A young woman passes a spool of red silk thread expertly under two dozen others and pulls the wooden reed forward with a clack, completing a single line of her journey. A rough pattern hangs at the top of the loom though she doesn’t need to check it. She is a Master Weaver at the Fair Trade social enterprise Ock Pop Tok and she’s creating an intricate King Naga wall hanging, which retails for more than $1,200.
An ancient skill-set is on view at contemporary Luang Prabang clothes-makers.
“Lao silk weaving is a tradition that has passed from mother to daughter for centuries.”
Lao silk weaving is a tradition that has passed from mother to daughter for centuries. It begins with the tiny yet voracious silkworm, whose cocoon can produce a single filament 300 meters long. Villages breed silkworms, then gather several kilo bundles together for dyeing, using natural pigments from trees, flowers, herbs or soils. They are then woven together on traditional wooden looms in intricate designs, each a unique story of history, ethnicity and beliefs that differ between weavers and villages.
Each piece takes weeks or even months of painstaking work. Traditionally, weaving was used to create village homewares, clothes and for dowries, with the most famed and intricate silk weaving practiced by the Katu and Tai ethnic groups. Today, exquisite silk embroideries are most commonly used to decorate hems of the national daily dress, the sinh.
Ock Pop Tok works with hundreds of artisans around Luang Prabang and across the country, helping to sustain and share the beauty of Lao history and culture through textiles. At its beautiful Living Crafts Centre, sloped gardens are planted with haen, tamarind, lemongrass and other plants used in the natural silk dyeing process. Wooden, thatched-roof, open-wall buildings pop up like mushrooms, angled to catch the breeze from the ever-present Mekong River. The largest is home to the soft clatter of traditional wooden standing looms and the whirl of fans overhead as 20-odd weavers expertly manipulate a throng of multicolored threads to create complex silk artworks. Further along, in the workshop room, master weavers accompany amateur enthusiasts to create their own silk scarves.
On the other side of town, another Fair Trade organization, Ma Té Sai, works primarily with hand-spun cotton. Ma Té Sai, which means “Where is it from?,” is a social and cultural enterprise retail store that works directly with the weavers to design, produce and sell contemporary clothing, homewares and handicrafts using traditional dyeing and weaving practices. For those who wish to delve even deeper into the finer points of regional weaving craft, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in town allows visitors to explore Laos’ weaving practices and see examples of rare ethnic textiles.