Laos is a textile lover's paradise, with rich silks, handspun cottons, deep indigos and natural dyes, complex supplementary weft designs, bold ikats, batik and detailed applique. Bordered by China, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia, Laos is landlocked, mountainous, with thick jungle, agricultural and river-based livelihoods and a slow pace of life. It is home to over 50 ethnic groups (and more than 200 subtribes) with diverse weaving skills and techniques of dyeing, stitching and mark making on cloth. It is a Buddhist nation and the northern city of Luang Prabang is quite literally a jewel along the banks of the Mekong River with glittering temples, lush vegetation and a beautiful marriage of traditional wooden Lao houses and French colonial architecture.Luang Prabang is home to Ock Pop Tock (OPT), a social enterprise that has been working with weavers and craftspeople since 2000, founded with the aim to elevate the profile of Lao textiles and artisans, to increase economic opportunities for artisans, and to facilitate creative and educational collaboration in Laos and worldwide. Luang Prabang is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in SE Asia, an opportunity that OPT have harnessed to help their business grow. A steady stream of visitors gives the team the platform to engage with customers to explain and demonstrate the value of the textiles and crafts face to face.The Living Crafts Centre (LCC) in Luang Prabang (run by OPT) is a working studio, open to tourists, locals and the general public to explore. Additionally, a repertoire of beginner and multi-day classes in weaving, natural dyes, bamboo weaving and Hmong batik and embroidery offers visitors an immersive experience. The LCC is set up to resemble a working village community, with artisans working as they would in their own villages - where each house has a loom and mothers and daughters are spinning, dyeing, weaving or doing embroidery. When not farming or cooking, village men and women are creating functional household items. The Living Crafts Centre offers tourists an opportunity to experience creative village life amidst tropical gardens and a stunning Mekong riverside setting. Much like Lao village life, the pace of life is collaborative, friendly, warm-hearted and immersed in nature. Resident artisans have an opportunity to interact with tourists to share their craft and cultural knowledge. Mrs Kiang, a master weaver at the Centre, believes “the best thing about working here is that ability to make visitors happy and help them love Lao textiles, too.”Amongst the classes offered at The Living Craft Centre is the discontinuous supplementary weft technique, distinctive of Lao textiles. It is time consuming, demanding great skill and patience. The complex brocade designs are created with supplementary weft on a plain ground. The design is stored on the vertical heddle system, a grid of vertical and horizontal strings that hangs behind the two fixed heddles used for plain weave. Each vertical string is looped above and below a warp string and each horizontal string is a blueprint for a row of pattern. Each row of pattern in the pattern heddle contains some warp strings that are raised and others that are lowered, with the weaver intuitively reading the template and using colour to interpret the design with her own personality.Hands-on learning with the artisans creates a space where clients/tourists are educated through experience. Many people are surprised by the amount of labour involved in creating a textile and how the complex designs have been passed on from generations without being written down. There is always a certain amount of variation in handmade products so when the client can experience the level of skill required, it immediately increases their admiration for the work. As such, educating the producer groups to cultivate a diligent practice AND educating the consumers of the skill in production is the path OPT have taken to build value into their product and brand.
To further follow the story of Ock Pop Tok, find them on social media here.