Weaving - Learn to Weave Course in Laos
Weaving silk is a craft perfected over the centuries and countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are experts in silk weaving. They run courses to train women in the techniques of weaving silk which means we can continue to enjoy that wonderfully sensuous feeling of wearing silk lingerie, nightwear or from wrapping a silk scarf around our neck.
One training program in Laos extends this concept of training local women and offers short courses to tourists so they can learn to weave in an authentic environment.
It has a dual benefit, this weaving course. I learn there is a course in the capital of Laos, Vientiane which showcases the excellent work done by the HoueyHongVocationalTrainingCenter for Women http://houeyhongcentre.com. It raises awareness of the centre and gives the tourist a new skill and an appreciation of the time and effort in weaving silk.
I am keen and to try to learn to weave so I sign up in a flash.
My day at the Houey Hong Vocational Training Center was rewarding on many levels. Probably even more importantly than learning a new skill is having time and being able to interact with joyous women as they learn and then develop their techniques and skills.
The women leave their families for a time to live in residence at the centre. At the end of the course, they return home with a new set of skills and the tools to begin weaving garments which they sell to make money for their families. It is such an inspiring training program.
When I was there, the training course was being run for village women who were poor and pregnant.
The three objectives of the Houey Hong Vocational Training Center, as stated on their website are:
- To provide training for various skill levels, in weaving, dyeing and tailoring for women from rural areas who are disadvantaged, poor and/or who have a disability
- To revive and support Lao’s traditional crafts, such as natural dyeing and traditional weaving
- To introduce other suitable skills, such as tailoring, to women who have little education
They want to help people to help themselves.
The weaving here is beautiful and the finished products are well made.
They know how to train here because since they set up in 1998, many women, mainly the poor from outlying villages, have spent time here to learn the new skills. This organization is one of the many non profit centers established in this region to help women learn and also to retain traditional skills such as weaving. Countries like Cambodia and Laos have many such programs in different vocations.
The other fifteen women in the weaving room come from outlying villages and they live, for the duration of the course, in a dormitory at the center. That I am able to be a small part of such a place for a day was a memorable treat. We are all trainees, but they have a head start on me because they have already been here for two months whereas I am an absolute beginner.
This shows immediately as I struggle to squash my western body between the hard wooden seat and the main part of the loom. These looms are definitely constructed for a smaller framed person!
As soon as I start weaving my shuttle flies from my hand and crashes noisily to the floor. Laughter ripples infectiously around the room. Immediately I feel a warm, easy companionship. As they chat amongst themselves, I wonder if they are taking bets to see if this lone foreigner will last the day.
My tutor is very patient with my bumbling first attempts. She stands beside me making adjustments to the many wires, bits of string, thread etc that make up this complex looking piece of equipment. In front of me, I see a collection of raw materials and equipment that somehow, eventually, transforms into the finished product.
I begin to work on my sample which is a plain single color silk weaving, and as soon as I get comfortable in the process, my tutor urges me to do a pattern. Panic! I am shocked to realize, that suddenly, I have lost all idea of which is my left and right and which is up and down!
However, the most difficult part was done before I even took a seat at the loom – that of setting up the loom with the desired pattern.
To this absolute novice, the selection of silk strands going this way looks haphazard and I am amazed it can ever combine to make fabric. This process seems miraculous. Should I use my left foot or right foot? Should I reach up to take the rods (which are the key to the pattern) from the top to the bottom or is it time to take them from the bottom to the top?
All I have to do is the mechanical tasks and remember to count one two and bring the bamboo rods down one at a time and then back up. In principal it’s not difficult, but I call on my tutor regularly to check, or help me undo my mistakes.
Here at this weaving centre, I make many mistakes and I have no idea how to fix them. I feel an easy camaraderie with the women around me. The minute my instructor leaves me, several of them put down their tools and crowd around my loom. They chatter away in Lao. They fuss, over my work space, making adjustments here and there. Using sign language, they also implore me to bang the shuttle harder. This makes a much tighter weave and after trying it, I see that it looks significantly better.
After an intensive morning of weaving, sitting on the rock hard wooden seat, my bottom aches. My back hurts too. Looms don’t have a back rest. In fact I ache all over. I’ve been using different muscles to reach this way and that, and up and down to get the rods carrying the pattern. I’ve been traveling throughout Asia for months now and I find it difficult to concentrate. I have to force my brain back into action!
I stop for a lunch break, and miraculously a delicious three course meal appears on the table in front of me. I eat lunch sitting beside the pretty pool in the courtyard wishing I felt as cool as the bright orange fish swimming languidly in the murky water. It is peaceful and I am alone with my food and my thoughts.
Weaving with my very patient teacher beside me takes me on a trip down memory lane. My mother was an outstanding sewer. Memories flood my tired brain. I remember, very vividly, mum teaching me to sew when I was about ten or eleven years of age. Every time I made a mistake, she was by my side patiently helping to unpick my work and putting me back on the right track.
This centre feels very spiritual and I have an overwhelming feeling of warmth and peace.
Replete, I go back to the loom. The room is still empty as the girls take a long and well earned lunch break.
I’m beginning to relax into this weaving. It is therapeutic throwing the shuttle left to right, right to left and slowly, slowly, one thin thread at a time my masterpiece grows. My piece has a plain section and then color is introduced with the pattern. Weaving just one color becomes easy - the difficult part is when the pattern is introduced.
Of course, I continue to make mistakes and this gives the lovely ladies an excuse to crowd around my loom where they give me advice, not that I understand a word of what they are saying to me! Somehow I get the message. But the lack of a common language is more than made up with the laughter we share.
Finally, after about seven hours learning and trying to improve my weaving, I call it quits. I am tired and I ache all over. I’m exhausted mentally too and I can’t wait to get to my hotel and bed.
I feel very proud of my tiny piece of weaving (see the photograph). I have renewed admiration for the skill and time necessary to make the finished products.
The process from mulberry bush to cocoon, to silk thread (colored or not) to finished product is an intense labor of love. The conditions these ladies work in are very primitive indeed. Yet the final product, the silk the west buys is, in many cases, sophisticated.
I now look at the silky sensuous silk products like scarves, lingerie, nightwear, cushion covers etc with new respect. My silk weaving masterpiece is a lovely reminder of my time amongst these wonderful ladies trying to improve their lives.
This center; the ladies who run it, the people who support it and the ladies who take time away from their families to learn the craft of weaving are truly inspirational.
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