in Southeast Asia, India and Mexico. She launched Tikkiwallah during the pandemic, as a way to help artisans who were impacted by Covid-related travel restrictions.
“Silk and cotton textiles and crafts are well-represented in Laos, relatively speaking,” she says. “But fibres like piet and handwoven hemp are less so. Khumu and Hmong women create piet and raw hemp and typically sell directly to tourists. Without tourists, their income plummeted.”
Piet in particular is difficult to bring into the market because the Khumu communities are remote, and still very much involved in agriculture. “Bag designs are also limited, so you usually see the same 3-4 shapes over and over again,” explains Rachna. “If you look at the vintage pieces, or even pieces made 20 years ago, the knotting is small and fine. It’s incredible to think it’s all done by hand. This finesse and craftsmanship declined once plastics were introduced. It became easier to use plastic than to make bags.”
Working with Khumu communities in Oudomxay, Rachna is designing a new collection of bags and accessories that highlight both the beauty and utility of piet. “We are starting out slow, working with designs the artisans are already familiar with. We are focusing on using the softest and finest fibres and encouraging a return to refined knotting techniques. Once we get the quality and texture dialled in, we will start introducing new shapes,” she says
“So far, we’ve had a really positive response. People love the eco-friendly, handmade and sustainable aspects of piet. And, of course, it’s entirely unusual and wears well. You can use it as a purse, a book bag, a beach bag, a market bag or a carryall for kids’ toys. The pouches work well as travel accessories. The possibilities are endless!”
Text provided by Tikkiwallah
To find out more about piet, reach out to Rachna via Instagram @tikkiwallah_market or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Tikkiwallah website here: www.tikkiwallah.com