Learning artesania in Laos…

During a trip to Pátzcuaro, Michoácan over a year ago, we gained a new appreciation and understanding of artesania in Mexico as it relates to textiles at a discussion panel held by Red Cooperativa Tepani, a cooperative of women who believe in fair trade, solidarity and giving new meaning to the work behind artisan textiles. We learned about the struggles of keeping the traditions alive and being fairly compensated for the hard work women put into making artisan textiles. The experience changed the way we look at artesania sold at mercados not only in Mexico but also throughout our Southeast Asia travels.

While visiting the capital city of Vientiane a few weeks ago, we had an amazing experience learning about weaving at the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre. The Centre provides training in weaving, dyeing and tailoring for disadvantaged women from rural communities in Laos. Not only does it provide a way for women to earn a living but also helps preserve Lao’s artesania traditions.

We opted for a full day weaving workshop that included transport, a tour of the Centre, lunch and what ended up being a solid five hours weaving a pattern we got to keep (about $35 USD each). Our guide, Jai was from a neighboring rural community and had trained at the Centre for a year. She first took us to the main weaving room where several women were working on the looms. It was fascinating to see the highly skilled women working on skirts, scarfs and other items with various patterns and complexity. We then headed to the dye area where plants, bark, fruits and flowers were being cooked in big cauldrons that would later be used to dye the cotton and silk threads. Finally, we headed to the training room where looms were set up for us to use.

Entrance sign
Main weaving room
Indigo, one of several natural dyes made at the Centre
Silk thread, imported from Vietnam

Jai walked us through the weaving process, explaining the functionality of the loom and the main tools used. It seems simple but it’s more complex than I thought as you can see in the pictures. But with just a basic understanding and Jai watching closely, we were able to get started with our patterns. Everything was up to us, so it was nice to get the creative mind flowing by picking the colors and weaving with a blank slate. I had a good flow early on, picking up speed and making good progress. Laura was more meticulous and took her time to make sure she got her design right. After a while, we were so focused that we wouldn’t talk for a good chunk of time. It felt meditative at times until we would mess up and have to refocus. We both were really enjoying the experience.

We got to choose our own colors for our pattern
Teacher Jai and her pupil
Laura’s pattern, early stages
Just trying not to mess anything up
Ivan’s pattern early stages

The morning flew by and then it was our break time. We ate our caldo de pollo with noodles overlooking the Centre’s lily pond and admired the peaceful nature surrounding us. We were eager to get back and continue our creations. The second half of the day was rough though. Sitting on the loom in the afternoon heat with the overwhelming sleepiness from lunch slowed us down. I started losing my creative flow. Even the dog keeping us company couldn’t help but pass out and somehow got her teeth entangled on the threads. We made good progress though and then started the most complex part of the day: adding designs. We needed lots of help on this part since it required adjusting the loom with every stitch of the design.

Enjoying her noodles with pollo
Pollination in process during lunch
Pobrecita…working too hard
She was loving it
Adding designs
Adding designs

As we got closer to our end time, we went full speed to make sure we had a complete piece. It was an exhausting day but we were proud of our final creations. We gained a deep respect for artisan textiles. It takes a lot of work and skill to create artesania like this and we should appreciate and fairly compensate artists to help maintain these traditions. We love supporting and learning about these initiatives in every country we visit. Highly recommend this experience for anyone who visits Laos!

Trying to finish before time was up
Final creation…classy
Final creation…interesting
La maestra Jai proud of her students



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