Volume 17 Issue 2 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Spring 2012

On the natural dye trail: a few days in Luang Prabang, Laos
By Judith Musick

Like many with interests in fiber arts, travel offers me welcome opportunities to explore new textile traditions and practices—to see and touch and learn about the work of artists and artisans around the world. While traveling in Southeast Asia this past February, I was fortunate to spend some time in Laos, a country noted for its beautiful woven textiles. It was particularly exciting to meet people making and using natural dyes in and around the city of Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Especially memorable were visits I made to an innovative weaving company, and a “weaving village” outside the city.

Founded in 2000 by a Lao weaver and an English photographer, Ock Pop Tok (www.ockpoptok.com) is a company that promotes the development of Lao weavers throughout the country. In 2005, they opened The Living Crafts Centre, which is situated in a lovely garden overlooking the Mekong River. Here intern artisans from their Village Weaver Projects work alongside experienced weavers, acquiring new knowledge to take back to their villages.

Loom at Ock Pop Tok, near Luang Prabang, Laos
Loom at The Living Crafts
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

Visitors can meet the artisans, see and learn about the silkworms they raise, and take a number of classes and workshops. They can also eat there, shop there, and even stay in their four-room guest house.

Spending several hours with Jo Smith, co-director and one of the founders of Ock Pop Tok, I heard about the work they do, watched several weavers at their looms, and saw the beautiful textiles from across Laos in their shop. Seeing the fabulous colors of yarns and materials they had dyed, I was especially eager to learn about the their use of natural dyes.

Ock Pop Tok dyed cloth and yarns
Ock Pop Tok dyed cloth and
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

The author at the dye table with Jo Smith at Ock Pop Tok
The author at the dye table
            with Jo Smith at Ock Pop Tok
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

Many of the dyes they use come from sources familiar to me, such as turmeric, lemongrass, saffron, annatto, and, of course, indigo.

Indigo pot at Ock Pop Tok
Indigo pot at Ock Pop Tok
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

Other dyes are derived from plants native to the region – plants with which I was not familiar –at least not in terms of their use as natural dyes.

One such plant source is sappan, (Caesalpinia sappan), a flowering tree in the legume family native to Southeast Asia. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to become a bit more familiar with sappan by using it to dye a scarf. The color it imparted to the silk was a luscious, deep scarlet/purple.

Silk scarf dyed with sappan
Silk scarf dyed with
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

I left Ock Pok Tok impressed with more than the aesthetic qualities of their work, but with their goals in terms of women’s lives as well. As a psychologist, my work involved developing and running programs for low income women and children, and conducting research and writing about the lives of girls and women living in challenging circumstances -- in the U.S. and abroad. Ock Pop Tock educates and empowers women by advancing their artistic, cultural and social skills, and training them in product design, business skills and textile marketing. In this way, they provide women essential tools for personal growth and development.

The next day, on our way to board the boat to visit the Pak Ou Buddha Caves, we stopped at Ban Xieng Lek –a “weaving village” situated on a bank high above the Mekong River. Here on the main street and path leading down to the river, were a number of weaving galleries and covered outdoor studios where women worked at their looms.

Ban Xieng Lek Village weavers
Ban Xieng Lek Village
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

In the studio of one of the galleries, there were shelves holding baskets of the plants used to make natural dyes, with skeins of naturally dyed silk hanging nearby.

Baskets of natural dye plants
Baskets of natural dye
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

Dyed silk yarn hanging to dry
Dyed silk yarn hanging to
Photograph Copyright by Judith Musick

The attached shop offered some lovely scarves and other woven items, such as table runners of naturally dyed silk. Still most of the products in their shop, and in all of the shops and galleries I visited, were woven with synthetically-dyed silk yarns. Interestingly, though, even the synthetically dyed items were less strident than what I have observed in other parts of the world. At least to my eyes, the Laotian palette was a softer one in general. In this rapidly developing country, traditional weaving is highly valued, and traditional Lao weavers use natural dyes. Perhaps the softer palette of the works they create is the palette synthetic dyeing seeks to replicate. In the weaving studios and galleries I visited, no particular “fuss” was made of the natural dyeing process. Rather, the influence of natural dyes subtly but strongly felt in all that I saw.


Another artisan center promoting natural dyes is Saoban. I did not visit this project, but they seem like Ock Pop Tok. You can visit their Web site, www.saobancrafts.com/our-products/silk/natural-dyeing, to see an article on the natural dyeing they do --"Natural Dyeing: A Demanding Art."