Six weeks ago, I arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos to do an internship alongside the weavers at Ock Pop Tok. It’s my first time in Laos, although I am no stranger to textiles. My professional background has largely centred on economic capacity-building within small, traditional communities and I’ve even worked with weaving co-ops in Peru. My eye for design draws me to projects which focus on indigenous textiles: as a repository of cultural history and as a means of livelihood and sustainable economic development.
In this short time, I’ve been consumed by Ock Pop Tok’s mission and scope. I am continuously impressed by Ock Pop Tok’s commitment to traditional techniques, such as using natural organic dyes and old motifs and patterns, and bridgeing centuries-old weaving methods with modern design. Because I love nature and artistry, the first thing I did was take a natural dye class which introduced me to an array of colours extracted wholly from herbs and plants!
One day, I watched as Mrs. Phet, our master dyer, picked kharm plant leaves right from the garden. This is the first step which will create the deep indigo colour. She crushed the leaves and stored them in terra cotta pots where the leaves ferment into a bubbly and viscous dark green liquid. The longer the kharm leaves ferment the darker the liquid will become. If the kharm leaves are fermented long enough this process will even produce black dye, which is a rarity in Laos textiles.
When yarns and woven textiles are ready to be dyed, Mrs. Phet dunks them in the dark green kharm infusion and often leaves them there for some time. The dyed cloth oxidizes as it touches the air and dries an intense blue colour. Dying with indigo is an ancient practice that has been practiced in Laos and nearby countries along the historic Silk Road for centuries. Mrs. Phet tells me that many Lao ethnic groups believe the process to be sacred and have their own set of social rules around who can process indigo dyes. Master dyers often have their own secret recipes to create the perfect shade of indigo, sometimes adding rice wine, ash water or limestone to the dye pot.
Master dyers, I learned, understand the substances which will yield specific colours, and how these dye colours will respond to different fibres, such as silk, cotton and hemp. Yellows, reds and pinks work well with silk, while blues react best to cotton and hemp fibres. To create yellow and orange colours Laos dyers use turmeric, jackfruit and seeds of the annatto tree. Maybe you’ve heard of jackfruit from its growing popularity as a meat-alternative? The jackfruit is boiled to create a soft orange-yellow. This dye colour scheme can be easily seen in Luang Prabang, Laos, where Monks and novices roam the streets in orange robes. Foreigners often term the garments as ‘saffron robes’ but in reality these robes are not dyed with saffron but with the same jackfruit as your vegan-pulled-pork sandwich!
Laos’ different ethnic groups have their own set of beliefs around the most difficult of the dye recipe preparations. The Hmong people place red chillies on their dye pots because they believe that their animist spirits do not like spicy things. The Tai Lue people create some of my favourite designs, and they believe that the spirit of the dye and dye pots are female. They believe that for a dye to be effective the male spirit must visit the dye pot, so to make the pots more attractive to male spirits, they dress the pot as if it is wearing a skirt. In most Laos’ ethnic groups pregnant and menstruating women should not process or create with dye.
Laos culture and cuisine utilize many botanicals to dye cloth, food, and to create diversity in their daily lives. Visit Luang Prabang, and you will taste sweet sticky rice dyed with butterfly-pea flowers, giving it a soft blue hue. You will see stalls of women and men thoughtfully building Buddhist offerings from banana leaves, pandan and golden flowers. And if you take the time to befriend a local Laotian, you will likely be offered rosella tea, which will stain the edges of your lips a bright shade of fuchsia.
I hope that in my short time here in Laos I can learn more about the ancient processes which guide these women in their craft and how Ock Pop Tok plans to continue their valuable work in elevating these textiles. Thanks for reading!