Click clack. Click clack. I love the sound of a loom being worked and the magic that is made as exquisite textiles are created out of simple threads. ‘Ock Pop Tok’ means ‘East meets West’ in Lao and the beautiful fabrics produced on the looms at the Ock Pop Tok weaving centre in Luang Prabang in Laos are the result of a collaboration between Laotian weaver Veomanee Duangdala and English photographer Joanna Smith.
While many of the products made at Ock Pop Tock’s Living Crafts Centre or by artisans in the villages they work with are traditional, others fuse traditional techniques with modern styles and designs to make them more marketable, hence East meets West again. So as difficult as Ock Pop Tok is to remember (try saying it aloud), the name is fitting, once you get your tongue around it.
If you’ve been following our travels here on Grantourismo for the last two years (or even before we launched the blog), then you’d know that one of our missions is to promote sustainable travel and seek out, showcase, and encourage travellers to buy ethically-produced locally-made products, especially traditional handicrafts, and wherever possible to buy from the source.
Ock Pop Tok is the kind of enterprise we love to tell you about. They’re not only making handsome textiles and helping keep traditional crafts alive, they’re following Fair Trade principles while doing so. This means they’re valuing the work of artisans, farmers and workers by paying them fairly, they’re helping producers develop sustainable business models so they can maintain their independence, there’s no child labour involved, and production is environmentally sound.
Ock Pop Tok is responsible for initiatives such as the Village Weaver Projects, where their weavers, dyers, designers, and tailors work with local NGOs to teach skills to artisans in villages in 11 different provinces, using their knowledge of the market to help villagers make a better living from their handicrafts, as well as buying, selling and promoting their products. Read about the projects here. The stories are inspiring.
You can visit Ock Pop Tok’s Living Crafts Centre on the banks of the Mekong River – take a tuk tuk or ride a bike, as it’s a sticky 30-minute walk from the centre – where you can watch weavers at work, and thereby develop a better appreciation for textile-making and the work weavers do. It’s labour-intensive and time-consuming creating this stuff.
When we visited we were given a free guided tour that took us through the textile-making process, from the life-cycle of the silk worms that feast on mulberry leaves to shed the cocoons from which the raw silk thread is made, through the dying process and natural products used to create different colours, such as marigolds to make yellow, anato seeds to produce orange, and lemongrass to create a shade of lemon.
We were shown the different techniques used to produce certain patterns – ikat, for instance, is the most difficult as the thread is first tie-dyed then woven so that the colours match. We learnt how long it takes to make certain pieces – the weavers we met were working on pieces that would take them around two weeks. Think about that next time you’re bargaining! And we got to watch the intricately detailed work of Hmong batik artist Mae Tow Zu Zong, pictured above, considered to be one of the very best at what she does.
You can sign up for half- and full-day classes and workshops on natural dyes, weaving, Hmong batik, and bamboo weaving, or do 2- and 3-day classes covering it all (prices here). I’ll definitely be enrolling in a class next time we’re in Luang Prabang. There’s gorgeous accommodation on site in the Ock Pop Tok villa, in light-filled rooms decorated with vibrant textiles, and you can enjoy breakfast and lunch – a menu that’s a blend of east and west, naturally – at the alfresco Silk Road Café which boasts brilliant Mekong River views.
In the centre of Luang Prabang, Ock Pop Tok also has a non-profit gallery space called Fibre2Fabric, where textiles are exhibited and you can learn about textile making and its place in Lao history and culture during their regular series of Thursday night talks.
The textiles made at the Living Crafts Centre, as well as products made by village weavers, are sold in a gorgeous shop on site and another store in the centre, and textiles are also made to order and shipped around the world. You can buy a limited number of things on their site. They also have a wonderful blog too.
WHAT TO BUY
- Textiles – there’s a wide range of vibrant, patterned textiles, made on site and made in villages, that can be used as wall hangings, table cloths, table runners, bedspreads, throws, and shawls; check the tags to see where they were made and who made them. Look for exquisite, intricately detailed textiles made by the Tai Daeng in Huaphan province, and the ikat cloths made by Phou Tai cotton farmers in Savanakhet.
- Silk scarves, shawls, bags, purses, hats, cushion covers – look for the pretty red purses with exquisite needlework made by the Oma; the jungle vine bags made by the Akha, Khamu and Lanten women; and the beaded scarves made from banana tree fibres by the Katu weavers.
- Traditional clothing – these include traditional tribal skirts, jackets, headscarves, and baby carriers that can be worn or displayed on a wall; look for the bold patterned pink, purple and red ceremonial cloths of the Tai Moei and Tai Chai weavers from Khammouan, as well as the colourful skirts of the Hmong made from hemp, which are stunning.
- Children’s toys and trinkets – look for the colourful dolls, toy animals, mobiles, necklaces, and key chains made as part of the Akha Biladjo project and the cute cotton elephants made by the Tai Lue from Bokeo.
If the work Ock Pop Tok is doing interests you, you might also like reading about:
- Threads of Life, Bali – based upon a similar model to Ock Pop Tok, Threads of Life trains, supports, advises, and buys from artisans in villages. See this post.
- Monkeybiz and Streetwires, Cape Town – two very different models, one focused on skills-training and the other on developing entrepreneurs, but Monkeybiz and Streetwires both produce beautiful beaded products. Read more here.
- Anat, Damascus – this non-profit collective in Syria was established and operated by a Palestinian-German family; there’s a workshop in the Palestinian refugee camp and a shop in Damascus, both of which we’ve visited, where they market and sell beautiful embroidered products made by women in villages across Syria. See this post.
Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre & Silk Road Café
Ban Saylom, lane opp. Phousi Market
2kms south of Luang Prabang centre
856 (0) 71 252 597 9-5pm
71 Ban Vat Nong
856 (0) 71 254 761