Tuesday, March 14, 2006

He would dye for me

Andy is setting the male population of Asia on edge. I can feel it. I see mens' apprehension as we set off from a guest house for an enlightening activity that could even be construed as domestic, leaving them with nothing but a blaring tv or tiny, endless cups of coffee. I also see the look of envy, of puzzlement, of wonder in the women's eyes as we fold spring rolls and question the origin of spices.

Andy is unlike the other men on this continent. He cooks, he shops (not by choice), he goes to market and now he's dyed silk textiles using traditional Lao techniques. I am SO lucky!!!

In Vientiane, he further threatened Asia's male race by accompanying me~> read more (with photos)

 to a women's cooperative and learning about traditional silk-weaving and dyeing practices. Textiles are the fabric of hope, opportunity and independence for rural women in Laos, and you see weavings of every kind, in every way here -- and all with unique, personal patterns. I'd read about a class at the Houey Hong Vocational School for women and figured it was a rare chance for hands-on learning of a cottage industry. Sort of tie-dye with a natural twist and less-Hippie output, so off Andy and I went.

Three women greeted us oustide the simple compound of cement buildings, each of varying age but all wearing traditional embroidered sarongs, asked that we remove our shoes and sit on a giant grass mat that sprawled in the center of a bustling courtyard. Rooms left and right were filled with piano-sized looms, strings and thread going left and right, up and down, foot treadles and hand boards that smacked together "clack, clack", and the dark, busy, bent heads of Lao ladies in motion. Other rooms reverberated from the whirring of old-fashioned sewing machines, fabric and thread quickly turning about the needle, syrup-colored bare feet pumping the foot pedal and more bent, dark heads. My nose crinkled from an acrid smell and I looked around for the source, cautious because after the food markets, you're never sure what to expect. Next to our mat, a group of men (!) sorted through bushels of dried marigold flowers -- piles of orange petals and green stems -- and stirred giant black witch cauldrons that smoked, spit and hissed. Two others were taking turns on a wooden teeter-totter type of crushing machine and mashing what looked like blackberry marbles but smelled not too fruity.

Another lady bustled up to us in sarong and flip-flops and introduced herself in excellent English as Boanam, the manager of Houey Hong School, and asked what Andy and I were interested in doing -- weaving or dyeing? Dyeing, we said, and I then I proceeded to bombard her with a few questions about the place. What was going on about us? How does this help women? What was that smell? And, what were those young men up to? Andy just kind of smirked at that one, as I've gotten uber-uppity feminist on this trip with all of the women I see vigorously laboring and men I see pathetically lounging. The women around us were from villages and came to strengthen their weaving design skills, so they could either produce textiles with pleasing patterns that might sell outside of Laos, plus learn about the large range of natural substances which can be used as dyeing pigment for greater variety. According to Boanam, many villages only use certain indigenous ingredients like marigold or jack fruit, ginger or indigo, betelnut or coffee, and thus their textiles remain locked in limited colors.

At Houey Hong, women apprentice for design and dyeing, and that's what those men were up to -- making pigments from organic ingredients for dyeing. Only recently, has the school accepted some young men who had no other prospects on a trial basis, to help with crushing, stirring, dyeing only, since the weaving is really women's work. Sigh...progress, but not really. Anyway, the smell making my nose crinkle is the boiling of all sorts of crazy natural fruits, vegetables, bugs (not kidding!), leaves and more that become a gorgeous rainbow of dye colors once absorbed into silk. When the ladies aren't honing their silk weaving skills or setting dyes from fresh pigment, they're learning to sew on the treadle machines of Houey Hong, which are reminiscent of my (great?) grandmother's and similar to what's all over Asia, so they can tailor in their spare time and make extra money.

After cups of weak Chinese tea, a Lao tradition I don't get but was glad for the warmth and caffeine, Andy and I got down to the business of dyeing. The greeting ladies appeared again and showed us a smudged plastic picture book with pairs of happy foreigners holding up textiles. From this, Andy and I determined we were supposed to choose which designs we endeavored to create and while the array of options looked a lot like tie-dye, it was not quite as Spirograph-y or swirly. More whole circles, lines and crosses dominated and as we went to work, we learned that's because the Lao use a lot of Bamboo to help with textile design. Bamboo rings and sticks of various sizes -- popsicle to ruler -- served as the markers that stop the dye from seeping into silk and create the patterns, sort of the way rubber bands do with tie-dye. Lao women also use plastic crinkle paper that reminded me of what we wrap our Easter baskets in to twist, tie and crimp fabric. But there were no pre-cut strips of it, no cookie-cutter presses or machine-made piece. All of the dyeing and design was done by hand, and we sat with our teachers on the grass mat in the outdoors, and learned teacher to pupil, their hands on ours as we folded fabric and twisted it to perfect design tightness.

Andy managed to select the most complicated ones, so he got lots of help and a few extra bright smiles. It was great! He wrapped silk around bamboo sticks and circles, plus then tied everything tight with the plastic wrap. My shawls were simpler to do, and only involved a lot of cutting and tying of plastic, and that was fine as I was most excited to see which colors we could choose for dyeing. Fortunately, the day of our visit, they had a selection of bright hues, as I could see from the chart that a lot of roots and vegetables produce things in the brown-gold range and that didn't excite me. We got to choose from stisk lask, which is a red bug resin and sounds gross, but turns out a lovely pink-mulberry color, jack fruit, a giant bumpy-skinned fruit that's all over Asia and a gorgeous golden tone, and marigold, which made a surprisingly sage green color instead of burnt orange. Oh well -- pink and yellow, I couldn't be happier!

Andy was again a good sport and figured out, once and for all, that he wouldn't be wearing his Lao shawls out in public and chose pink and yellow too. In went our twisted and tied slips of creamy silk to the giant black witch cauldrons, and we got to wander around and see the women weaving and sewing. It's truly amazing how they sit at these giant looms, flipping feminine fingers through silk and slapping the threads together to tighten the weave, and how a complex, uniform and beautiful textile emerges from the seeming chaos of thread, silk, wood and hands. In the weaving rooms, it's completely quiet except for the clackety-clack of the wooden looms -- no talking, no tv, nothing -- you truly feel like artists are at work. After thirty minutes, Andy and I were beckoned back to the grass mat by one of our teachers, who rescued our silk from the black vats and started rinsing them clear and clean. Excited, curious and hopeful, we helped cut off the plastic and bamboo and unfurled our first foray into textiles. Voila! Check out the photo gallery to see how they came out -- we're quite pleased!: http://bitjug.com/gallery/VientianeDC

Though I was probably the most excited, as I got a new bright pink shawl and a super sweet partner who's willing to try the unexpected with me, no matter how close it hovers to the sphere of domesticity in Asia.


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11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I love the patterns you guys made! And the color was the best too! I can't wait to see them in person. Love, Wendy

4:11 PM  

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