Spouses Maren Beck and Josh Hirschstein co-founded Above the Fray: Hilltribe Art in 2007 to introduce the weaving traditions and cultures of hilltribe Laos and Vietnam to a worldwide audience.
Above the Fray showcases the finest traditional silk artists–including sericulturists, natural-dyers and weavers–in Laos’ Houa Phan Province. This remote mountain region, once its own kingdom, has an over 1000-year tradition of designing and creating the world’s most intricate and beautiful silks for ritual ceremonies and trade. Maren and Josh visit Houa Phan regularly and personally select each silk from the Houa Phan artists.
Above the Fray sources ceremonial wedding blankets (phaa hom dork), shaman cloths (phaa phi mon), healing cloths (phaa sabai), women’s shoulder cloths (phaa kep) and men’s belts (phaa haat aeo). Lao peoples wear and use these textiles in a variety of healing and protection rituals—from curing physical injuries, disease, or mental illness, to assuring a newborn’s health or healing a poorly-performing rice field. These ceremonies may involve elements of Buddhism, ancestor worship, or animism, and they vary from village to village.
Each textile’s design contains traditional symbolic motifs, most of which appear “hidden” within the geometric complexity. Motifs may include mythological river-serpents (naga), elephant-lions (siho), giant spirits (phii nak), rainbow-bellied birds (hong), and many others.
Almost every silk creation at Above the Fray relies on several cooperating independent artists. Houa Phan’s sericulturists raise the silk for these textiles in the traditional method. Dyers purchase the raw, reeled silk and prepare its texture and color with 100%-natural and locally available materials. They then take the silk to a weaver, who creates the finished cloth. While dyers conceive the selection of colors, the weaver herself determines how to incorporate the supplemental colors to most effectively enhance the complex, nuanced geometric pattern of the textile. Upon completion of the textile, which for a large cloth may take four months, the dyer pays the weaver and takes the silk to market. This cooperative system enables dyers to “oversee” the entire process in order to assure quality and continuity. Dyers who maintain this oversight role are notorious for their business savvy.
Maren and Josh continue to value the friendships and warmth of these talented people and their communities. Their relationships are a source of deep enrichment. They are grateful for the hospitality, trust and companionship extended not only to them, but also to their two sons (now both in college), who traveled with them for their first 10 years of sourcing. These on-going, personal connections with independent artists allow Above the Fray to uniquely showcase the world’s finest silk artists and textiles.
Written By Maren Beck and Josh Hirschstein
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