In December, the Ock Pop Tok production team took a trip to visit one of the groups involved in our Village Weaver Projects in Xieng Khouang province. The purpose of the trip was to follow up on the original training program from 2017, bring raw materials, and introduce new product designs for future pieces. This is one of villages that participate in our Village Weaver Projects, where we work with over 500 women in 13 provinces throughout the country.
The Ock Pop Tok Village Weaver Projects are a series of initiatives that provide economic opportunities for artisans in rural areas in Laos. For each project, we help develop products that combine craftsmanship and tradition with artistic creativity and market knowledge. Our team of weavers, dyers, designers, and tailors transfer their skills to help artisans make a better living from handicrafts. Combining a passion for indigenous cultures and their handicraft traditions with our business savvy, we are able to create thriving village enterprises.
There are several benefits to working with weavers in their villages. The majority of textile artisans are women for whom textile production is only one aspect of their daily life and income. Supporting the businesses of women has been found to have significant benefits to their families thus reducing poverty. There are limited income generation opportunities in rural areas. By improving textile production businesses, rural people have the option to stay in their community and earn a good income rather than being forced to leave to find work, thus reducing the amount of money that stays in the village.
Handicraft production is a ‘value added’ product that provides a much better financial return than selling the raw fibre commodities. Keeping this ‘value adding’ within the villages strengthens their industry and income. Textile production in Laos has strong cultural significance. Much of the technical and esoteric knowledge is passed from generation to generation within the village and often has a distinct character from group to group. By creating handicrafts that are culturally linked to the village traditions, unique cultural identity is preserved.
The village, Ban Phienghong, is located just 14km from the Vietnamese border and is extremely isolated. It took the team a full day of travel to arrive. They were lucky enough to take a small 12-seater plane from Luang Prabang to Xieng Khouang Province, which turned a 9 hour drive into a 30 minute flight! Otherwise the trip would have taken 2 days!
Xieng Khouang is a well-known province because its home to the Plain of Jars, a megalithic archaeological landscape and one of the major tourist attractions in Laos. It is currently in the process of being vetted as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site. This status will help attract more tourists to the area and contribute to conservation efforts. The results of the vetting process are expected to be announced in June 2019. The site consists of thousands of stone jars scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain and dates back to the Iron Age of civilization.
Once the group arrived in Phonsavan, the province’s capital, they took a truck for over five hours, the last two and half hours on rough dirt roads. Finally they had to take a small boat across the river to reach the village. In fact the village is so remote that during the rainy season the village cluster is completely cut off from the outside world because the roads and river are so treacherous.
The village does not have electricity, so when the team arrived late at night they were greeted by silence and darkness that you don’t get in a Luang Prabang and sky full of bright stars. The community members greeted the group at the riverbank wearing headlamps to light their way, and guided them to the stilted house where they would sleep. As they climbed the stairs to the house, they were surprised to see a headlamp illuminating the warp of a loom below the house, even though it was 9:30pm. They later learned that it was Mae Thao, the grandma of the group, who always weaves past dark.
The next morning the Ock Pop Tok team set to work first thing. The group that participates in our Village Weaver Project in this village is made up of 11 women from the Lao Lum ethnic group, who are know as expert silk weavers. While these women are all master weavers, having learned from their mothers at a young age, they did not have a market for their products so their skill did not have an economic value to the community. The women still wove, but they only wove their daily clothes. Also as it became easier to access synthetic materials, which require less work and time, they transitioned to using these materials to reduce costs.
In 2015 a woman named Elizabeth discovered the group as a part of a poverty reduction project called Integrated Upland Development in Nonghet (UDIN) conducted by Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in the Xieng Khouang province. She immediately saw that they women were talented weavers and that they could capitalize on this skill. She formed a group of 30 weavers and they started producing Lao silk skirts (sihns) and selling them to a market in Vientiane. While it was successful at first, the business floundered and many women left the group.
Then in 2016 the group leader, Mrs Bong and Mrs Thongsay came to Luang Prabang to look for new customers. The women came to Ock Pop Tok and presented us with the product catalog of sihns that they had created with Elizabeth. While we were not interested in the products that they offered at that time, we saw the potential for working with this group.
In March 2017 we visited the village for the first time and did a value chain analysis, which informed our approach to the partnership and training program. We worked with the group to relearn the process of natural dyes and build more modern interesting designs that accentuate their skills. We also focused on quality control in the production process so that each piece produced meets our high standards. Their current product line features scarves and shawls hand-woven with organic silk and coloured with all natural dyes. It combines these age-old traditions with modern designs to create a truly unique look.
The project has empowered the women of the village to improve their lives and those of their families. All of the women in the group are married with children; most of them married young by Western standards, around the age of 15 or 16 years old. While most of the women in the group either did not go to school or only went to school until fifth or sixth grade, due to increased economic opportunities through their weaving, they are able to send their children to high school and some are even able to attend university.
One member of the group, Mrs. Mouy explains,
“I love every step of the weaving process and I want to keep the tradition alive in my community and my country. I’m proud that I can make an income through the weaving. This helps me to support my family and send my children to school. Weaving is very complicated work and you have pay a lot of attention to your job to make the finest products for Ock Pop Tok.”