The Ubiquitous Laotian Sinh, or Skirt

women wearing Laotian Sinh skirts in Vientiane, Laos

The Laos People’s Democratic Republic (P.D.R) is a joy to explore. It’s affectionately known as ‘Laos Please Don’t Rush‘ and when you get there, you see why – almost instantly. The locals  are easygoing and friendly, the environment is mellow, and the Laotian culture has retained enough authenticity that you’ll want to linger longer and appreciate its distinct details.

traditional Laotian Sinh skirts for sale in Laos

One detail that I enjoy immensely are the classic Laotian skirts or sinh. Sinh spottings are a bit more frequent in the rural areas, but female urbanites in Vientiane also sport them. For more formal occasions, Laotian ladies pair them with a traditional blouse, though for everyday wear, a Western-style shirt is frequently worn. Designs distinguish various ethnic groups.

woman wearing traditional Laotian Sinh skirt in Vientiane, Laos

Traditionally, sinh garments were fashioned out of silk or a blend of silk and cotton. In past times, sinhs were only tailored on a loom, but today, mass-produced, synthetic knock-offs have seeped into Laotian marketplace stalls from China and Thailand. Still it’s common for Laotian girls and women, particularly in rural areas, to weave the skirt themselves. (As we traversed eastern Laos one late afternoon, just after crossing the border from Vietnam, we saw countless looms positioned in front of homes.) Young girls often learn by sewing the ornamental hem of the sinh first, then graduate to crafting the body of the skirt.

Laotian girl wearing traditional Laotian sinh skirt

With all these spectacular sinhs around I couldn’t resist dedicating a scarce corner of my luggage to bringing one or two home. The skirts are now even more international as I had them tailored and shortened in a small town in India. When I wear them, I think of wonderful days – not rushing – in lovely Laos.

In the market for a sinh? If travel to Laos is not in your plans, the silk skirts are easily found online – but offered at considerably higher prices. If you’re headed to Laos, do opt to purchase in a fair-trade shop or collective, or directly from a merchant.

My first purchase came at the non-touristic Phonsavan market in northeastern Laos. The young woman working at the market stall, a tiny baby slung across her back, did not speak any English. My Laotian was also lacking (limited only to the basic sabaidee – hello and khawp jai lai lai – thank you). Nevertheless using gestures befitting cavewomen, we successfully navigated the transaction and I became the proud owner of a radiant red sinh.

I purchased the deep blue silk skirt (above) at a cultural center in Tai Dam, Laos. The skirt was made by this young woman’s mother and proceeds went to a collective.

Certainly, memories are most often the best souvenirs. But, have you brought back any special trinkets from your travels with a unique story?

Photo du Jour #50: ‘Monk Beds’ in Luang Prabang, Laos

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20 Comments on “The Ubiquitous Laotian Sinh, or Skirt

  1. Wonder if they do one in my size? Sorry thinking out loud, I do try to bring my wife back some bits of local clothing from my travels.

    • Mark, I’m certain they can! The sinh consists of a length of fabric that’s then tailored into a skirt, making it a perfect gift even if one doesn’t know the recipient’s size. :)

  2. I have learned something new today, and in the nicest possible way :). A lovely photo essay about an appealing tradition.
    In answer to your question, I thought straightaway of our trip to Utah. Driving from Monument Valley to Moab we took a short detour and came upon an arts co-operative selling Navajo crafts. It was so far removed from the highway that I couldn’t imagine many casual tourists doing the four corners drive would have found it. My daughter and I bought some simple threaded beads which we still share and enjoy today.

    • Many thanks for sharing your experience, Rachael. After yesterday’s rather somber posting I wanted to offer something more upbeat from Laos. It really is such a tremendous country. I cannot remember if you and your husband made it there during your Asian adventures?

      Your backroads journey through Utah sounds quite relaxing. Again, you’re making me want to explore more of the United States! I’m finding that jewelry (particularly those hand-made pieces) is really one of the best material souvenirs because it takes up limited space in the home. :) In the past years I’ve become a charm bracelet aficionado.

      Perhaps your Navajo beads can be inspiration for one of your future macrophotography postings!

