Our weavers at Ock Pop Tok 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). 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. How about we have a look at those different weaving techniques and when and how we use them?
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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?
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.
We only work with the finest raw materials and oversee all production steps to guarantee the highest quality products using environmentally friendly techniques.
In Laos there are two types of silkworm: the Eri and Bombyx Mori. The Bombyx Mori originated in China and eats mulberry leaves. This silkworm makes two types of cocoon: yellow and white. The silk filament is fine and smooth.
The other type, Eri (Philosymia Riccini), originated in India and can eat a variety of plant leaves, such as castor, cassava, and papaya, but not mulberry. The spun yarn is thick and textured, creating textiles that feel soft; almost like wool.
Going a step further in ensuring that we work exclusively with raw material from Laos, some of our new products now sport a “GI” (Geographical indication) tag certifying that this silk was produced in Luang Prabang.
We work primarily with a Tai Lue village in northern Laos. The village, set in a lush river valley, is a model of traditional cultural life.
The elegant stilted houses are filled with looms and cotton ready for spinning spill out of baskets while colorful yarns dry in the sun.
We’ve been working with these artisans for over 15 years. Nayang is now a vibrant cotton weaving village. They also excel at natural dyeing, particularly indigo. If you order indigo dyed fabric from us for apparel or home decor, chances are that it will be produced in Ban Nayang…
Jungle vine, called Piet in Lao, is the Khmu’s favorite material. It is an eco-friendly crop that is encouraged to grow between other crops such as coffee and rubber. In Laos it is called a NTFP (non timber forest product) and has been identified as a crop of special importance. The string is made by scraping the bark of the vine, drying it and twisting the lengths together. The Khmu make purses out of jungle vine by knotting the vine together.
Traditionally in Laos, hemp would be the fabric of choice of the Hmong ethnic group. Like all textile producers in Laos, the Hmong make items for the household, for clothing and for ceremonial purposes.
Nowadays, as they move down from the highlands, many Hmong use cotton or synthetic fabrics/cloths. However, hemp is still cultivated by many Blue Hmong in northern Laos. Making hemp fabric is a laborious process, but the end result is a strong durable cloth with qualities similar to linen. You will see it mostly in our Hmong Batik pieces.
Hemp is widely regarded as the crop for the future – as it has such a low environmental impact.
Lao textiles are full of symbols and motifs. They represent the stories of Lao people. Instead of writing it down, they weave these stories into textiles. Motifs link the human and the spirit world. They can also tell you if a person is married, his/her ethnic group, and where he/she is from.
Some motifs are mythical creatures of legends and folktales such as siho (half lion and half elephant). Others are inspired by the natural environment: trees, flowers, clouds, water, lightning, birds and animals.
Motifs in Lao textile are deeply symbolic. In fact, many Lao people and anthropologists can determine the ethnic group and marital status of the weaver, the region and function of a piece by simply looking at the textile. We're working on a (non exhaustive) list of motifs used in Lao textiles and their meanings. The aim is to help you better understand the textiles you purchase.
You can read our blog dedicated to the meaning of some motifs in Lao textiles. We published this blog back in November 2021, when “the traditional craft of Naga motif weaving in Lao communities” was being considered for Intangible Cultural Heritage designation at the UNESCO ICH conference. We thought it would be interesting to talk about some motifs that feature prominently in Lao textiles.
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