Learning Batik at the Living Crafts Centre

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Today I took my first class offered at Ock Pop Tok’s Living Crafts Centre (LCC). The LCC is set in a beautiful location, one that I was eager to explore and learn about. It is set alongside the peaceful Mekong River, lush with native plants and flowers, and splashed with colour from newly woven and dyed fabrics draped across clotheslines on the lawn. When I arrived, I met a young woman named Ellie, from Australia. She was also traveling for the summer, and we quickly became friends as we were led to a thatched gazebo for our batik class.

We were introduced to a small elderly Hmong woman dressed in a simple sinh (traditional Lao skirt) and a flowery blouse. Her greying hair was pulled back into a bun with a headband, and she peered up behind glasses on the tip of her nose. We were told her name is Suxioung, but around here they called her “Me Tao” (MAY-tao), or “Grandmother” in Lao. I am only 5’3”, but I was almost a full head taller than her. We smiled and put our hands together for the traditional “Sabaidee” greeting. Me Tao looked up at me with ancient, sparkling eyes, and for the next three hours she became my Lao Grandmother.

Me Tao stirring hot wax and Chan translating

Me Tao stirring hot wax and Chan translating

See a short clip from the class here.

My favourite thing about Me Tao is how her strength radiates. Chan, a 22-year-old Lao student who works as a tour guide and waiter at the LCC’s Silk Road Cafe, sat in on our class and facilitated as our translator. Me Tao is from a Hmong village many hours away, and the dialect is slightly different than the Lao spoken closer to Luang Prabang. Her diminutive figure moved around the gazebo, picking things up, repositioning chairs, stirring coals to heat up the wax, refusing any help and all the while speaking softly in her Hmong dialect. Chan translated and tried to get out of her way as quickly as he could. I could see why she was called “Grandmother”, and their interactions were heartwarming and amusing. Me Tao is the eldest artisan at the LCC, having mastered the craft of weaving, dyeing, and batik, and she is the only artisan practicing and teaching batik in Luang Prabang — a technique she learned almost 60 years ago as a young girl in her village.

These first pieces of information struck me the most. I had seen Hmong batiks at the Night Market in Luang Prabang, but now I realise that those batiks are transported from rural villages that are miles away, tucked in the emerald hills and far from civilisation. Similar to Me Tao’s community, these villages have maintained their way of life for centuries, their very essence surviving off each generation sharing and passing down the histories to their children. This small elderly woman speaking in Hmong and stirring hot wax on the outskirts of Luang Prabang represented the stories, origins, and culture of the Hmong villages and their beautiful textiles. She was the only one for miles around, standing alone but strong, and teaching her life’s mastery to students like me.

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This type of batik is practiced solely by the Hmong, most of whom reside in Northern Laos. The technique fascinated me, and it is my favourite of the textile courses offered at OPT. Hot wax is applied using a jantung tool – a simple pen-like tool fashioned by fastening three pieces of copper metal together like a blade at the end of a slender bamboo ‘pen’. The wax is heated in a small metal bowl positioned over bits of coals. Using the jantung tool, the wax is applied to hemp cloth in traditional patterns and designs. The cloth is then boiled, removing most of the wax and leaving a dye-resistant residue where designs were drawn. Finally, the cloth is dyed multiple times in indigo solutions, allowing the designs to appear bold and white throughout the fabric. Due to the time constraints of the class, we did not get to do the dye portion, but the wax process was more than enough for me to handle.

I practiced holding the hot wax pen and awkwardly dragged my arm across a scrap of hemp to make straight lines. Meanwhile, Me Tao worked next to me as she used hot stones to iron out larger pieces of hemp that would be our official pieces. I yelped as I accidentally dripped hot wax on myself twice in less than a minute, eliciting some laughs from Me Tao, who teased me gently. The only phrase I understood was “Bo pen yang”, No problem. I loved how much more capable she was than me at a craft that seemed fairly simple, and I began to gain a deeper appreciation for the time and effort that goes into this art form – Me Tao was demonstrating what it truly meant to be a master at one’s craft. The fourth time I dripped hot wax on myself, it smeared, turning one of my delicate lines into a monstrous slug. I accepted defeat and laughed along with her and Chan. To comfort ourselves, every time Ellie or I made a mistake we called it “rustic-looking”, “handmade”, “authentic”. Yes, this is a traditional Hmong batik pattern, these squiggly lines symbolise, uh, plants, and those blobs symbolise my life story. Yes, it looks made by a child to symbolise my inner youth.

Ellie laughing at her "rustic" style piece.

Ellie laughing at her “rustic” style piece.                                    Trying to replicate Me Tao’s designs.

After about three hours, we broke for a delicious lunch at the LCC’s Silk Road Cafe, dining on tamarind fish, spicy papaya salad, and sticky rice, under beautiful tapestries hung from the walls and ceiling. We had been around the LCC’s pleasant, youthful staff for most of the day now, and we all laughed, joked, and teased as new friends. We also helped each other pronounce certain Lao and English words that we had all been struggling with, which is always a fun exchange.

After lunch I put in another solid 30 minutes of batik-ing. I got to select my centre piece which has a special meaning. Here is a final picture of my piece and the scrap of cloth I first practiced on. The triangles along the border mean pumpkin seeds, and the diagonal lines are grains of rice. The circles and flowers in the middle illustrate snails on ferns in the jungle amidst small blooming pumpkin flowers.

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If you look close on the left, you can see that I had a couple fumbles and drew the triangle the wrong way, making a big fat triangle right in the middle of the pattern. Upon Me Tao’s inspection I told her, This year was a good pumpkin harvest, big seeds were planted. She chuckled and touched my hand, “Kheng lai”, Very good. Maybe she was just being polite, but I felt that I understood a little more about the spirit of Hmong batik — and Lao textiles in general. Each one is unique, and each one tells a story. Although Ellie and my patterns were almost identical, each piece was beautiful and “rustic” in it’s own way. The intricately designed hemp fabric was a window looking in on a little sliver of my life. This blob was when I sneezed and the pen moved, this is the line I’m most proud of because I finally got it straight, this squiggle was when Chan made me laugh with a joke about feuding chickens and ducks.

The patterns may be centuries old, but my piece told the story of my experience and shared the knowledge, beauty, and humour I gained along the way. I can see those same things in my piece from the people that passed the patterns down before me, and I can understand wanting to teach them to my children so they can add their stories and experiences along with those of the generations before them. Through their batik, the Hmong have created a collective human and community experience — one that links past, present and future generations together. I could have spent all day at the LCC. It’s rare to find so many good, quality people all grouped in the same place — and, it seems to be a recurring thing here in Laos.

Some of the batik products available at our stores, and on our website.

Some of the batik products available at the stores and on the webshop.