From Marie Vahl, Ock Pop Tok Merchandise Manager — part 1 of 2 on natural dyes:
“Do you have indigo growing in your village? Indian trumpet? Turmeric?” These are the first questions we ask before any village training on natural dyes.
Recently I traveled with our own Master Weaver, Mrs. Davone, to Xieng Khouang, Khammouane and Bolikhamsay provinces (thanks to the support of New Zealand Aid and the Asian Development Bank) to help enhance the skills and expand the product offerings in each location. We had 85 weavers from four villages, two Ock Pop Tok team members and one goal: share knowledge of natural dyes, tapestry and ikat weaving in rural Laos.
Before the forage begins, we brainstorm. Often there are many more plants that we didn’t expect that can give lovely colours beyond our expectations. Sometimes we find that elders in the village can point to one we’ve never used before. Others may have been overlooked: as one woman in Xieng Khouang province noted, many of the plants she used to think of as weeds and spent time cutting down are actually useful and worth keeping in their village. This is the most exciting, because you never know what colour a green leaf will dye your fabric. With natural dyes, anything can happen!
Little by little the women filter back to our chosen place in the shade — chopping, pounding and gossiping ensues.
Just as many of the textiles in Laos reflect the ethnic group it comes from, natural dyes are a reflection of the region they are grown. Some parts of Laos are famous for their indigo, while others for their reds.
Everyone has their favourite colour… here are 6 natural dyes found in Laos that we love:
- Indigo, a classic. There’s a reason your favourite jeans go with everything. It takes at least two weeks to prepare and ferment the vat. At our Living Crafts Centre we keep two vats at any given time: a light, new one and a dark one that has fermented for several months! We can’t do the whole process during our training, so instead we pound the
leaves into paste and massage the deep green leaves into water. Then we filter away the leaves and add the silk we want to dye. It’s important to massage the dye into the threads so that you get an even and strong colour. The result of unfermented indigo is actually green!
- Sappan wood grows across Southeast Asia and is also used as herbal medicine. It’s my favourite dye because we get amazing colours every single time we use it: bright and vivid reds, pinks and purples depending on the pH value of the vat. For the training we always bring the wood with us from Luang Prabang, so we won’t have to fell a tree. We chop the wood into tiny sticks — just like kindling ready to start a fire, but instead of burning them, we throw the wood into boiling water. Soon enough the pot is steaming with a bright pink brew inside. Just dip the threads for a purplish pink or add a little lye (water that has run through ashes, making it alkaline) to make a strong purple. Another great option is to dip the threads in alum first, and the result is a bright shining red on silk, or a lush raspberry pink on cotton. That’s what we call a 3-in-1!
- Stick lac is the resin left behind when the lac insect infests a tree. The clusters of crystal can cover an entire branch, and this is when we pick it from the tree. First we break off every piece from the branches, and then we pound the clumps in the pestle until it becomes a very fine powder. This is easy, because the crystal is so fragile. When we pour the powder into boiling water, it dissolves completely and there’s no reason to filter the solution. Just dip the threads and the subtlest purple emerges.
- Mak Bow/Bow vine is a fairly rare plant to find in Laos. Throughout our month of conducting the training programme, we only managed to get our hands on this root once! When it came out of the ground it looked like one of those things Harry Potter had to buy for potion’s class at Hogwarts. A root with a dark bark, inside it’s soft and moist at the same time. First we cut the bark to reveal a beautifully patterned centre, and then we chop the root into tiny pieces. The thinner each slice is, the more colour it will yield to the vat. While it boils the colour starts off orange, but is soon becomes a deep brown. When we finally dye the silk after several hours of boiling (and an overnight wait), it becomes a deep shiny bronze.
- Teak: The leaves of teak trees are big and lush. The colour flows from the breathable surface so easily that there’s no need for cutting or pounding them — just drop a handful into a boiling pot of water and voila! In half an hour you have a dye vat ready for the softest purple colour.
- Indian trumpet bark is soft and wet to the touch. It’s not that difficult to chop it into small chunks that are boiled for about half an hour. The resulting colour is an orange lush and ready for the candy shop. What an easy colour to make!
At Ock Pop Tok, we have a commitment to quality materials, and that includes natural dyes. We do our best to use them as often as possible at the Living Crafts Centre, in addition to supporting efforts to teach those throughout the country how to incorporate them more into their village culture.
Rooted (pun intended) in history, natural dyes are an important part of Lao textiles history — and better for the environment overall.
Inspired? You can do your own natural dyes training at one of our classes here in Luang Prabang. Which natural dye is your favourite? Tell us in the comments below!