Wearing a “sinh” or Lao skirt - a brief guide for foreigners

Wearing a “sinh” or Lao skirt - a brief guide for foreigners

No it is not a confession, a “sinh” is a Lao skirt.  When in Laos, a foreign woman who wears a sinh is showing respect, whether she wears it for ceremony, to work or just around out about. I suggest try it. It gives you kudos, partly because many assume you are working here or even better still, volunteering. 

Here are some things about the sinh, some, my Lao colleagues have taught me, some I love, and some, just noteworthy enough to share. As the wearer adapts to the sinh, she tends to become more adept at showing her own “sinh style”. This may not be in sync with local tradition, but a foreign sinh wearer can always excuse oneself as a novice-in-training, or plead ignorant.

(Left: Silk sinhs at the morning market in Vientiane.
Right: PhuTai Indigo ikat sihns from Savannakhet, southern Laos.)

In general, cotton sinhs are more comfortable in the Lao heat. When you have three folds of material across your front, cotton definitely breathes better. Many silk sinhs have adhesive lining, unless they are expensive and woven well and this is wonderful to wear. For those privileged few in Vientiane driving to work in air-conditioned cars and sitting in air-conditioned offices, the lined silk option may be okay but in general foreigners find the cotton sinh more comfortable for everyday wear. However I have just found an exceptional silk sinh that is beautifully woven, does not need lining and is a joy to wear in the heat. 

Most of the cotton sinhs that really catch your eye come from ethnic groups, such as the wonderful beaded & striped sinhs of the Katu in Salavanh province, the indigo ikat sinhs of the PhuThai in Savannaket province, the thick diamond designs of the TaiLeu of Luang Prabang. 

(Left: Xayaboury sinhs a the Elephant Festival in Xayaboury.
Right: Katu cotton beaded sinhs in Salavan Province.)

The bottom of the sinh is called the foot, “sinh din” in Lao. In Buddhist culture, the feet are unclean, thus this part of the sinh has to be treated properly. It should never be taken up over the head, the auspicious part of the body, so you must step into your sinh. Walking under a sinh on a clothesline is not a good idea either. Actually, the sinh is considered also to carry the powers of the woman. Men won’t remove a sinh from the clothes line. 

The foot is often a separate intricately woven piece and attached later to the rest of the skirt. sometimes the skirt is plain or just a basic stripe, but sometimes also an intricate design, producing an interesting dynamic. Some skirts have no definite foot but usually by the direction, weight, and style of the pattern you can tell which edge is the foot. 


(Left: Tai Leu sinh, pattern going down denoting foot.
Right: Keo showing cotton sin style.)


Sinhs are normally bought as one piece of fabric and they are made to fit. They are cut according to the way the fabric is woven, darted, a waistband is added and they are shortened if needed. Also if the fabric is not enough to wrap properly across the hips, a secret extra piece is added in the middle of the fold.  There are two types of sinh, the "two bone" (as in the TaiLeu blue sinh below) where the fabric is woven in one piece and the pattern is duplicated, so the tailor will cut the fabric along the hemline in the middle and sew 2 sides together, and the "one bone, where the fabric is woven in one horizontal piece so the two sides are sewn together to make a tube (as per the purple Katu sinh below).


When you are making a sinh, there are some crucial measurements you need to get right, and then trust in your sinh maker. Experienced Lao tailors handle the curves of a foreigner better, so if you can, get a referral. Here are the measurements and other times you need to consider:

Waist – No you don’t need to wear a sinh on your waist. Wear it where you like to wear your skirts, your pants. So where we measure the waist is at that place you want to wear it, maybe on your hips, maybe a bit higher. 

Hips – This is the widest part of you lower region so measure it accordingly. 

Waist to Hip – This is the perpendicular line from the waist line to the hip line. This is where a lot of people go wrong. By giving this measurement the tailor has a better picture of how you are shaped, and therefore will fit your sinh better. 

Length – This is not only based on how tall you are and how long you want to wear the sinh, but more importantly the pattern of the fabric and where it sits on your body. Sometimes the fabric is such that the full length is perfect and  sometimes you need to take a little off the top and off the bottom, so best to mark this with a pin so your tailor is aware of where to cut. 

Waistband – it is not bad to have a black waistband added, this material is often thinner than the material and really helps the sinh sit on your waist/hips better. You can always pull your shirt over this or hide it with a belt, or as is often, where a shirt that sits just below the waistline.

Lining  - If you purchase a thicker well woven sinh you don’t need to line it. However a thin cotton or silk sinh will quickly lose it’s shape and sag around where you sit, unless you line it. It is hard to find a tailor who will not use an iron on lining, so be sure to be clear, if you don’t want iron-on lining then you should purchase the lining material and, preferably show a sample of how you want the lining sewn in. This will stop any problems down the track as many will automatically line with the iron-on lining. 

So give it a try, go and buy a sinh and get it made to fit. And if you are staying in Laos awhile get your sinh style going, and enjoy the variety of statements that can be made. 

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