Ikat weaving in Laos

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to try my hand at weaving. Having watched weavers at their looms many times, the process always seems shrouded in mystery, and also rather magical!

This Blog is written by Alison Wilson. Thank you for giving us the permission to publish your excellent words and pictures! Check out her work at Dye, Print and Stitch.

I really want to gain a more in depth understanding of the weaving process in order to appreciate and evaluate woven textiles in the future. I have no illusions that I will know much more after a short workshop, but at the least hope to learn some of the basic language and terminology.

I’m indebted to the very patient and gracious weavers at Ock Pop Tok and to Khao for being on hand to translate.

My first foray into weaving is a three day workshop at Ock Pop Tok, the textile and handicraft social enterprise based in Luang Prabang, Laos (more information see the end of this post). I’m going to be learning weft ikat (or mat mee) which is essentially a type of weaving that uses a resist dye technique. In Lao textiles, mat mee seems to have wide applications from everyday work clothes to dressing the deceased, depending on the ethnic group. According to Cheesman,

“Weft ikat is most popular in Muang Phuan and Phuan weavers are famous for their skills in silk ikat. All the groups in Muang Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan weave cotton weft ikat tube skirts for working clothes, while the Buddhist Tai Nuea, Tai Khang and Phuan also make ceremonial tube skirts in silk ikat. In the past, the shamanic groups only made silk ikat for their shamans and their dead.”([1] Cheesman)

Here are some examples of Lao mat mee:

There was no mistaking the fibre I was going to use for the mat mee – silk. The weaving studio had a very distinctive earthy smell which I soon realized came from mulberry leaves, the exclusive diet of the Bombyx Morisilk worm. Large bamboo trays were filled with silk worms wriggling around, gorging on the leaves. They are fed constantly, and regularly transferred to darker locations when they are ready to pupate.

My instructor for the next couple of days was a lovely weaver originally from Vientiene, Mrs Yai. My first task was to wind the silk onto a bobbin. This of course, was far more tricky than it looked! I soon learnt that you need to keep your eye on the bobbin with your left hand close to the bobbin to guide the silk evenly, and keep your eyes fixed on the bobbin, not the winder. 

The next stage was winding the weft thread onto the lak mii. This frame is the same width of the textile to be woven. This was pretty time consuming! Sometimes the silk broke and had to be tied together again, sometimes it got snagged. I was surprised that my fingers did not blister or get those fine ‘paper cuts’.  By the time I got to handle the silk, it had been scoured twice in boiling water, the second time with soap to make it softer – so the silk was quite soft on the hands, and also strong.

Next was the resist stage. At regular measured intervals, the silk thread is wound very tightly with plastic ties (in the old days this would have been a fibrous string from the banana tree). The tied parts will not take the dye, whilst the exposed threads will be dyed. I found the example of a lak mii with bound and dyed threads quite helpful.

And now the fun part – dyeing! I would have gone for the indigo had I really followed my heart but I thought to myself, I’m missing an opportunity here, and so decided to use a dye I have never used before.  I settled on using sappan wood (mai faang). This seems a very good value dye – in its natural state creates a bright red, with ash water mordant it goes pink/magenta, and with iron, turns purple/lilac. I also wanted to try some teak leaf dye, hoping the white or lighter areas would be light pink.

The next day, once the dyed silk is dry, it is spun again onto thin bamboo spools. As my ikat is free form, there was no need to be concerned about the order of the threads. However, if you are designing to particular precise pattern, then you need to the pattern in order by threading the spools onto a string, and then weaving them in order.

And so to the weaving… My instructor (who has been doing this for 20 years) made it look easy. She has a lovely flow – pressing right foot down, passing the spool between threads from left to right, foot off the pedal, pulling the comb towards herself to level the weave, pressing the left foot down, then passing the spool to the right and so on. The fixed heddles pick up the odd numbers of warp threads, and the other heddle picks up the even number of warp threads. In short, a lot of eye, hand and foot coordination.

Took me a while to get the hang of the rhythm of foot presses, passing the spool, and lifting foot off. I found despite it being a free from weave, you can’t really take your eyes off what you are doing for a second. Use the comb (or beater) too forcefully, then the selvedge will start sinking down on one side, not forcefully enough then the weave will be too open. I found the yarn often got tangled up in the spool to be removed and untangled. Often my instructor would step in, weave (incredibly fast) several rows, and was always on hand to help me untangle thread or make adjustments.

Despite all this, the pattern quickly started taking shape. I learnt that although the resulting ikat is free form, I imagine different weavers would get different results depending on how tightly or loosely you weave… There wasn’t a lot consistency in my weaving, but honestly I was super happy just to get a first taster of the process. My resulting piece is 180 cm long. As you can see, some of the ikat is quite wide, and sometimes very tight. I actually like this irregularity!

I absolutely loved this experience, and learned so much. I’m indebted to the very patient and gracious weavers at Ock Pop Tok and to Khao for being on hand to translate. A next time, I’d love to try matt mee again, but try and a controlled block pattern, a new challenge!

At End

I signed up for the three day weaving workshop run by Ock Tok Pop in Luang Prabang. To read more about Ock Pop Tok, follow this link.

[1] Cheesman, Patricia. Lao-Tai Textiles: The Textiles of Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan. Bangkok, Amarin Press, 2004. Page 252

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