In returning to Laos, I wanted to learn more about the various traditional weaving techniques and how indigenous plants make such natural colors for dyeing textiles. I discovered this and more, at a lively, tucked-away place on the outskirts of Vientiane.
Upon arrival to Houey Hong Vocational Training Center, I had the pleasure of meeting Sengmany Vongsipasom, who manages the day-to day operations of the center. She is a delightful, attentive, and lighthearted person, who translated a great deal for me while I took a two-day natural color dyeing course. She had spent many years in the US, until returning to Laos about seven years ago to take care of her aging parents and oversee the center in which her sister started.
Sengmany’s sister, Chanthasone Inthavong, started the center in 1998 with the support of two Japanese non-governmental organizations to focus on providing training to women in three main areas: sewing and tailoring, natural dyes, and weaving; along with support in small business skills and development.
At its core, Houey Hong Vocational Training Center endeavors to revive and strengthen Lao’s weaving and natural dyeing traditions. The staff of weavers, dyers, artisans, tailors, and designers are expert in their fields, who continue to not only train others but create a wide range of handmade textile accessories, home accents, and fabric for international and domestic clients.
Houey Hong has 28 people on their team now, including two gardeners, a driver, workshop trainers for foreign visitors, and a super star Japanese volunteer, Hiroko. She has been there for four years and assists in many aspects of the center, including coming up with new product designs.
There is also a daily rotation of foreigners coming to Houey Hong for workshops to spend a half day, a day, or a few days like myself trying one’s hand at shibori dyeing a silk scarf, or weaving a supplemental design sample, or learning the natural color dye process. I signed up for all of them, of course.
MAKING COLOR & DYEING TEXTILES
In the video above go behind the scenes with Yo and Nyai, natural dyeing experts and patient teachers in showing the alchemy involved in transforming jackfruit wood, marigold, indigo, and stick lac to make delightful yellows, blues, and reds. Then Bibi and Hammy show how to dye silk scarves in shibori designs.
ash-making with medicinal leaves
best with flowing river and rain water
copper juice of rusty nails and vinegar
wood burning, smoke-filled spaces
marigold boiling and brewing
waiting. takes patience
feeling water, pinching thread
sensing time without clocks
knowing its ready and right
an art and science
In the video above, the magical finger work of the supplemental weft weave comes alive from one of the expert weavers. I also had a chance to learn it, with a much simpler design and slower pace, from Bibi, below.
sitting at a floor loom
feet on two bamboo petals
hands on heddles, boards, and beaters
orchestrating taut warp strings
and shuttling slack weft threads
weaving and finger playing
trying to harmonize rhythms
a pattern of beautiful imperfection
In an interview with Sengmany, she shared some of the highlights over the years:
They have been able to keep their focus on traditional designs in weaving, use of indigenous cotton and high-quality regional silk, and exclusive use of natural color dyes. At the same time, they are innovating on their ‘ready-made’ textile accessories and home accent products for wider markets.
They have trained 714 people in weaving and natural dyeing processes, and 192 in sewing, and may of them still continued weaving, dyeing, and sewing once they return to their villages. Some have set up centers to support each other, some go to local markets to sell to the domestic market, and Houey Hong buys from them in support of making products for their retail and wholesale markets from Japan, US, Germany, the Netherlands.
The center has become more known by foreign tourists interested in taking their workshops. With the help of good reviews on Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, their retail shop in Vientiane, they see about 1000 visitors a year.
They exhibit annually at handcrafts markets and shows, and have done well at those venues. Sales are increasing, most of which come from local markets, as Lao women still wear the traditional skirt, or sinh.
Sengmany also shared that while center has been successful, it’s a constant challenge to keep the center running and maintained. She pointed to the area where the natural dyeing takes place that badly needs repairing, mentioned their reduction in staff, and additional funds needed to train more women for their programs.
My three days of learning at Houey Hong Vocational Training Center were eye-opening, awe-inspiring, and fun-filled. I’m grateful to Sengmany and her superstar staff for welcoming me and patiently teaching me how to make color, weave threads, and dye textiles. It offered me a glimpse into Laos life, bringing me closer to inspiring women and men, nature’s gifts, and cultural expression both traditional and present.
And finally, we’re so pleased to introduce Indigo Lion’s expanded Lao Collection with the inclusion of several new textile accessories and home accents from Houey Hong Vocational Training Center!