When I started planning this trip, I found two organisations in Laos that do textile workshops and classes. I was very excited to go there, probably more than any other country. After six weeks, it was time for my friend to leave and I continued the trip alone.
First stop in Laos was Vientiane the capital. A small, walkable city, very different to other South East Asia capitals such as KL, Bangkok or Jakarta. Laid back people, very cheap food and coffee, sleepy tuk tuk drivers, temples, great textile shops and museums.
Most tourists visit for 3-4 days because there isn’t that much to do, however, I stayed for 11 nights because I did a three-day ikat weaving workshop and a six-day intense natural dyeing course. My only problem with Vientiane was accommodation. I went to Vientiane twice, because I wanted to do another weaving course and ended up returning in December. Both times the accommodation was terrible. I stayed in mid-range hotels and was very disappointed: dirty towels, weird odours, lots of noise and not the friendliest staff. Anyway, I was there for the courses and they were amazing.
Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women is located in Houey Hong village, about 20mins from the centre of Vientiane via car. It is surrounded by a big garden with plants that can be used for natural dyeing. There is an office, a shop, two weaving rooms, a dyeing area, a small exhibition room with antique textiles and two sewing rooms. The founder, Chanthasone Inthavong wanted to provide training for various skill levels in weaving, natural dyeing and tailoring for women in rural areas who are disadvantaged, poor and/or have a disability. Their work supports Lao’s traditional crafts, keeping techniques alive.
The founder now lives in Japan, and her sister Sengmany manages the centre. I met both of these ladies while I was there. Sengmany is one of the sweetest people, coming to check up on me, translating my questions to my teachers and their answers to me, and making sure I understood everything. Another member of the team I really liked was Junko, a japanese lady that works in the school next door teaching art to children, but also works part time at the centre, usually doing the one day workshops with tourists.
Here are some photos of the antique collection they have at Houey Hong, everything is hand and naturally dyed, and handwoven. Some of these pieces are over 80 years old.
The first three days, I did the Ikat weaving workshop. Ikat is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles. It’s a form of resist dyeing. In Ikat the resist is formed by knotting individual yarns or bundles of yarns in a designed pattern. Knotting tightly some parts of the yarn before dyeing it will keep the tied parts the original colour of the yarn while dyeing [and therefore changing the colour of] the rest.
Ikat Weaving Workshop:
First I had to measure the length of my beater on the loom — it was 35cm long. Then my teacher prepared this construction for me (see photo above), it’s 35cm measuring from the outer side of each of the two poles. Then I took my un-dyed silk skein and made a knot at the bottom left pole. I went around both poles twice before going about two fingers up, went round both poles twice on that level and then again two fingers up. As you can see I went up 13 times. When I reached that point I went back down again. I did it until I ran out of yarn. The silk yarn was about 150g.
The next step is to “copy” the pattern on the yarn and do the tying or knotting. The pattern consists of 13 lines, that is why I went around the poles 13 times.
After tying, we removed the skein from the poles and took it in the dyeing area. I chose to dye it with sticklac. Sticklac is a scarlet resinous secretion of lac insects. We had to crush the sticklac in very fine powder before mixing it with tamarind and making the dye. After dyeing and washing, we let it dry and then we spun the silk yarn — to be ready to be used as weft the next day.
The next day, I started weaving. We decided to add a bit of Chok weaving. Chok is a technique which you do with your fingers, using different colours, it creates a texture like embroidery. I learnt how to design a pattern and “save it” on the loom using this technique my last week in South East Asia.
After that, I started weaving. I first used some silk that was fully dyed with sticklac (no ikat pattern) for about 10cm. Then I started making the pattern. Each line would be repeated 4 times, so the whole pattern was made out of 52 lines. After each pattern I would do a bit of plain weave using the silk dyed with sticklac only. I found keeping my edges straight very difficult. However, according to everyone it’s just a matter of practice and now my edges are much better. Here are some photos of the work in progress and final piece:
Before I continue talking about the six day intensive natural dyeing course, I’m going to talk about some of my favourite places in Vientiane.
ATMO - L’atmosphere: Quite posh, french-lao fusion. Very nice interior with nice atmosphere. The staff is the best!
Cafe Ango: Amazing Japanese restaurant. Recommended to me by Junko, my Japanese teacher. The food isn’t sushi, it’s “the way we eat food at home” (Junko). Very cheap.
Lao Kitchen: Traditional Lao food restaurant.Noy’s Fruit Heaven: Best smoothies and juices. They also have vegan food and traditional lao food.
Phakhao Lao Restaurant: Traditional Lao food.
