What should you do if you are only going to a city for one day and then flying out? I had no idea for Vientiane but my cousin Rebecca gave me a good idea – she’d been and spent the day on a textiles course. I asked her which one, she couldn’t exactly remember but googled and found Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women. Perfect. I emailed, booked myself in for a day’s visit and off I went.
The day began with a mini tour of the centre, having a look at the natural raw silk skeins, the ladies doing some impressive weaving, the colour chart of natural dyes used at the centre and the indigo dying pots.
I then started my first of two activities: tie dying a silk scarf. I was given a lovely neutral coloured scarf and a selection of photographs with the different designs I could try. I went for a criss-cross pattern with a sort of chain along the bottom, to be dyed purple/blue. First, learn how to fold ‘em. Half lengthways, then in half across the width and into quarters, again across the width, folding each section out and back to the middle fold. If you were to look lengthways along the fabric it would make a zigzag or W shape. You then fold triangles back and forth from the middle fold towards the open end and secure it tightly with bamboo sticks and plastic string. To make the chain, two rings of bamboo were held either side of the fabric and tightly secured with a plastic string again. Then comes the tough bit, getting the consistency of colour. I failed quite impressively, although I’m still happy with the result. Phat, my teacher said I had to rinse the fabric first before putting it in the vat. She filled some heavy duty gloves with water to check that there were no leaks and dressed me in an apron. Then I was allowed to get going. Without knowing I had picked the trickiest colour to try and achieve, but then I never like to make things too easy for myself. Dip the material in, swirl it about a bit (that may have been my own flourish, thinking about it) then squeeze the dye in. Repeat. For about 30 minutes. So I did and Phat told me that she has two sisters and three brothers, she comes from northern Laos, not far from Luang Prubang and doesn’t get to visit home too often. She told me that to make indigo dye they use indigo leaves, and it takes about a month to prepare the dye. She told me to squeeze harder because it was still very light and to rub the dye in the folds of the triangles. I tried, but I was a bit rubbish. We took the material out and rinsed it in fresh cold water. I was not being too thorough as I didn’t want to damage the silk and I’m not good at hand washing, so Phat finished it off for me. We untied it, opened it up and hung it up to dry. The pattern is not perfect or particularly clear, but I like it.
There was nothing more to do with tie dye. I think we can agree, it’s not my forte but I’ll have a go doing some with children in school for an international day or technology class I think. Phat took me into the weaving training room where there were lots of looms set up. Full sized looms used by the ladies who know what they are doing have warp threading spanning about 40-60cm depending on the cloth they are making. Mine was about 20cm, which is plenty for me. Phat showed me one that she described as very easy – linear pattern, any colour you like with or without tassels. I had to sit at the loom and place my feet on bamboo sticks which were connected to the warp threads, press down with my right foot while sending the shuttle right to left and then left foot when sending it back again. Between each weaving I had to push the thread down with a bamboo toothed comb to tighten the closeness of the weave. Hold the shuttle underneath to send it through – easy enough right?
Originally I was only going to use red/pink and gold threads but as I continued I got a bit carried away, using a white/silver, greens, brown, black, blues and oranges.
I had about an hour or so to start with then had a break for lunch. This was included in the cost of the day, as were bottles of water and I had a lovely noodle soup. The ladies who run the place came and offered some of their food and had a chat too. I was pretty stuffed on the soup but had a couple of fritters – yam and tarrow root – and some bamboo cooked in seaweed. All delicious.
Back for another three-ish hours of weaving and I got out my ipod and started listening to a bit of folk to get me in the weaving mood. I had a selection, starting with Fribbo, The Chair, Fiddler’s Bid, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, Greg Russel and Ciaran Algar and The Imagined Village.
This is what I ended up creating: I had a really enjoyable day, I think it’s well worth the money for a trip and it’s made me even more impressed with those who make these items. I will never again try to haggle down the price of a piece of hand-woven material!
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