If you ever happen to find yourself in the beautiful country of Laos, then please, please, do check out Ock Pop Tok. I happened to come across it randomly when spotting this sign while meandering down the main street of Luang Prabang.
Once inside the boutique, I practically drooled at their woven wall hangings and accessories.
I decided to sign up for a full day course offering an introduction to the Laotian style of weaving as well as a workshop on natural dyeing. At 640,000 kip (around $100 CAD), this class was way over my budget. But, sometimes budgets deserve to be stretched where necessary. And let me tell you, this class was necessary!
The Free Tour
Ock Pop Tok also offers free 1 hour tours of their facilities. You can hop into a tuk tuk from their downtown boutique, and they will drop you off at their beautiful outdoor villa/café/workshop location. You will then get to learn how the silkworms produce the silk used in their weaving, the natural dyeing process (including indigo, teak leaves and jackfruit wood), Laotian weaving techniques and styles, and get to observe the master weavers in action. It is a very thorough and interesting tour, one that I would have gladly paid money for. Afterwards, you can stop off at the cafe to enjoy a cup of silkworm poo tea (delicious!).
1 day Weaving and Natural Dyeing Class
On the morning of my lesson, I got to enjoy a second tour of the facilities before the class began (as I had gone on the free tour the previous day), thankfully, there is so much information to grasp during the tour that it wasn’t a bore at all listening to it a second time! I was also happy to find that I wouldn’t be taking the class alone. An Australian (also an avid knitter) joined as well, and, of course, we didn’t run out of things to talk about. (“All of my friends think I’m such a granny …” “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.”). 😉
Learning to Dye Naturally
After our mini tour, we got to choose our favorite three colours to dye our silk skeins with (that we could also take home with us). The colours to choose from were light and dark blue (both from the indigo plant) red and pink (from the sappan tree), light green (lemongrass), light beige (teak leaves), gold (jackfruit tree), light orange (turmeric).
I chose the pink, gold and beige.
The pink colour is created from the wood of the sappan tree (which makes a deep and rich red), and is then mixed in with wood ash (lightening it to a beautiful fuschia pink). It amazed me that you could get such rich and beautiful colours using natural dyes! I always thought that when dyeing naturally, as opposed to chemical dyes, the colours would be much lighter and more faded, but it turns out that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The gold colour was created using the wood of the jackfruit tree.
And finally, beige is created using teak leaves! Although my colour turned out a bit more pinkish than beige, but still very beautiful.
That’s just another amazing part of the natural dyeing process. You can never predict exactly how it’s going to turn out, as it depends on the traits of the individual tree, leaves, concentration, time left to boil in water, etc, etc. I love realizing that each skein is perfectly unique, it makes it all the more special, don’t you think?
Now, I know the question you must all be asking yourselves.
Can you knit with the silk skeins you took home?
Although that would have been so, so wonderful, the answer is, very likely, no. Maybe if I find myself some extra tiny needles, as the weight (and texture) of the silk is akin to dental floss. However, I did manage to inquire about thicker silk, and discovered that they sell undyed skeins of silk from the Eri silk moth (I’ll talk more about the silk worms in a future post!), with the weight being more bulky and textured. Oh, I can just imagine knitting myself up a beautiful silk cowl. But alas, the skeins cost about 200,000 kip ($32 CAD), which, although not too pricey for silk, I just couldn’t justify myself to buy (mainly due to the fact that my backpack is nearing full capacity and I still have a few more months to go).
A good part of the morning was spent chopping up jackfruit wood, boiling the natural products with our silk skeins, rinsing out the dye, and then hanging the skeins up to dry.
We then stopped for a gourmet lunch featuring Laotian cuisine and fruit for dessert! It was probably the most fancy meal I’ve ate in months …
Afterwards, we spun our silk onto a small spool to prepare it for the weaving process. Once the weaving started, there were no more breaks! Although weaving the solid colour and stripes seemed simple enough, the number of steps required once you get to the design portion was quite complicated. Any talking on my part meant that I would lose focus and make a mistake in the design. It was so much fun, but so much work at the same time.
Also, the design is worked from a template, set up by the master weavers prior to us starting to weave. Of course, this just adds to my realization of how incredibly complicated this weaving business can get.
It took us about 3 hours to finish our handwoven placemat that we each got to take home. The master weavers helped us to pretty it up in the end, by adding a nice black tassel to each of the ends.
A (Very) Short History of Weaving in Laotian Culture
The loom used for the weaving is also very large, taking up a space of about 4 square meters. Men are responsible for building the looms that the women use to weave, whereas weaving is a tradition mainly continued by the women in Laotian society. If a man knows how to weave, it’s likely because he has no wife to weave for him. Another interesting cultural tidbit is the Laotian skirt used in weddings. The women are responsible for weaving the skirt for both themselves, as well as their future husband. They can’t marry until they finish their skirt! Although nowadays, in the cities, many Laotians simply buy a premade skirt instead.
My one day weaving and natural dyeing class at Ock Pop Tok was the perfect way to spend a rainy day in Luang Prabang.
Have you ever taken a weaving class? What did you think of it?
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