Our weavers use the weaving techniques practiced by the Tai Kadai ethnic groups in Laos. They are mainly the Tai Daeng, Tai Lue and Tai Lao people. This type of weaving has been practiced in Laos since 800AD when these people migrated from the Yunnan area. They work on floor looms. Backstrap looms are used mostly by Katu artisans.
Over and above the plain weave technique, Tai Lao weavers use three weaving techniques to make patterns. Ikat (matmee), supplementary weft (chok and kit) and tapestry (Nam Lai). How about we have a look at those different weaving techniques and when and how we use them? Stay with us!
Sometimes, more than one of these techniques are combined in the same work. This shows the weaver’s skill and increases the value of the cloth.
When a section of cloth is woven using a single weft thread that goes over and under alternate warp threads, it’s called, plain weave. Only the fixed heddles are used. One of the heddles lifts the 1st, 3rd, 5th warp threads and so on, and the other heddle lifts the opposite threads: the 2nd, 4th and 6th warp threads and so on. When pattern threads are also added, the plain weave can be called the ground or tabby weave. We use this technique for our fabric by the meter but also for some simple scarves…
Ikat, also known as Matmee in Lao, is a striking technique. It comes from the Malay word: to tie. Although ikat can be done in many ways, in Laos we use the resist dye technique. Threads are tied to resist the dye, then colored in the dye-bath, creating the pattern. Finally, these threads are woven using the fixed heddles creating a plain weave cloth with dyed pattern. This process can be applied to the warp threads creating a double ikat.
Preparing the frame, spinning the yarn, dyeing and weaving… Designs can take from two to 10 days to complete.
Phou Tai communities in southern Laos, are skilled cotton farmers and master ikat weavers. At our Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang, we have our very own Ikat master weaver, Ms. Phet. She started working at Ock Pop Tok in 2003 as an Ikat Shawl Weaver. And since 2014, she has taken on the role of Head Dyer. When we need some very intricate Ikat to be done, Phet does it all. She prepares the frame, spins the yarn, dyes it and weaves.
The weaving is slow. It requires a lot of to line up the weft rows to maintain the pattern. Designs can take from two to 10 days to weave. Traditionally, ikat is used for many ceremonial textiles. One way to see if a cloth is an ikat (as opposed to a tie dye cloth), is to look closely and see the original colour of the warp threads.
This is the only technique that requires the weaver to make the pattern up as she goes along. The weaver creates the motif by adding coloured yarns by hand. Where sections of colour meet, the pattern threads are twisted (interlocked) around each other, locking them together so they don’t come loose.
We use the tapestry technique for our home decor range, including rugs, cushion covers, table runners and placemats.
Only the fixed heddles are used and weavers work from the back of the cloth. The weft is entirely the pattern thread, no ground weft is needed. On the back of the cloth you see clearly where the threads have been interlocked together – many people find this as beautiful as the front side of the cloth. Ideas for motifs come from rivers, birds, lightning and other natural beauties.
This technique is popular in the north of Laos; Tai Lue weavers use this style for skirt fabrics. We use the tapestry technique for our home decor range, including rugs, cushion covers, table runners and placemats.
Supplementary Weft Weaving
The pattern is created by inserting an extra thread between each row of ground weave. Each time the weaver does a row of ground weave, she lifts the warps thread and adds the supplementary weft thread. However, every time she lifts the warp threads, it’s following a pattern that has been pre-created in what is called, the supplementary heddle. As if the weaving isn’t hard enough already, the toughest part is creating this supplementary heddle in the first place.
Continuous Supplementary Weft
Only one colour of thread is used to make the pattern. The pattern threads continue across the width of the pattern area. The weaver places the yarn in the shuttle and passes the pattern thread from one side of the cloth to the other.
Discontinuous Supplementary Weft
Two or more coloured pattern threads are used to make the pattern. The weaver adds the coloured thread by hand as opposed to using a shuttle. This technique is very time consuming. Sometimes a weaver can only weave a few centimetres a day. The wider the cloth, the longer it takes.
How does the supplementary weft weaving work?
In both types of supplementary weft weaving, the template for the pattern is kept in the pattern heddle. It is a grid of vertical and horizontal strings that hangs behind the two fixed heddles used for plain weave. Each vertical string is looped above and below a warp string and each horizontal string is a blueprint for a row of patterns. To transfer a row of this pattern to the weaving, the weaver takes the first horizontal pattern string and uses it to divide the vertical strings connected to the warp.
Setting up the pattern for a textile using the supplementary weft technique (whether continuous or discontinuous) can take days.
Once these are divided, she lifts the group closer to her, which in turn lifts the corresponding warp threads. The effect is that some warp strings are raised and others are lowered. She then inserts the beam into the shed (the space between the raised and lowered warp threads). When she turns the beam up, the shed is held open for her to weave in the coloured pattern weft threads for that row of the pattern. The supplementary pattern is created row by row.
How do we set a pattern?
Setting up the pattern for a textile using the supplementary weft technique (whether continuous or discontinuous) can take days. This skill requires both a creative and mathematical mind but also time and patience.
How about some cultural titbit? Did you know that weavers will leave a knife sitting on the warp yarns if they haven’t finished tying the yarns to the loom, otherwise, they believe that a mischievous spirit will make a tangle of the yarns?
Oh and did you know?
You may have noticed that the patterns in a supplementary woven textile are symmetrical. The weaver creates half of the pattern bringing the horizontal pattern string down through the warp. Once all the strings have been placed below the warp – half the pattern has been woven. This means that the point of symmetry has been met and now it’s time to start bringing the strings back up through the warp – thus weaving the mirror image of the pattern.
Plus, the pattern is never lost, as the weaver is constantly bringing the strings either up or down. This saves so much time! In fact, we estimate it takes around 10 times less. Some patterns can be made up of over 1,000 rows.