Shuttle in the left hand, foot on the left pedal, slide. Shuttle in the right hand, foot on the right pedal, slam the beater. Learning to weave on a loom is like learning to use a typewriter while simultaneously playing the piano. Yet women the world over have been mastering this simple contraption – not so simple, you realise, when you’re actually sitting before the threads – for centuries.
And now it was my turn.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve visited a weaving workshop on my travels. No matter where I am in the world, nearby there will always be an earthy-smelling, clickety-clacking workshop of women hand-weaving or working on looms. There will always be a graceful woman to explain the various weaving processes. And afterwards you will always feel obliged to purchase something and spend the next half hour trying to find the cheapest product in the room.
But for once, I wasn’t the casual observer, the watch-shop-and-go tourist. Oh no. Today, I joined the ranks of women throughout the world who are knowledgeable about (some of) the secrets of the loom. Don’t be fooled, ladies. It may just be thread, string, and wood, but the loom is an incredibly complicated contraption.
To begin with, there is the complex arrangement of horizontal and vertical silk threads running the length of the wooden frame, making it look like some gentle torture device (and midway through my experience, back aching and brain befuddled, I was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t one). The names of some of the loom’s components – the beater, the heddle, the beam, the shuttle, the warp and the weft – don’t help to refute this impression.
Ock Pop Tok loom lessons
The loom and I had only just been introduced and already I was overwhelmed. Perhaps my teachers could sense my anxiety. On arrival at Luang Prabang’s Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre I was supplied with a steaming mug of Bael fruit tea (I still haven’t quite figured out what Bael fruit is, except that a delicate slither of it was all that was needed to give my tea its faint citrus taste). They knew what was ahead of me and were perhaps trying to allay my well-founded fears.
After my refreshment, a Laos translator, Seng Chan, brought me a basket of Laos silks of varying natural colours and helped me to select two for the place mat I would be making. She then brought me to the workshop – a wooden shelter on the banks of the Mekong River – and introduced me to my Weaving Master, Meaoug.
Meaoug took my yarn of pinkish silk, dyed from the wood of the Sappan Tree, and within moments had it installed on a rickety wooden wheel. She exhibited how I should wind the yarn onto a spool and stood aside to allow me to take over.
It was a simple task – hold the thread between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand as you crank a wheel with your right – but made all the more difficult by the thread constantly becoming entangled. I wondered whether I would create a finished product in just the three hours I had.
My loom was already prepared with hundreds of simple black threads, collectively called the warp, tightened horizontally across the loom, running away from the weaver. Weaving Master Meaoug exhibited how to begin my place mat. The essentials: two foot pedals lifted vertical strings (called the heddle) to separate every second thread on the warp. This created a tunnel through which you slid a wooden shuttle, which held your coloured thread.
The rule is simple: if your shuttle is in your left hand, you pressed the left pedal. And vice versa. Once you slid the shuttle through the tunnel, you changed hands and thus pedals. Finally, you locked the thread in place with a “beater”, which combed through the warp.
It sounds more complicated than it was, with repetition and concentration the key to success, though not quite perfection. If you carried on in this way, you would create a plainweave, a single-coloured monotonous run of fabric.
But I was striving to learn the “continuous supplimentary weft”, which is basically just adding a second colour and a pretty pattern. And that’s where it got confusing. Meoung had already set up the vertical strings to create the keyhole pattern I was doing today; that took her four hours. I can see her patiently at it, strumming the strings like a harp, caressing her art in a manner I would never be able to replicate.
I now had two shuttles with different coloured silks, three heddles for the pattern, one wooden paddle, a beam to separate the warp for the yellow coloured thread that created the pattern, the two pedals to separate the warp for the pink silk thread, the beater, a partridge in a pear tree, and a terribly bewildered mind.
Yet incredibly, miraculously, amazingly , there is method to this madness. In fact, with repetition you not only get used to it, it starts to make sense. You can see the threads separating, the pattern emerging, and even though your back aches and your calves burn from so much pedal-work, and even though you wonder how women can do this every day of their lives, eight hours a day, even with all of that you start to feel a sense of accomplishment.
And, crazily perhaps, you start to think that you could stick at this. To hope that you have the chance to progress your skills further. I’m a novice in the world of weaving. But I rather like the ring “Weaving Master” has to it.
Note: Ock Pop Tok may sound like a children’s nursery rhyme but it actually means East Meets West in Laotian. The enterprise employs Lao artisans and runs a number of social development projects around Laos. It has two shops selling fair trade woven products in the centre of Luang Prabang, as well as a tuk-tuk that ferries customers to the Living Centre. The classes are rather costly (my half-day weaving workshop was US$55) but the experience was well worth it.
Finally, you can read plenty more of the good times you can have in Asia here.