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Making color, weaving threads, and dyeing textiles

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. 


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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.

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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.

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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

and alchemy

Soh, Nyai, and Ger, natural dye assistants, and at right, Yo, lead natural dyer with his daughter

Soh, Nyai, and Ger, natural dye assistants, and at right, Yo, lead natural dyer with his daughter

WEAVING THREAD
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.

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sitting at a floor loom
awkward
feet on two bamboo petals

hands on heddles, boards, and beaters
syncing movements

orchestrating taut warp strings
and shuttling slack weft threads

weaving and finger playing
trying to harmonize rhythms
a pattern of beautiful imperfection

Hammy, left, who showed how to prepare a silk scarf for a shibori design natural dyeing and Bibi, right, who helped with dyeing textiles and showed how to do supplemental weft weave.

Hammy, left, who showed how to prepare a silk scarf for a shibori design natural dyeing and Bibi, right, who helped with dyeing textiles and showed how to do supplemental weft weave.

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. 

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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!

A chance to go back to a Tai Lue weaving village

It was serendipity that led me to the weaving village of Ban Nayang Tai in Laos last year. I cherished my experience there and didn't think I'd ever be able to go back. But that didn’t end up being true. I did go back.


Feasting on traditional Laos cuisine for lunch that was prepared by some of the village women. Mae Sam is seated left, a master dyer; then me enjoying every moment of it; then Emi Weir of the artisan enterprise Ma Té Sai; and Sengmany, who has become a natural leader among the weavers.

Feasting on traditional Laos cuisine for lunch that was prepared by some of the village women. Mae Sam is seated left, a master dyer; then me enjoying every moment of it; then Emi Weir of the artisan enterprise Ma Té Sai; and Sengmany, who has become a natural leader among the weavers.

I first met Emi Weir, founder of Ma Te Sai, an artisan enterprise in Luang Prabang, last year and sourced the Tai Lue home accents and Tai Lao accessories for Indigo Lion’s Laos Collection. She shared with me that the napkins I ordered were made by Sengmany and her young ten-year old daughter, Somaly, who was getting quite good at weaving.

Upon my return to Laos in February, I reached out to Emi and requested to meet some of the weavers, particularly Sengmany and Somaly. I didn’t know then that they were indeed from in the same weaving village of Ban Nayang Tai.

Savong's traditional wooden frame home is typical of the Tai Lue ethnic group. Women do their spinning and weaving underneath their homes, creating a wide range of hand-spun, hand-dyed, and handwoven indigenous cotton accessories and accents.

We walked around the village and met En, who showed us spinning cotton into thread for weaving.

Check out this brief video of shibori indigo dyeing with Mae Sam and go behind the scenes with her showing me how to create a particular shibori design using folding and binding between two bamboo sticks. After plunging several times in indigo vats, and several rounds of pounding, off to the stream we went to swoosh it around in the water. The final design and rich indigo color was quite lovely. 

We met many weavers, who all learned from an early age how to spin and weave. On the left is Silivong, making tassels on her indigo scarf; Savong in the middle in front her display of scarves; and Kon on the right, holding her copper-rose colored scarf.

Silivong's indigo scarf on the left:   Natural, indigenous plant-based indigo dye in solid color with subtle variations    Savong and Kon's scarves on the right:   Natural, indigenous plant-based dyes of indigo and “mak bao” create the colors: natural, gray indigo, indigo + copper rose, and copper rose    Click on the bold purple links above to purchase one of their scarves!

Silivong's indigo scarf on the left: Natural, indigenous plant-based indigo dye in solid color with subtle variations

Savong and Kon's scarves on the right: Natural, indigenous plant-based dyes of indigo and “mak bao” create the colors: natural, gray indigo, indigo + copper rose, and copper rose

Click on the bold purple links above to purchase one of their scarves!

I had the fortune of spending time with Emi on several occasions—learning more about her story as an Australian expat and businesswoman, seeing the difference she’s making in the lives of empowering women, and understanding more the current context of weaving traditions in Laos.

She’s a vivacious, savvy, and determined woman and I really like this about her. 

In the interview above, Emi shared how she got her start, her experience working collaboratively with Tai Lue village weavers, and her perspective on the changes, uncertainty, and opportunities for Lao traditional textiles in a globalized world.

When I asked her what still keeps her here in Laos, she said it was the Lao women. I saw that so beautifully in Ban Nayang Tai. Fluent in Lao, her interactions with the women had a notable ease and playfulness. A mutual respect and friendship was palpable among them.

Sengmany, who has emerged as a natural leader among the village weavers

Sengmany, who has emerged as a natural leader among the village weavers

And I met Sengmany and her daughter Somaly! When I gave her the hangtag for the napkins, which had a photo of her designs and her at the loom (and a writing by one of the participants, Alexandra Boycheck, in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions inspired by her napkins), the expression on her face immediately lit up.

While we couldn’t communicate in words, her facial expressions and intonations said everything. The simple recognition of highlighting her in this little printed piece from some faraway place let her know that she’s important, that what she does is valued, and that it means something to others halfway across the globe. And in that recognition, if only for a moment, I felt that we—weavers, partners, me, and writers—were all connected around the one thing that brought us together: her handmade textiles.