Laos is a country with a rich textile heritage. With almost 50 main ethnicities and over 150 ethnic groups, there are many different traditional styles of weaving and methods of textile production. Ock Pop Tok is an organization based in Luang Prabang, Laos, that is working to empower women through their traditional skills and to preserve and promote Laotian textiles. I had the immense pleasure of taking their day-long workshop on dying silk using natural traditional dyes and learning how to weave.
While Ock Pop Tok trains women across Laos in their traditional weaving techniques and buys textiles from all around the country to sell in their store in Luang Prabang, they also hire a group of local women to weave at their weaving center in Luang Prabang. So, before I got started on my own project, I got to watch professional weavers in action. I was mesmerized. I could have sat there for hours and watched them work.
I was surprised to see a direct comparison of how many different types of silk can be spun. The furthermost left skeins are the outer and inner silk spun from the silk worm varietal that produces yellow cocoons (for more on how silk is spun, check out what I learned in a silk factory in Cambodia) and the center and right most skeins are the outer and inner silk from the varietal that produces white cocoons. The silk that is second from the right is produced by an entirely different kind of silk worm that is allowed to hatch from its cocoon, thus breaking the fibers, so it produces a rougher fiber with a shorter staple length.
An amazing assortment of colors can be made from natural dye sources. In order from left to right, the hanging skeins were dyed with indigo, jackfruit bark, annato seeds, sappan tree wood, turmeric, indigo (with a different mordant), lemongrass, beetroot, teak leaves, fermented sappan wood, and sappan wood with alum. On display below them are some of those products.
I got to dye three different skeins of silk. To get a golden orange color, I used annato seeds where we took the red seeds out of the middle of the dried pods, mashed them up in a mortar and pestle, and then boiled them. To get the purple color, I chopped up sappan bark and boiled it and then mixed it with alum. The delicate pink came from ripping up teak leaves and (you guessed it) boiling them. Other people took the dying workshop with me so I got to see two shades of indigo (both fresh leaves and feremented) and sappan bark with other mordants to produce other shades of purple.
Among the many styles of weaving found in Laos is ikat. At the Ock Pop Tok weaving center, they dye and weave weft ikat where the yarn that will be used as weft is wrapped on a frame the exact width of the finished woven fabric, wrapped tightly in specific patterns and dyed such that the wrapped areas resist the dye. The yarn is then spun onto bobbins that are put in shuttles and used to weave. (Contrast this weft ikat to the demonstration of the warp ikat that I saw in Indonesia).
In the afternoon, we switched from dying to weaving. Since the yarn we dyed wasn’t dry, we got to pick a pair of silk yarns that were already dyed. Then the women helped us wind the hanks of yarn onto bobbins. The set-up reminded me very much of a yarn swift (which makes sense as the two machines are essentially perform the same function). (Compare this set-up to the bicycle wheel used in the silk factory I saw in Cambodia).
The patterns are stored at the top of the loom by loops of string. Each string separates a selection of warp yarns. For every row woven, a string is taken off the pegs, used to separate the weft yarns, and then stored on pegs below the weft. After finishing the pattern, you repeat the process moving a string from bottom to top, one row at a time, so patterns are symmetrical across a horizontal axis.
It really was my idea of heaven to spend the day learning a traditional textile art, in beautiful weather, looking out over the beautiful Mekong river. I was very happy to support an organization in whose goals I wholeheartedly believe. I really couldn’t have been much happier!
I did get to go home with a finished weaving the size of a placemat featuring a stripe of lock and key motif in the middle. The un-patterned main section wove up very quickly as it just required moving the shuttle one way, pressing a foot pedal, moving it the other way, and pressing the foot pedal again. The patterned bit was MUCH slower, requiring the adjusting of warp threads (using the pattern held in the string above), separating the adjusted threads with a wooden paddle, moving the contrast color shuttle, dropping the paddle, and pressing the foot pedal. And then repeating to go back the other direction. And that’s just one row! It was pretty amazing watching the weavers that worked at the center do it all themselves (and quickly!) as it took both of my hands AND both of the hands of the woman helping me to make it happen!