  3. I hope you picked out a nice traditional one for yourself. Are the patterns also unique to each region?

    • I sure did, Victor! My first purchase came at a weak moment before I’d learned which were commercially-made and which were hand-woven. That radiant red one is from China, but is a fun piece. My favorite is indigo-colored, hand-woven sinh with an intricate hem, and shapes that almost resemble hearts. I had it tailored in a Western classic design (in India) and am amazed with all the work that went into its creation – from the talented artisan who wove the fabric, to the wonderful tailor in India who completed it. :)

    • I read that there are 149 recognized ethnic groups in Laos, 47 of which are the majority ethnicities. I have the impression that these ethnic groups are somewhat intermingled, but I might be mistaken. For example, when I went to Laos in 2009, I visited a hillside village (not far from the Mekong) that had several ethnic groups living harmoniously, side by side. It sounds like the patterns are unique to each ethnic group, but it’d be interesting to hear if that tradition is slowly fading away as people get more intermingled? Good question! Perhaps someone privy to Laotian culture will jump in! :)

    • I didn’t see any printed ones in Laos; the traditional sinhs that seemed to be the most common are woven on wooden looms but there are a large number now being commercially-produced and imported into Laos.

      In India and Indonesia we saw lovely block-printed and batik work. though. So many beautiful items – it would be wonderful to help support these talented artisans and get their work out to the masses.

  4. I’ve never understood how the women fasten them so tightly? I can’t get mine to stay on very long.

    • Hi Callie, in which city did you buy your sinh? I can see how it’d be challenging just wrapping the skirt and expecting it to hold! Did you have yours tailored in Laos? I didn’t get a chance to do so there, but the tailor in India sewed a discrete button on mine. I do remember some Laotian locals telling me that it was customary to sew a little loop and hook at the top of the skirt.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Pingback: Laotian sinh | Babystepsandbe

    • Hi Jo, it is eclectic, but some of the outfits only make it out during Halloween (Indian sari, Tunisian and Egyptian djellebas). I guess one is never too old to play dress-up! :)

      The work that goes into weaving a Laotian sinh is incredible. I bought the sinh fabric in Laos, and actually had it cut into a western-style skirt in India. The Indian tailor was such a kind gentleman, and that skirt has a fun story.

      Do you tend to pick up any trinkets on your travels? I must admit that I’m a reformed shopper now, and try to only go for useful items like clothes (plus a charm for my vintage style charm bracelet).

  6. Hi all! My boyfriend brought me a Sinh from Lao, ..but I can’t figure out how to wear it… could you help me? thank you!
    Alice

    • Hi Alice, how nice of your boyfriend to bring back this traditional Laotian item for you!

      I’m pretty sure they’re mostly sold as fabric, and then you must get it tailored. When I bought my first sinh, I assumed I could just wrap it, but realized it would look like a potato sack and wouldn’t fasten without the tailoring. :) Traditionally, I think the seamstress sews a fastener inside, allowing one to wear it a bit like a sarong or tube skirt (it fastens inside, then you button the outside panel).

      I had mine tailored in an untraditional way. When we headed to India, after Laos, an Indian tailor sewed it into an A-line skirt, that fell just around the knee. As you can see from these pics, it’s traditional for the Laotian ladies to wear theirs just above the ankle.

      Good luck!

  7. Hi, I’m going to Laos soon and would love to buy this skirt. I was wondering what the market price is (preferably, if you know how much the locals buy it for)? Is Vientiane a good place to buy it or would I be able to get one down south too?
    Thank you, Ivana

    • Hello Ivana, how fun that you’re headed to Laos soon. I hope that you’ll enjoy the country and meeting the people as much as we did.

      I’m not an expert on the prices for the Laotian skirts. Ones made out of synthetic materials went for a few US dollars, whereas the silk one that I purchased was probably $20 or less. There’s much work involved for the ones that are woven by hand!

      I didn’t purchase mine in Vientiane, rather in Phonsavan, and an outlying village (at a cultural center). I didn’t price them in Vientiane, so I’m not sure how the prices would compare.

  8. Help! My daughter flew in from Thailand and Laos yesterday. She brought two beautiful pieces of fabric from Lao and said she needs me to make them into skirts. I see that they wrap and I think I understand from previous posts that the ends overlap and fasten but is there anything else done on the top waste edge? It seems like it needs more fitting. Please advise this drafted tailor.

    • Garla, I wish I could help you more with your tailoring question! I am not gifted in the art of sewing, so I’m not sure how it’s traditionally done, but I agree that it seems something’s sewn in to make it more fitted. I’m wondering if one of the online merchants selling authentic fabric from the region might be able to help you?

      Wish you the best of luck!

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