The water has been boiling for a while now and a woody scent enters my nose. I pour the hot water full of shavings through a piece of cloth to filter the pulp out. I bring the water to the boil again before adding the main ingredients. No, I am not preparing a meal, I am making yellow! Today we are learning thousand-year old natural dyeing techniques to colour our own silk scarfs.
Many colours can be obtained: initially fresh indigo leaves that have been fermented in a jar for blue, the roots of turmeric or the bark of the Indian trumpet for yellow, teak leaves for pink or grey, and boiled annatto seeds for orange, just to mention a few.
Because of the seasonality of plants, dyeing with natural colours requires some planning: certain fruits can only be harvested and used for the colouring in specific months of the year, while some colours can be stored a bit longer. When the plants are not available, one has to be creative and derive secondary colour from the stored ones (or use cheap chemical dyes).
Once obtained, the colour has to be fixed by a mordant: limestone, alum, ash water…
I carefully knead the silk scarf I previously folded and wrapped with plastic strings around a bamboo stick to design a specific pattern, for it to absorb the indigo-blue.
In the Houey Hong weaving centre, dyeing fabrics is the first step of a long weaving process. Women from all over Laos are trained here to then return to their home villages where they can dye and weave pieces that are bought by the Centre and sold in Vientiane. When Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang focuses on very refine silk and designs, the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women in Vientiane specializes in everyday hand-woven clothing plebiscited by Laotian women for their long lifespan and sturdiness.
“The challenge we have is to keep the tradition of weaving alive”, Sengmany, the manager of the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women explains. “Weaving skills have been passed on for generations from mothers to daughters, but today young women do not have the patience to learn how to set up the templates creating the patterns which are so characteristic and meaningful to our society”, Sengmany tells us. “Here at Houey Hong, we aim at keeping the tradition alive. The Lao motifs and colours are so symbolic that people can distinguish ethnicity, social status and origin from the textiles that are worn: natural elements, animals, and mythical creatures.”
While my beautiful blue and white silk scarf dries in the sun, I am making my way to the loom I will be trying to tame for the next few hours. I duck underneath several coloured silk threads that are spun around the building. Artisans are carefully measuring their lengths before setting up the template for the loom. It looks so incredibly complicated that I cannot wrap my brain around it.
Probably realizing my skill level, the template chosen for me is plain. Sengmany shows me how to synchronize hands and feet to open or close the fixed heddles for the hand-carved shuttle to pass through the warp and weave the template pattern. Pushing on the right pedal lifts the even warp threads, while the left one lifts the odds. I clumsily try, and after a few minutes, I start having a steady pace until I realize the thread ended! Sengmany smiles as I look puzzled and helps me knotting a new one on. If the weaving itself is pretty straight forward, fixing knots, unaligned threads or other unexpected issues requires a lot of experience, let alone setting up the template that will only lift specific warp threads for a specific pattern!
Dyeing and weaving one’s own fabric the traditional way, being taught by Laotians is a very humbling experience, and a reminder of what it must have been for our ancestors prior to our industrial revolution.
Beyond preserving a century-old tradition, the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women works towards women empowerment in Laos.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photographs)
- Dyeing and weaving workshops can be followed at the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women set in the outskirts of Vientiane and give a good insight of what it takes to weave.
- If Vientiane does not figure on your travel itinerary, Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabamg also offers excellent dyeing and weaving workshops, as well as bamboo weaving, and Hmong batik.
- For other great ideas to explore Vientiane, check out this off beaten path itinerary!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!