Pimenton Restaurant: Steakhouse, quite expensive. Probably the best french fries I had in Asia.
30mL Espresso and Bar: Lots of breakfast options, nice juices and smoothies.
Le trio coffee: My favourite place in Vientiane! Really sweet staff, the best croissants I’ve had in my life and great coffee.
Little House Cafe: Owned by a Japanese couple, lots of nice teas and coffees, very nice and cosy interior. I also saw three ladies knitting here.
Once upon a time cafe: Nice all day cafe, good breakfasts, friendly staff and very nice interior.
Suzette: French crepe place, nice crepes and great coffee.
CamaCrafts and Mulberries: These two shops are next to each other. Beautiful silk scarves and other products. Most of them naturally dyed.
Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles: Carol Cassidy’s designs are amazing. Modern designs and colour combinations but still they use traditional methods of production. You can also see the room where they store all their dyed silk yarn. Heaven.
Dee Traditional Antique Textiles: Amazing antique textiles. I wanted to buy the whole shop.
HerWorks: Here all products are produced by women from ethnic minorities. The labels say exactly who made the product and how. Mix of modern and traditional designs.
Interwoven: Really lovely jewellery made from artisans around Laos.
Kanchana Tha Beauty of Lao Silk: Naturally dyed traditional scarves and skirts. The owners own the Lao Textile Museum.
Saoban: Beautifully hand-crafted, eco-friendly products made in the villages of Laos. It is a social business that works with traditional artisans to preserve and promote Lao village crafts.
Other places to visit in Vientiane:
COPE visitor centre (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise): The main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. At the visitor centre there are various informative exhibits about prosthetics and the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that unfortunately, make them necessary.
Ho Moune Thaentaeng Museum: Textile Museum, founded by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, a really sweet lady, which I met at Houey Hong. She is a writer and researcher and she’s written a book on Lao textiles and culture. It’s quite difficult to find this place so I recommend talking with Junko or Sengmany from Houey Hong and asking them to organise it for you.
Houey Hong Vocational Centre: One day (or more) weaving and dyeing classes, antique textiles and a great shop!
Lao Textile Museum: The first private museum in Laos. Antique pieces of silk made by different ethnic groups of the country are on display. The exhibition is displayed in a wooden house of typical Lao style, surrounded by peaceful gardens.
Morning market: Textiles, yarns, food, anything you want really.
Patuxay Monument: A war monument in the centre of Vientiane. The Patuxai was dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France.
Wat Inpeng temple
Wat Mixai temple
Six Day Intensive Natural Dyeing Course:
My teacher’s name was Yo. He was really funny, and tried very hard to teach me everything he knows about dyeing and a bit of the Lao language too! I really enjoyed my classes with him.
First, we tie dyed a silk scarf. I wanted it to be dyed green, so we first put it in indigo (which makes blue) and then jackfruit (which makes yellow). I dipped it in indigo three times, because I wanted a really dark green. Then I took it out, washed it, and added it to the jackfruit dye. For the jackfruit we used the bark of the tree.
1 kg silk (or other dyestuff)
50g limestone (similar to alum)
1 teaspoon salt
We added all the ingredients (except for the silk) in a big stainless steel bowl and put it on the fire. After it started boiling, we left it for 30 mins. Then we let it cool for a while before adding the silk scarf in. We “massaged” the folded silk scarf to make sure the dye goes everywhere, for 10 minutes. Then we took it out, washed it, and put it back in the dye again. We heated the dye until it was boiling, while stirring. After 5 minutes we took it out, washed it, removed the sticks/ropes that were tying the fabric and hang it out to dry.
(Fun fact their Indigo Vats are 22 years old!)
Ash water is used a lot in Laos. They use it as mordant with some dyestuff, but they also use it to soften their silk and cotton. They collect the ash and then use a sieve to make sure only tiny pieces of ash are collected in a bucket. The bucket has some small holes underneath (around 10 holes which have a 2cm diameter each) Then the hang it from somewhere and put another bucket underneath it on the floor.
They add water in the bucket that is hanging and they leave it overnight. The next day they collect the ash water from the bucket on the floor. To make their skeins softer, they soak the silk and cotton for 20 mins in water. Then they take a big pot (30L) full of water and add approximately 2L of ash water. If you touch it, it must feel very oily. Then, you heat the pot, and bring it to boil. Then you add the skeins, and leave for 1 hour. You have to check and stir, making sure they don’t get tangled.
Instead of alum they use limestone, which makes the colour brighter.
To make colours darker, they use iron and vinegar.
