When photographer Jo Smith had an itch to do something different other than take photographs, she turned to teaching and found herself in the picturesque city of Luang Prabang in north central Laos. It was there where she met Veomanee Duangdala, a young Laotian woman who had an extensive background in weaving and dyeing silk. The two women formed a friendship and partnership, and launched in the new millennium a weaving center to revive the ancient Laotian weaving traditions of the Lao-Tai. The center was named Ock Pop Tok, translated in English to “east meets west.”
Weaving has a rich tradition in Laos where the women have been weaving textiles made from silk for over 1,000 years. The practice has passed down from generation to generation where it was customary for the women to breed silk worms, dye the silk with dyes derived from plants then weave fabric for themselves and their families.
These textiles would be used for everyday life ranging from household uses and clothing such as sihn (skirts) pha kaan (head cloth) and pha bieng (a scarf for the upper body, primarily used by Buddhists). Ceremonial textiles include pha sabai (healing cloth) pha phi mon (shaman cloth) pha phok long (a funeral cloth); and pha tung (prayer flag).
Like many countries in Asia, dowries are still common practice, and girls weave numerous goods to give to her future groom’s family. Girls still weave pha khan mon, a small woven scarf, that’s given as a material expression of love. This practice was commonly used by girls who gave them to American soldiers during the Vietnam War as a symbol of good luck.
The numerous ethnic groups in Laos have all contributed and influenced the various weaving techniques and have their own textile traditions, each very different from one another. At the Ock PopTok weaving center the focus is on the weaving of the Lao-Tai people who are known for their use of the floor loom and for their textiles which have intricate patterns and motifs that are heavily inspired by nature and daily life.
The philosophy behind Ock PopTok was and continues to be to empower women through their traditional skills, as well as promoting and publicizing the special beauty of Laotian textiles across the globe. But the core of the center’s mission, according to their website, is “to train our team in a way that encourages commitment and pride in each other and in the group, to provide a working environment that recognizes an individual's skills and initiative and that produces a better quality of living. Our ethical policy is the basis for our success.”
This policy extends to a series of initiatives called Village Weaver where the OckPop Tok team works with artisans in neighboring rural villages. The concept is to support local craftspersons in their own villages rather than have them travel to a centralized location to work. In these particular instances Ock Pop Tok has partnered with UNDOC or with European Union micro-projects. The Village Weaver Initiative currently takes place in seven provinces where the Ock Pop Tok team of weavers and designers has helped villagers create a variety of goods that mesh traditional weaving and natural dyeing techniques.
Apart from reviving the indigenous weaving traditions, Ock Pop Tok is also a destination for tourists who are interested in the culture and history of Laotian textiles, as well as the weaving and dyeing techniques. The center boasts numerous interactive activities ranging from lectures and seminars to workshops where visitors learn and get hands-on experience. And if immersing oneself in weaving and dyeing processes isn’t enough to meet everything that’s textile, guests of the center can also enjoy a stay at the Ock Pop Tok Villa where the four rooms features the textile designs from the country’s diverse ethnic groups.
To learn more about Ock Pop Tok, please visit www.ocktokpop.com.