I fell apart weaving in Laos. It really didn’t matter that I’d been weaving more than half my life. When it came to weaving weft ikat in fine silk (50 ends per inch) in the humid heat of Luang Prabang, I felt like a rank beginner. I signed up for a day-long class at Ock Pop Tok’s Living Crafts Centre so I could learn a few traditional weaves, and to experience the magic of Ock Pop Tok. I was ready to be enriched about traditional weft ikat. (The Centre, located on the banks of the Mekong River, focuses on advancing the artistic, cultural and social development of Lao artisans and promoting the beauty of their rich textiles to other cultures.)
I had woven warp ikat before but never weft. So the idea of learning this technique under the tutelage of master ikat weaver Miss Phet, was a significant draw. But before weaving could even begin, the weft had to be “tied-and-dyed”.
The first step was to wind the silk on a wooden device designed for ikat wefts–the size of the frame based on the width of my warp for weaving a scarf, about 14 inches wide, and enough weft for 30 inches in length. Next, each section of my soon-to-be pattern was tied off with plastic –the plastic being a resist where dye can’t penetrate.
After that, the silk was released from the frame and placed in a pot with water and alum, a mordant used for natural dyeing of colors. After mordanting, the skein went into the first natural dyebath of teak leaves and bark which yielded a pinkish-grey color.
Then the plastic resist was removed and the deep rusty-red dye of the Sappan tree bark was brushed into the silk, soaking in the color. Then the hurry-up and wait until the skein dried in the sun.
Now the weaving could commence. Plain weave with a solid color. I could do that, although I had to adjust to using a playhouse-sized loom with an overhead beater. Miss Phet quickly took over, showing me how the ikat pattern was achieved with the gentle shifting of weft to get two almost vertical bars of colors. I began and within a few shots of weft, I got thrown off.
I couldn’t get the hang of evenly beating the silk, and the lovely stripes were starting to zig and zag. My teacher gently nudged me off the bench, would weave for a bit, hand the shuttle back to me, and I’d begin again. This went on for hours. Fortunately lunch time arrived and, miraculously, when I came back to the loom, many inches were woven. I did finally get the hang of it all. It took a while though and the scarf was finished mid-afternoon. Miss Phet quickly twisted the fringe, faster than any finishing I have ever seen.
My scarf was completed and I draped it on the bamboo ladder in my guest room, humbled, but no longer thwarted.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to purchase a few of Miss Phet’s scarves which were masterfully woven.