Sunday, November 23, 2014

Handicraft Special: Silk weaving class
with Ock Pop Tok in Laos

Posted by Amanda Villaruel | |
Traveling to Southeast Asia soon? Ever thought about the production process behind the wool sweater you're wearing now, or the silk night gown you have in your closet?
Wild almond plant in Laos, and chopping tamarind
Wild almond plant in Laos and chopping tamarind

There's no better way to find out about the silk production process, than visiting a local weaving center called Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang, my favorite town in Laos.

As one of the leading producers of Lao textiles, Ock Pop Tok makes sure that the weavers earn more than the minimum wage and empowering women through traditional skills.
Before we got out hands dirty, the staff gave us an introduction to the various plants they grow in the garden, including indigofera, lemongrass and wild almond.

The dyeing process starts with chopping the tamarind if you want yellow, the indigofera if you want blue or purple color, or the wild almond if you want green colored silk. The silk fabrics are naturally-dyed and hence gentler towards the environment because the process doesn't release any chemicals.

After the garden tour, we were taken to see the really fat silk worms (they're actually caterpillars). Papaya leaves are fed to the worms, and when the time is right the silk is unraveled from the cocoons.
Bashing and grinding tamarind before dyeing silk
Bashing and bashing (me to the right)

Using a large mortar and a pestle, the pieces are bashed and grounded thoroughly. And it's not as easy as it looks! I think my arm muscles gave up after 10 minutes or so ;-) Then I had to take a break, and continue for another 30 minutes.
Grinding tamarind before boiling and dyeing silk
Grinding tamarind before boiling and dyeing silk

After the grinding, they boil the mass for about an hour and let it simmer, while occasionally stirring the pot. Not only do they use plants and trees for the dyeing, but also animal excrement. It's quite impressive that they use whatever they have and make colors out of it.

It seems like nothing goes to waste!
Boiling tamarind for silk dyeing in Laos
Boiling tamarind for silk dyeing in Luang Prabang, Laos

The same process is repeated for the other colors. In the pictures below, they're chopping and grinding wild almond leaves to get the lovely lime color.
Chopping and grinding wild almond leaves for silk dyeing
Chopping and grinding wild almond leaves for silk dyeing in Luang Prabang

When the cooking process is finally done, they take a piece of silk and bathe it in the mixture.
Dyeing silk yarn in Luang Prabang, Laos
Dyeing silk yarn at Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang, Laos

To remove excess color, the silk is soaked in water in another bowl. Before hanging it up to dry, they need to wring the yarn, stretch the fabric and loosen the knots. Then the silk needs to be dried in the sun before we can start the spinning.

After observing every step of the process, I think the real beauty of a product lies in the transformation from unraveling the silk to dyeing the silk. Because this is where the magic happens! :-)
Soaking and drying the silk in Laos
Soaking and drying the silk in Laos

Before we could start weaving something nice, the yarn needed to be spun.

I'm clumsy, but fortunately I had a good teacher who taught me how to coordinate my hands and feet. When she showed me how the spinning worked, it looked so easy. But once it was my turn, it was much more difficult than I imagined. It was like learning to dance for the first time!
Spinning yarn in Laos
Spinning yarn at Ock Pop Tok in Laos

Learning how to weave was like taking dance lessons. I read somewhere that Lao traditions dictate that the girls learn to weave at an age of 5 or 6 years old. Observing the other Laotian women at the center, there was no doubt in my mind that they know what they're doing. 

Seriously, they could probably weave anything with a blindfold.

Read: Introduction to Koh Samui for green travelers.
Weaving at Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang
Photo left: one of the weavers at the center
Photo right: Me trying to get a hold of weaving

My project was to weave a place mat, that I managed to complete with the help of my teacher. She didn't speak much English, but I still learned a lot just by copying her moves and reading her body language. Trust me, there was a lot of pointing, nodding and laughing! :-)

Getting to know the locals is by far the most rewarding experience you can get, when you're traveling to developing countries.
My teacher at Ock Pop Tok weaving center in Luang Prabang
Me and my teacher having a good laugh :-)
Lunch at Ock Pop Tok center in Laos
Lunch at Ock Pop Tok

During the day we were served some delicious Laotian food, with fried Mekong fish, sticky rice (my favorite!), fresh fruit and Asian salads. The day just kept getting better and better!

The most valuable lesson?

To me it seemed like the weavers in Luang Prabang took pride in their work. They were dedicated to every step of the process, and watching them work made me realize that we often take for granted the people who make our clothes.

Whether it's a garment from H&M, or a hand-made wool sweater from a local designer, we should take a minute to think about the people behind the product, to honor the people and to honor the garment.

So, interested in learning more about the Ock Pop Tok weaving center?

For more information, visit their website.

Continue to read:
Tips for ethical shopping in Cambodia

17 personal tips on how to travel sustainably and ethically.

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