I was very excited when Ma Te Sai, a Fair Trade handicraft social enterprise, finally opened a shop in Vientiane. Ma Te Sai, which means "where is it from?", was started by Australian Emi Weir in Luang Prabang five years ago. Emi works with artisans and women from across Laos to source, design and make beautiful textiles, handicrafts and clothes.
Ma Te Sai's shop shares space with Houey Hong, a vocational training centre for Lao women in Vientiane. They also make beautiful, handmade products, specialising in silk. So you'll be spoilt for choice. The shop is called True Colour.
Fair Trade businesses like Ma Te Sai not only empower women in rural Laos but support the amazing Lao ethnic weaving industry that has existed for hundreds of years.
Ma Te Sai specialises in cotton textiles and handicrafts that incorporate designs from different Lao ethnic groups. Emi works with individual weavers and sewers to create her designs. She says she's continually inspired by visiting the weaving villages as the artisans are always coming up with new and interesting styles.
Ma Te Sai helps women in rural Laos to develop a sustainable income by teaching them sewing and marketing skills, and providing ongoing work. They buy materials directly from the artisan or village cooperative so as to support the weavers, farmers and their families. As a Fair Trade member, Ma Te Sai ensures that they pay a fair price for both materials and labour, thereby helping to raise the standard of living of rural ethnic weaving communities.
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In Luang Prabang, Lao textiles are everywhere; you can even weave something yourself.
It's actually much harder to learn about the rich history of Lao ethnic textiles in Vientiane. So, it fabulous to have more exposure to different types of traditional woven fabrics via shops like Ma Te Sai.
These shops, like Saoban and Ock Pop Tok, which support Fair Trade and handmade products, are gradually opening in Vientiane. There is a growing, viable and quality shopping experience for tourists and locals alike.
Visiting these shops is great way to learn about Lao culture and also to support the vulnerable women whose livelihoods depend upon the traditions and skills that have been crafted for generations.
Emi is always developing new clothing and homeware lines together with her weavers and the Seng Savang sewing centre in Savannaket, in southern Laos [try saying that five times in a row]. Seng Savang is a French-run NGO that helps victims of human trafficking and exploitation by providing them with sustainable vocational skills.
It's long-term partnerships like this, with Seng Savang and Houey Hong, among others, that really enrich a brand like Ma Te Sai. In turn, these Lao organisations benefit from access to new and hopefully more profitable markets.
Finally, check out these little wooden geckos that Emi designed for a Luang Prabang hotel as "do not disturb" door-hangers. They'd also look gorgeous "running" down a wall.
Ma Te Sai is downtown at the True Colour shop on Rue Setthathilath, opposite Wat Mixai. Street parking only.