The production of handmade paper umbrellas, also known as “Khan Nyu”, is a craft that has been passed on from generation to generation in Xieng Khaung Province in the far north of Laos.
There are 34 families with 124 people involved in umbrella making in Mixay Village, Phookood district, where Doungsy Xayasan grew up. His family started making umbrellas in 2000. It is very much a family business where everyone helps out, from making handmade paper, to bamboo structuring, to painting handles. All materials used to make the umbrella come from natural ingredients found locally in the village. The family is able to make approximately 170 umbrellas per month, and usually sells them in the local market. After harvesting rice, umbrella production is the main source of income, enabling the family to pay medical and school expenses.
Making the umbrella frame
This involves measuring, cutting and piecing together pieces of bamboo. The spokes and struts are made from “mai hok” bamboo and the handle from “mai lang”. Wood for the handle is soaked in water for at least two weeks to ensure it is free of insects. Of particular importance are the centre and top pieces from which the spokes and struts radiate. These are made from “mai sombao” or “mai mahk kaen”. A red hot poker is used to make holes through the hubs to allow the handle to pass. The whole frame is put together using thread.
Making the paper
The paper for covering the umbrellas is made from the mulberry tree. The outer pulp of the tree is pounded fine and mixed with water. The mixture is then poured into a frame and the fibres separated until they are evenly distributed. The frame is then set out to dry in the sun.
Covering the frame with the paper and painting thumbrella
Once the umbrella frame has been made and the paper is dry, the paper is cut and glued to the spokes. The glue is made from the fruit of the wild persimmon tree or "mahk kouay ling". The outside of the spokes is painted with charcoal mixed with water and glue. The paper between the spokes is dyed with natural dye depending upon the colour desired: sesame oil or “mahk nyao” fruit for white, “kok suk sak” root or cumin for yellow, rose apple for pink and the fruit of the "mahk bao" plant for red colour.
Photo by Khan Nyu.