500g of rusty nails / 1L of white vinegar / 1L of water
Then boil and stir until 2L become 1L. Then leave to cool. This can be used at any point.
Sticklac has to be crushed first, and then it must soak overnight. Sticklac makes pink and red.
Remove the lac dyestuff from the water, using a sieve and muslin cloth. Then add the tamarind in that water. You have to keep squeezing until all the juice from the tamarind has left, then remove the tamarind. Add skeins in the dye (after soaking them for 20 minutes in water) and add the limestone. Leave them for five minutes. Put the pot on the fire, wait for it to boil, and then let it simmer for one hour. Keep stirring. After an hour, remove skeins, wash and leave to dry.
Remove the lac dyestuff from the water, using a sieve and muslin cloth. Then, you have to dye your yarn yellow (we used jackfruit). For the jackfruit dye we used a 1:1 ration (so 1kg silk, 1kg jackfruit). We left the skein in the jackfruit dye for one hour. Then we washed it and let it dry. While it was drying we prepared a limestone/water bucket (1kg silk: 1kg limestone, 24L water). We added the skein in the bucket and left it for 20 minutes. While the skein was in the limestone water bucket, we added tamarind to our dye, squeezing it so that all the juice comes out. We also added 1 cup of the limestone water mixture in the dye. Then we added the skein, left it in there for five minutes before putting it on the fire. After bringing to boil, we left it for one hour. Then we took it out, washed and left it to dry.
Except for Sticklac and Ebony, the rest of the plants we used to dye had similar recipes.
2kg onion skins
50gr of limestone mixed with 24L of water (makes gold) or 30gr of iron and vinegar mixture (makes brown)
50L of water
We made both colours.
First you add all your dyestuff in a pot. You add half the amount of water you need. Bring to boil and then let it simmer for 30 minutes. At the same time put the silk to soak in water for 20 minutes. Then, using a sieve, remove the dye and put in a bowl. Put the onions back in the pot, add new water (the rest). Bring to boil, simmer for 30 minutes. Use the sieve to remove the onions. Put the two dyes together. Add your skeins of yarn in the dye. Bring to boil, simmer for 30 minutes. At the same time, prepare 2 buckets. One with iron and one with limestone. Take the skeins out, wash them, and put one in the limestone bucket and one in the iron bucket. Stir, and leave for 20 minutes. At the same time, take half of the dye out, and put it in another pot. Take the skeins out, and put one in each pot. Bring to boil, simmer for 30 minutes (or more if you want a stronger colour). Wash, and hang out to dry.
We used the same recipe for Mangosteen shell - eggshell colour (only with iron), Mahogany bark - light pink (only difference is we had to cut it in tiny pieces and let it soak overnight, and we added 1L of ash water as mordant), Bombay Black Wood - yellow (only used iron), Coconut shell - beige/grey (only used iron) and Mak Hon Mon fruit - brown (no mordant - has enough tannins).
The ebony found in the village produces grey whereas the ebony found in the forest produces brown. Ebony is like indigo, it works with oxidation.
1kg silk - 5kg ebony (fresh)
1L ash water
We soaked the ebony fruits overnight, with the ash water, mud and limestone. After soaking we removed the ebony fruits and kept the dye. We added the soaked skeins (which had been soaking for 20 minutes) in the dye (no heat yet) and left them inside for five minutes. Then we took them out, put the pot on fire, added the skeins, brought to boil and left them inside for one hour. If you want a really dark grey or black you have to take the skeins out every 30 minutes for about 5 minutes each time, to let them oxidise.
Usually for dried dyestuff we used double the amount of the skeins/fabrics. If the dyestuff is fresh then it’s five times the weight of the yarn/fabric. If it’s seeds (like Anato seeds) it’s half the amount of the skeins/fabrics.
i.e.:1kg silk - 2kg dried leaves/bark/flowers
1kg silk - 5kg fresh leaves/bark/flowers
1kg silk- 500gr seeds
This is a photo of everything I naturally dyed. Silk and cotton skeins. Natural dyes used: Indigo, Sticklac, Jackfruit (bark), Onion Skins, Mangosteen (shell), Mahogany (bark), Coconut (Shell), Bombay Black Wood (leaves), Ebony (fruit), Mak Hon Mon (fruit) and Anato (seeds).
I loved my 11 days here. I actually came back even though I wasn’t supposed to in the beginning of December. More about what I did then soon. Next blog post is about Luang Prabang, another city in Laos. There I did natural dyeing, weaving, batik and bamboo weaving.
Have a lovely weekend,