We decided to split up for the day...but don't panic not in a relationship sense! Dan went to go rock climbing, which he'll tell you about in the next blog, and I spent the day learning how to dye silk and weave it on a loom!
Throughout our travels we had seen local women sitting at looms outside their houses weaving textiles that they would either use themselves or sell. We'd often been mesmerised at how they work these complicated machines so effortlessly sliding the spindle from one side to the other whilst simultaneously changing the tension with the foot peddles and pulling all the threads back together. I was keen to give it a go myself so when I found out about the classes that Ock Pop Tok do at their craft centre on the Mekong I had to see if I could do it!
I chose to do the full day course learning to dye silk in the morning followed by an afternoon sitting at a loom learning to weave. I was the only person doing the full day but was joined in the morning by an American couple on their honeymoon and a British girl who would also be learning abut natural dyes.
The course started with us being introduced to silk worms and we were told how when the silk worm is ready to turn into a moth it spins itself a cocoon of silk. It takes 4 days for the silk worm to make its cocoon which is made up of 300m of silk filaments which then get woven into silk thread.
The cocoons are put into boiling water and stirred with a stick to loosen the filaments, when the stick is pulled out this creates the thread which is reeled and collected. Interestingly the filaments from the outside of the cocoon are thicker than the finer filaments on the inside and the people in the know are able to separate these out producing two types of silk with varying quality. It is said that making silk was discovered by a Chinese princess in 2700 BC when a cocoon fell into her tea!
Raw silk is not like the soft silk that most of us are familiar with. This is because it is coated in sericin which is a gummy substance created when the liquid silk secreted from the silkworm meets the air making it hard. The raw silk is separated into smaller bundles known as scaines which are then boiled in soapy water to get rid of the sericin. This process needs to be done before dying the silk and we would later be dying 3 scaines in colours of our choice.
Our guide Chan took us through the different types of natural dyes. It is amazing how many different vibrant colours can be made from plants, flowers and fruits. As well as the different types of dye there are also different traditional beliefs that go with them. For example it is believed that the indigo dye has a male spirit inside which must not escape because the dye will die and so a knife is kept on top of the lid so it does not attract unwanted spirits.
I chose to dye my 3 scaines bright orange, red and green.
Whilst we waited for the scaines to be prepared we were taken to see the master weavers at work. There are 3 different types of weaving Ikat, Nam Lai and Chok & Kit. Ikat weaving is kind of like tie dye where it uses threads that have been dyed alternate colours by binding the silk in undyable thread before adding the colour.
Nam Lai is a freestyle weaving technique when the weaver adds coloured yarn by hand and is a commonly used in northern Laos.
Chok & Kit is the technique we had mainly seen in our time in Laos. It was to be the technique I was to learn and we were told was the most complicated!
For this technique the blueprint for the pattern is held in rows on the heddle (the threads hanging down from the top of the loom. If you look closely you can see the pattern here in the photo below.
The overall design is made by weaving rows of patterns one after the other. Once is row of pattern is completed the warp strings on the heddle need to be lifted for the next row to be woven. One piece of textile can include 100s of rows of patterns and so you can see why this was one of the most difficult techniques and I was a bit dubious about how well I would do in the afternoon!
We headed over to the dying area and put on our aprons ready to 'get to work'. The first dye I needed to make was for bright orange. This involved collecting the fruit from the Annato tree using a long stick and emptying the fruit from inside easy to be pummelled.
Whilst I was doing that the girls were chopping up rosewood which would be used to make the red dye.
The last dye for me to prepare was the green. This was made from crushing indigo leaves. If you do other things to the leaves first like ferment or boil them then you get different shades of blue.
Once the ingredients were ready they were out into boiling pots of water over the fire.
I felt a bit like being a witch watching over bubbling multicoloured potions but I resisted the urge to let out a witch like cackle!
When the dye was ready we dipped our scaines of silk 3 times before leaving the to soak. Due to the type of dye the green needed a bit more hands on work so it was on with the gloves to work the dye in. The others who were just dying in the morning got to dye a cotten scarf too to take home with them. It took several dips and a lot of working the dye into the scarf to get the dark blue colour.
Once we had rinsed out the dye it was time to dry our handy work in the sun.
The group were now finished for the morning but there was no rest for me as I needed to chose two colours to use for a placemat I was to weave in the afternoon and then wind the silk onto bobbins in preparation. I opted for a slate blue for the background colour and a pink for the pattern. It was quite a time consuming task winding the silk onto the bobbin as I had managed to choose probably the most tangled scaines in the pile and it also kept breaking.
I definitely enjoyed a well earned lunch that I shared with Chan and he told me that he was a novice monk for a year which is why he does not have a girlfriend yet. It was interesting hearing about his time as a novice and his aspirations to become an English teacher. When he is not a guide he is practicing his English and going to teacher training college. I'm sure he will be great at it.
My teacher for the afternoon was a woman called Tu although Chan would be our translator. She had set up my loom and despite the relatively simple pattern that I would be weaving it had still taken best part of the day to set up the blueprint on the heddle. Tu had started off the placemat and demonstrated how to weave by sliding the shuttle between the threads to the otherside, you then press down the peddle on that side with your foot to make the threads taught and pull back the central paddle with your other hand to push back the thread into a neat line. This is then done in the other direction. I repeated this over and over again building up the blue background colour. It was complicated remembering to change feet but soon I got into a rhythm.
Then it was time to add my second color, pink. Lines of colour were simple, 4 rows of pink and then 4 rows of blue but then it got even more complicated as the technique changed slightly depending on which part of the pattern I was weaving. Each time we completed a line on the pattern Tu removed a row of string from the heddle lifting into position the next row of pattern. Then I had to slide another paddle between the strings and flip it upwards to open them before weaving the next row. Then it needed to be turned down for the next row, whilst remembering when to use the foot peddles etc... I'm not sure if this description makes sense but this was the patten that started to build.
Once about 10cms of pink pattern had been done I then had 20cms of the blue to do to finish my first bit of silk weaving. I was soon back in my rhythm again and was left to complete it. As tours of the centre were being done I almost became part of it with people asking me questions about weaving and watching me try not to muck up under pressure. It was really fun and after best part of 4 hours my masterpiece was complete! I was definitely going to feel it in my back the next day. Tu added the finishing touches once she had cut the placemat out of the loom by rolling the ends of thread down her leg creating the fringe. Chan said that Tu was impressed with my technique as usually students break the main threads pushing the shuttle through but I had not broken one Pleased with my days work I set off back into town to find out how Dans day had gone and have a drink!