Journey into a world of sublime textures and ethereal shades, where age-old techniques create the textiles of eastern dreams – sustainably.
WORDS & PICTURES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
A rough stone pot bubbles an earthy red as the sappan tree roots it contains offer up their maroon shades. Rusty nails – added as a colour fix – complete the rich, murky mix, as the natural dye is prepared to receive a batch of finest silk.
Welcome to the vibrant world of Ock Pop Tok – or “East meets west”. So named as a nod to its founders – a local weaver and an English photographer – here traditional methods for making the fabrics and textiles so synonymous with Lao cultural heritage are celebrated, and put to use in creating modern, majestic materials, clothing and decor.
Blending its Master Weavers’ years of patiently acquired knowledge and skill with contemporary designs and styles, OPT takes the handmade history of Lao artisans into the 21st century. What’s more, with the entire venture committed to both fair working and trading conditions, and women’s empowerment, it does so in a truly responsible way.
Winner of a 2014 Responsible Tourism Award, OPT presently runs a learning centre, cafe, heritage shop, hotel and boutique to boot, dotted throughout the serene city of Luang Prabang, in northern Laos.
Stroll into either of the central stores and, at first glance, one might be forgiven for taking the fabrics at face value: with patterns so intricate and textures so tempting, the drapes, shirts, scarves and silks beguile and bewitch in equal measure.
Wandering through the upstairs rooms of the Boutique – just metres from Big Brother Mouse, a language centre where several of the staff join other local youngsters in practising their English with visiting travellers after work – its difficult not to wish for a bigger abode, so striking are the wall-hangings and cushion covers. A technicolour mural in finest fabric, those of a tactile disposition will – quite rightly – find this a boudoir close to heaven.
Look a little deeper, though, and it’s clear that there’s so much more to this story than stunning textiles. Take the free tuk-tuk to OPT’s out-of-town learning centre – or enjoy the 15-minute cycle – and you’ll wander into an idyll of pastel shades and peaceful serenity on the banks of the Mekong, where skills passed across generations thread the silkworm’s strand into a sustainable future for Lao artisans.
A good place to start is the free guided tour: wrap your mind around the ways of the weaves, as the operators practice patience and prowess in creating their latest luxuries on the loom. Then, delve into the natural elements and ingredients involved in creating the captivating colours used to tint these titillating textures.
Once you’ve dipped a proverbial toe, though, it’s difficult not to be drawn into this place of dyes and designs: with classes and workshops ranging from half a day in length to several, a stay in OPT’s attached hotel is the perfect immersive experience, secluded from reality in a place where almost every surface and fabric – from placemats to wall panels – is utterly captivating.
Try your hand at preparing natural colourings, or give hemp a go, freehand drawing a batik design alongside a Hmong artist. Feeling truly adventurous? Weave yourself a plush placemat, the perfect perennial reminder of the good that OPT does.
That said, enter the shop and you’ll see in a different way just how much this east meets west fusion is supporting Laos’ rural artists in a way that can be maintained: product labels are yellow, red or blue. If the former, the piece was made at the centre itself (about 60% of the textiles are). A red tag means its a member of the OPT vintage collection. Blue? That’s come from the Village Weavers Project – just as 40% of the products do.
OPT runs more than 10 such projects with peoples all across Laos – from the Akha and Oma in the north, to the Mangkon and Katu in the south – creating a network of channels through which producers in these remote, rural areas can take their stunning silk, cotton and hemp pieces to a bigger market. By doing so, OPT is preserving a culture that is centuries old – capitalising, without commodifying.
How big is the network? Whilst there are plans to take Ock Pop Tok to neighbouring countries, presently it’s Laos alone where this meeting of east and west is working its magic. There is, though, an ace up OPT’s finely patterned sleeve: the Internet. Visit ockpoptok.com and you’ll find a whole range of products available – all with international shipping, taking this tradition-made-new truly global.
Still, there’s no better way to discover the wonder of the weave than by visiting in person. Strolling through the Learning Centre’s gardens, where lemongrass and rosewood grow in anticipation of their day to dye, the scent of sappan roots boiling in their red and purple broth stimulates the senses, as nearby students toil over their own attempts at imbuing hues into silk.
What takes an experienced weaver a single hour will take a tourist four – but, those hours later, that same student will leave not just carrying a section of self-made material, but also an irreversible appreciation for the perseverance, dedication and beauty of this art.