The smell of hot wax rises from the grass-covered hut every morning. A petite elderly woman, dressed in a traditional sarong, walks slowly down the stone-covered path, the Mekong river her backdrop. She carries a roll of hemp cloth, and once at the hut, she sets up her demonstration area for the day.
This is Ms Mai Suxiong, Ock Pop Tok’s resident Blue Hmong batik artist. She is the oldest practicing Blue Hmong artist creating the intricate patterns made from wax at the Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang, Laos DPR. Ms Suxiong does not follow any pattern—she draws freeform with an incredibly steady hand, never wavering, even during the intense heat of the day. Her drawing is made with a tjanting tool—a tool made of wood with a small metal receptacle at the end for holding the hot, melted wax and the nib through which the wax flows.
This practice is very old and is traditional to the Blue Hmong hill tribe of the northern province of Laos. It’s used to decorate the pleated skirts and other articles of dress. Not having had a written language, the Blue Hmong created symbols from their surroundings and these symbols are used throughout their batiked cloth. The ones Ms Suxiong uses in this cloth, are primarily geometric but change in size and form throughout the piece.
The cloth is made of hemp handwoven by the weavers at Ock Pop Tok and is used for pillows and panels, small bags, or insets into table and bed linens. The hemp is locally cultivated and is widely regarded as the crop of the future because it has such a low environmental impact. It can be grown and processed without any chemical treatments and yields three times more raw fiber as cotton.
Once Ms Suxiong’s roll of cloth is covered with batik drawing and all the wax has dried, it is dyed in a natural indigo vat, dipped many times to achieve the dark blue coloring. Then the wax, which is a resist and therefore resists indigo from penetrating in the areas where the wax has been applied, is removed by boiling the cloth in water. From here, these lengths are dried in the fresh, open air, looped between the drying the lines.