An elegant sufficiency

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Oh yes, the weaving workshop

In all the excitement of being here last night, I neglected to tell all about the weaving workshop. Suffice to say that it was hugely enjoyable and, as I feared, I could easily get hooked on weaving - fortunately we have no room for a loom!

My first task was to wind some bobbins of silk thread on the ever-so wonky swift. I needed five of black and two of pale green. Whilst I did this, I had an audience of my teacher Miss Lin, Mr Morn the interpreter and a charming "Blue Hmong" lady working in a corner of the workshop doing some indigo batik on a length of hemp fabric for a skirt.

They giggled as I negotiated various challenges, including snags in the thread, a loose traction belt on the swift and my sheer inexperience and unfamiliarity with the device. But they were very supportive and were as thrilled as I was by the end result!

The loom was already set up and my first challenge was to work 20cm of plain weave. First I watched Miss Lin go through the process slowly...two pedals, one shuttle, one heddle. Right pedal, throw shuttle, left pedal, beat, throw shuttle, right pedal, beat... Just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, Miss Lin would correct my hand position, remind me to beat a little harder...replace my hand into the middle of the heddle. And often, when I relaxed and lost concentration for a second, she'd giggle and put me right with the correct feet and shuttle position.

I was just getting the hang of it...lunchtime! I enjoyed a freshly cooked Lao-style lunch with Mr Morn and his colleague Mr Noy, both young students of English and glad of an opportunity to chat and relax a little. They explained each dish of food and how to eat it, tucking in themselves and joining me in enjoying a great meal. Clockwise from the front, a clear vegetable soup, a pork and bamboo shoot salad, fried tofu with chilli and leaves, a salad of spinach-type leaves and chillies, aubergine dip in the middle and green, purple and white jelly dessert with coconut. All accompanied by Lao sticky rice in the round cylindrical basket container and eaten with the fingers - except for the soup, of course.

Half an hour's break then, when Mr Morn and Mr Noy both had a nap and I took the opportunity to wander around the garden and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Then back to work. Time for the pattern. The loom had been set up with the "hook" pattern, a traditional Lao motif and a new challenge was thrown into the pot. Not only did I have to remember the pedal and shuttle throwing sequence, I now had to manage the strings which created the pattern rows - having been warned that setting up a pattern on a loom took time and skill...and if I lost one of the strings or got it out of place, then it would create difficulties.

First was four rows black, four green, four black, four green and so on. Then a little introduction to the string business. Three more stripes and then into the pattern fully.

New respect for these skilled women who not only create such wonderful textiles but do it so easily, so quickly and so creatively...for they introduced different colours along the row, working instinctively to create the most beautiful effects.

A short time later, a cheer from Mr Morn - half way! Now the pattern strings, which I had been moving from pegs at the top of the loom to pegs at the bottom were going to move back up again, creating the mirror image of the design.

At the same time, distraction came in the form of shouts - the young men from the village were about to practice for the boat race on Sunday and my young teacher was eager to have a look and give a shy wave. They waved back and their antics created great hilarity as we all stood and watched them power away on the fast current. The Hmong lady stood and shook her head with a smile, as if to say "young people today...."

When I'd added another 20cm or so of plain black weaving to my masterpiece, Miss Lin finished it off with a few rows of cotton, ready to cut the fringe. As I worked on this last piece, another more experienced weaver came over and gave a little advice about my edges which I admit were rather less than perfect!

Miss Lin finished the weave and set up the loom for the next piece before cutting it away and twisting the fringe. She did this in the same way as we've seen Maori women make their skirts from phormium leaves - by rolling it down her shin - and tied the knots so deftly, I couldn't quite work out how she did it!

I was delighted with my "masterpiece", wonky edges and all. What a great way to spend a day!

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