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My personal highlight: “And the true beauties are… Lao fabrics!” – by Lena Wink

Laos is often said to be a country where time seems to have stopped. I am really sorry to inform you that time also passes by quickly here, especially when you are surrounded by so many lovely people and such a rich culture that asks to be discovered.
As a consequence, for all us so far, it is pretty hard to decide which highlight to choose for one special blog article as there are and were so many of them. My whole stay in Laos has definitely been a personal highlight in my entire lifetime so far. However, one really stays in my mind and fascinates me still.

Pauline, Kerstin, Sara, and I took advantage of the long weekend around “Lao National Day” on 2 December 2016, and we arranged a trip to Luang Prabang. The city has a long history and has played a major role in the history of Laos, but  in this article I would like to share the experience I gained with my weaving course at the “Living Crafts Centre” (“LCC”), offered by the “Ock Pop Tok” enterprise. The meaning of the name is “East meets West” and was chosen following the founders’ origins. One of the founders is Lao and grew up in a traditional Lao family of weavers. The other founder, also female, is English and once worked as a photographer for an EU-funded project in the north of Laos. The two women met in 1999 and soon shared the same passion for fair trade textiles. They decided to preserve and promote these textiles in and outside of Laos. Today, you can find three of their shops in Luang Prabang, and, since 2016, also one in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

 

Apart from the shop, the “Living Crafts Centre” also hosts a café, a museum, and a workshop. The museum offers free tours around the day. Here, visitors can learn more about the Lao textiles – and this is what we did, as did Laura from Team I a year before.

The tour started with an explanation of the process of thread production and in this case the origins of silk thread.

We learnt that silk production can be divided into several steps. It starts with the extraction of raw silk by cultivating the silkworms on mulberry leaves. Each worm eats more that two kilos of mulberry leaves and grows to be 10,000 times their original size before it starts to pupate in its cocoon. At the LCC they do not produce the silk thread on site, but they keep a few silkworms as living examples.

It is very unfortunate, but, in order to get the long fibres, the silkworms have to die. They are put into hot water which loosens the threads.

The cocoons are literally unwound and thus a silk thread can emerge. The good news for all vegtarians amongst us is that there are also possibilities to get the silk without killing the worm, it is just more work and a larger species of silkworm is used.

After thread production comes dyeing. Traditionally, natural dyes are used.

It is amazing what rich colours can emerge by using natural ingredients. Nature has it all in store. The colour blue, for example, comes from the indigo tree, light green is made from fresh lemon grass leaves, brown from betel wood.

Colour your life-chart of natural dyes

Colour your life – chart of natural dyes

Now the thread is produced and shines in brilliant colours. Then the weaving, the actual fabric production, can take place. At the LCC  hand-made looms are used. 

Adopting the spontaneous attitude of Laotian people, Pauline and I decided to enrol for the half-day weaving course on that day. It started with a quick introduction to the pattern symbolisms which are woven into the fabric. I decided to weave the “Naga” pattern. A “Naga” is a Buddhist creature which can be described as a cross-breeding between a snake and a dragon. There are bad and good “Nagas”. The meaning of the pattern on my piece is protection from harm, as the good “Naga” is fighting the bad one – this is represented on Pauline’s and my woven pieces with yellow thread.

Before we could start with the weaving we had to wind up the threads. This was already quite an experience, as the gadget for the winding-up looked adventurous. Apart from the uncomfortable position, the winding-up as such worked well after a bit of practise.

 

Wind it up - windig up the thread

Wind it up – windig up the thread

Finally, we got started with the main process – the weaving. The first part was easy to manage as the colour stayed the same. The pattern however caused some sort of difficulties as the colours and threads had to be changed in order to get the “Naga” pattern. Luckily, each of us had our master weaver by our side, who examined our work closely and provided help when needed.

After three hours we finished our first pieces of hand-woven Lao fabrics and here I proudly present them to you:

The course was expensive (60 dollars) compared to normal Lao price-standards, but I enjoyed it tremendously and would definitely do it again. It gave me a great insight into the traditional crafts work of Lao people and now that I know how much work it really is,  I appreciate the Lao fabrics even more.

Text by L. Wink
Photos by L. Wink, S. Stoehrer, P. Kern & I. Martin

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