Ock Pop Tok: When Commerce Preserves Culture
August 11 & 13, 2012 — Luang Prabang, Laos
Once in a while, I’ve come across an admirable brand or company on this trip through Cambodia, Thailand & Laos (so far), but none has left as indelible an impression as Ock Pop Tok, a progressive and principled textile-weaving company in Luang Prabang.
As an admirer of both social enterprises and weaving traditions, it was only natural that I be interested in what English photographer Joanna Smith & Lao weaver Veomanee Duangdala have done with Ock Pop Tok since their humble beginnings in 2000.
Through the Fibre2Fabrics Gallery, an exhibit of Lao textiles at their flagship store in Ban Vat Nong, and the Village Weavers Project, wherein Ock Pop Tok artisans empower women in rural communities by transferring handicraft skills, Ock Pop Tok serves as a beacon of heritage preservation not only to the Lao community, but to travelers like myself who get inspired by the work they do.
It’s also particularly commendable when companies really highlight their artisans, and each scarf you see on this wall in their Ban Vat Nong flagship store has a tag indicating the weaver’s name, her picture, and her specialty or brief bio.
[Their second shop at Ban Vat Sene]
I don’t feel it’s enough to just visit the shops within the tourist area when the company gives you an opportunity to see the entire textile creation process at their workshop at the Living Crafts Centre (LCC), which you can take a 10 to 15-minute tuk-tuk ride to from either of their shops within the heart of Luang Prabang.
Learning the process
Having found an ever-increasing interest in textiles and weaving after my visit to Easter Weaving in Baguio and Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, it was obvious that I would jump on this chance to learn more about it in Laos. I enjoyed my time at the LCC and even took two trips down there, and I was glad I made a second trip because it allowed me to talk to more people from Ock Pop Tok. Let me take you through an abbreviated virtual walking tour. 🙂
Upon my arrival at LCC, I was greeted by Doua who walked me through the processes of textile-making. Ock Pop Tok makes use of various natural dyes showcased here, and you will also see some plants dotting the centre with labels indicating what colour dyes these plants create.
I was fortunate enough to walk in on an English traveler taking a dye class as well, and here, you can see the use of a plant whose name is now forgotten, but reminded me a lot of Philippine atsuete.
[Boiling the dye and textile]
I also walked in on a Japanese traveler taking a 3-day weaving class, and here, you can see her preparing her thread for her loom.
Different textile techniques
Of course, nothing beats watching the Ock Pop Tok artisans at work, and at the centre, you’ll be able to see a number of techniques or weaving styles being practiced.
First, there is the traditional loom that I feel most of us are familiar which can be used for a variety of weaving styles. I was told that that the pattern hanging from above is the master pattern, which the weaver uses as a guide. I think I have to watch them a LOT longer to really understand how it happens though because I really couldn’t comprehend how the intricate fabrics were created from that thread skeleton.
One of the techniques I could fathom was the Hmong Batik technique, but not any less amazing just because it was easier to understand. The Hmong Batik artisan usually draws a pattern onto hemp fabric using a mixture of beeswax heated on coal.
The entire fabric is then dyed, usually indigo, and then boiled to remove the wax and reveal the negative imprint of the pattern.
But among the most mind-blowing of techniques (for me) would be Katu weaving, which integrates beads into the fabric, and uses a more primitive-looking (read: really extra challenging-looking) implement to put it all together.
The weaver slides a spool of thread, like weavers at the bigger looms do, except here, she has to count threads and insert beads one at a time while anchoring the end of the loom at her feet with her legs outstretched. I think you can imagine that this can really strain one’s legs.
I also had the unique pleasure of talking to young Katu weaver Mone for an hour or two about her weaving beginnings and Ock Pop Tok, and how grateful she is to them for giving her this opportunity and means of livelihood. I also enjoyed helping her out with her English. 🙂
[The showroom at LCC]
[The Silk Road Cafe, where you can hang out to eat or drink after going around the LCC]
[This was my chosen spot facing the Mekong River]
View more Ock Pop Tok pictures here.
Taking ideas from travel
Travel is learning. It is a knowledge and culture exchange. Having been to Ock Pop Tok, and briefly talking to Joanna, Lear, Ruddy, and Mone, has made me feel inspired (and a little bit daunted at the same time) to do what I can to help preserve the rich textile traditions of the Philippines as well.
Not unlike Laos, weaving styles vary according to the region. My trip to Easter Weaving only showcased some of the traditions of the Cordillera region in Northern Luzon, but there is so much more textile diversity to discover in many other parts of the country. However, unlike in Laos, young Filipinas don’t wear as much of our indigenous textiles as the young Lao women do.
There has been a movement to generate more awareness, from people in the government and business sector, with companies like Vesti and Anthill Fabric Gallery, but of more vital importance is the mindful consumer who will continue to patronize these tapestry tales of our culture and keep the industry, and ultimately our traditions, alive.
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