Whilst staying in Luang Prabang on my recent holibobs, I cycled to the outskirts of the town to a textile gallery and weaving centre called Ock Pop Tok, beautifully situated right on a peaceful bank overlooking the Mekong. Founded in 2000 by a local Lao weaver and an English photographer, the centre aims to preserve traditional Laotian methods of weaving and silk-making. You can check out the ladies while they weave away on their looms, take a class yourself, browse the gallery and shop or even stay at the centre. We just rocked up on our bikes to check out the shop and gallery, but one of the lovely staff offered to give us a quick tour, so we jumped at the chance.
To those of a nervous disposition – look the feck away now!
Readers – these are silk worms. And I touched them. They’re not slimy at all – they’re quite soft and benign. Which is nice to know considering they go on to make the most beautiful silk – see below. They eat mulberry leaves all day and then after about six weeks they go into the chrysalis stage, spinning a fine silk cocoon around themselves. Unfortunately (and I make no comment on this since I love meat and wear leather shoes etc) to get this cocoon for our silk-making purposes, the worms are not allowed to advance to ‘moth’ stage but are instead killed by heat, in order to preserve the silk.
The silk is then dyed using a variety of natural substances – leaves and bark, plants and even something called a ‘forest potato’. The sheer variety of colours using these dyes was amazing – just one dye can produce a range of colours just depending on how long you boil it for.
These beautiful colours are then selected to make stunning Laotian textiles – scarves, wall-hangings, clothes, bags, you name it. When we visited there were just a few ladies weaving away (it was a Saturday) but there could be up to twenty looms all going at the same time.
The centre is based on ethical, fairtrade principles. Interestingly, we were told that whilst silk weaving is very much a female skill and practice, bamboo weaving is something that traditionally Lao men were skilled in. Sadly much of this artistry is being lost, whether it’s down to Western influences of commerce and big business or because there are less and less traditional ‘country’ village practices and events that call for traditional textiles as part of the festivities. The centre’s aim is to preserve and encourage those skills and get a fair price for them in the process. Many of the products were quite expensive, even by Western standards, but when you compared the quality of the items to the cheaper (mostly mass -produced and imported from China but marketed as ‘traditional’ and ‘artisan’) products in Luang Prabang’s night market, you could see and feel the difference.
It was such a lovely afternoon I thought I’d share my few pics of it with you. If you ever get the chance to go to Laos I’d heartily recommend a visit. I only wish I’d had enough time to take a class in weaving. But then it’s not a very portable hobby is it?!