How cotton is made here in Luang Prabang

Thanks to our amazing textile intern Tracy for this post- she spent 6 weeks volunteering with us at OPT working on the conservation of our textile collection as a placement for her MSc in Conservation Studies at UCL Qatar. Best of luck with the studies Tracy! Follow her blog Eine Saite to learn more about textiles from someone truly passionate about them.

When I came to volunteer with Ock Pop Tok, I was hoping to see some cotton fiber preparation and spinning. The Living Crafts Centre being what it is, it did not take long to coordinate my interests with the needs of the centre. There is a cotton display that required attention, and women from a major cotton producing area were due in town. One of these women, Euay Navon, came to demonstrate the various steps of the process, and I got to simultaneously document and learn from her.

The cotton, fai in Lao, is dried in the sun after harvesting. Any bad parts have to be sorted out, then the seeds can be removed with a hand-cranked gin (eeuw). This is a relatively fast and easy way to squeeze away the seeds.

The ginned cotton is then fluffed up using a bow (kâ gong) inside a horizontal barrel-shaped basket. This is similar, conceptually, to the bowing done in India by men who go around and re-fluff the batting of quilts. The flicking of the bowstring teases the cotton apart, eventually making it into a nice, fluffy cloud. Some technique is definitely involved, and I could not make clouds as nice as Euay Navon’s

Fluffy cotton

Perfectly fluffy cotton ready for spinning

The cloud is separated into bits about the size of two handfuls, placed on a smooth surface, and rolled around a stick to form a cylinder called a fai lor. These are made nice and firm, tightly packed before the stick is removed.

Next the cotton is spun on a wheel (), or technically a wheel-driven spindle. The wheel is turned with the right hand while the cotton is drafted with a long draw against the quill with the left hand. Euay Navon makes relatively short passes, not allowing the yarn to wind on too close to the quill before drafting back again. She is a patient teacher, and emphasized the importance of pulling quickly, straight back from the quill tip, with a slight vertical angle.

Spinning Cotton

Euay Navon spinning cotton on the wheel (la)

The spun yarn is skeined on a niddy-noddy (piya), of which there is a beautiful example here at the Living Crafts Centre. I didn’t find it in time to get Euay Navon to demonstrate, but she had indicated that this was the next step, gesturing in the manner of winding yarn on a handheld frame. Much of the traditional weaving is done with singles, such as Euay Navon’s beautiful indigo plainweave shirt.

Her visit was a treat and a privilege, and now I practice my newly learned techniques to make the cotton display informative and authentic. Several of the silk weavers are also accustomed to working with cotton in their home villages, and they took to the ginning and bowing as soon as it was put on display. (This is a good way to find out who has a certain type of knowledge: put the tools in front of them, and they can’t resist showing their stuff.)