Posts Tagged ‘silk’


Finally we’ve reached the “4,000 islands” in the far south of Laos, where the Mekong River widens out as far as the eye can see, and is dotted with hundreds if not thousands of islands. The pace of life is now so slow it seems to grind to a halt. The default position here is horizontal – hammocks hang around every house and restaurant, every guesthouse room has at least one – woven from bamboo or tatty string or cloth and even special swinging baskets for the babies (of which there are many).

Almost every restaurant  here has a large platform with mattresses and pillows and low tables. There’s one at our guesthouse. Crawling out of bed and making it the few dozen yards to the table means that as long as you can attract the attention of someone to bring food and drink, you are tempted not to move again for the rest of the day.

There’s a group of French folk staying at our guesthouse who’ve hardly moved in the three days we’ve been here. There are 5 of them but they’ve only taken one room where they can keep all their stuff and take a shower now and again – otherwise they sleep on the seat-beds or in a hammock, roll up their sleeping bags in the morning and order brekkies. We’ve christened them “les pommes de terre couchantes”.

The Lao people here in the south lead a pleasant and almost self sufficient life which seems pretty good. Every family has a boat so they can fish or take the tourists out to a water-fall or to see the very precious Irrawaddy dolphins, or to the mainland for a bus or an ATM. Chickens, ducks and pigs are free, the dogs are friendly and so are the kids.With no cars around, they dash about on bikes, splash in the river or poke at trees with long sticks. The tourists bring in more than enough income it would seem and entertainment is provided by sharing meals and the telly on dawn til dusk (Thai boxing and soaps mostly). Work is done in the early morning before the searing hot sun gets going and in the early evening in that short and magic time between sundown and dark.

We speculate about what they think of us and the strange lives we lead. What do they tell their kids about the foreigners who seem to have nothing to do and endless amounts of money to spend?

In southern Laos, it’s the old colonisers, the French who are most in evidence. Their great-grandfathers came here and took the teak, tin, coffee, opium and rubber out. When the Lao decided to “Take back Control of their Own Country” (something we seem to be hearing a lot about lately) they were carpet bombed and  land mined for their trouble. But even after all that, the French are still here and they’re still sitting around ordering beer, baguettes and espressos!  By the way, I don’t mean to single out the French, any colonial power would do, it’s just that in Laos it was the French and here in southern Laos they must make up about 80% of the “farangs

We started this trip, a month ago in the north of the country, where things have changed a lot since I was here 12 years ago. Yes, there are ATMs now and roads where there never were any roads and lots more people speak English, but the big change is that the north is being colonised again – this time by China.

In northern Laos it’s all about the power of China – in some cases literally – “Power China” is building dams and massive hydro-electric schemes and bringing in their own crews, machinery and finance to do so. With the permission of the Laos Government, Chinese companies are tearing down the forests and planting huge plantations of rubber, teak and banana. To get to all of this, they are building bridges and roads. This has the knock on effect of bringing tourists in from China too! It happened that we were in northern Laos over Chinese New Year and about three quarters of the cars on the road had Chinese number plates. There are even Chinese campervanners now, behaving exactly the same as their northern European counterparts travelling down to the Med, camping up in the best parking spots next to the coast/Mekong riverbank. Big three generation families and groups of friends racketing around laughing and shouting, getting drunk and enjoying hotpot barbecue banquets, all having a great time and generally behaving like rowdy old Brits on holiday on the Costa Brava.

Five things I love about Laos

  1. The rivers – the Mekong is the Big Momma of them all but there are rivers everywhere. They are great to travel on, fish in, swim in, wash in, wallow in (if you’re a buffalo) and have a beer while staring out at. The only downside is now that more roads have been built, riverboat services are quickly becoming extinct.
  2. Weaving (of course!) Lao women continue to wear hand woven sarongs and there are many villages where there’s a loom under every house, so that means lots of potential for textile based travel decisions. Brocades, very complicated patterned weaves, supplementary weft techniques, and ikat are all alive and well. One of my favourite days was spent dyeing and weaving silk at “Ock Pop Tok” in Luang Prabang. One of my new discoveries in Laos is Katu weaving. Naturally  dyed weavings with patterns of tiny beads made by Katu women.
  3. Herbal steam bath followed by a massage – one of the things which bring you into direct contact (literally) with Lao people. Sharing a very dark, very hot and very steamy wooden cupboard with a dozen or so sarong clad Lao women is kinda fun.
  4. Village life. Cycling or walking around a village especially at dusk is just fantastic. Football games are played, kids bathed, food cooked, cloth woven, chickens fed, cows and goats rounded up, nets mended, and gardens watered.
  5. BeerLaos – there’s only one kind of beer sold in Laos. but it’s pretty good and it’s only a quid for a big bottle, so no problem there. Oh, and noodle soup – the absolute lunchtime staple, which comes in a basin big enough to stick your head in and is usually accompanied by a plateful of greenery.

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Protesting “aunties” wearing the Thai national colours

The Government opposition vowed to “Shutdown Bangkok” on Monday 13th January and we arrived two days later slightly wary of what we might find. Our taxi driver was in no doubt “Why, why you come Bangkok? Bangkok have problem. You can go Chiang Mai, go Samui. Shopping all close, close, close!”

Drama queen! The shops didn’t look closed to me. He refused to drive us past the tail end of a road block and we had to walk to our hotel from there. (ahh, shame, I hear you say) We’re staying here because it’s very close to the shopping mall where we always come to buy silk, but it’s also plum in the commercial centre of the city and so very close to one of the “Shutdown” sites.

In the “good old days” we used to buy from the stalls in the basement of a department store called Narayan Phand where we could get Burmese sequinned embroideries, textile hangers made from old loom parts, hand made paper notebooks, jackets made from soft and subtle antique silk ikat, and wide luxurious shawls of thick slubby silk. After many years of it being threatened, finally everyone was moved out to the Pratunam Centre a block away, and the building has been turned into a Big C Supermarket. Shopping at the new Pratunam Centre wasn’t so good; some of the old stall holders had decided to call it a day but our old suppliers Royal Thai Silk, Koreena and Marie Silk were still there amongst the mass produced fashion wholesalers. We stayed faithful, popping in on our Bangkok transit days and loading scarves and jackets into rucksacks before getting the plane home or dragging big grey plastic bags to the post office.

Silk mutmi scarf

Silk mutmi scarf

Now just to confuse and disorientate us Pratunam has had a facelift and changed its name to the Palladium Centre, but we track it down eventually through the road blocks. All this “shutdown” seems to have affected more than the traffic: the weather has gone all pleasant and the Big Mango is positively cool! I’m just not used to fresh air in Bangkok – where’s that heavy humid heat that should descend on you whenever you move out into the street?

There are still a few familiar faces around at the Palladium but nearly everyone seems to be suffering from “customer fatigue” or is it “shutdown grumpiness”? And the good stuff is just not there any more. It’s now well nigh impossible to find decent jackets in the old “mutmi” ikat silk. I admit it was always a trial to sift through the rails – a lovely fabric would catch the eye but be ruined by the awful garment it was made into – with superfluous frills or horrid rosettes or a daft collar. But now that the silk fabric has become so rare, these abominations seem like sacrilege. However there’s still some nice fabrics to find if you dig around and we are encouraged by a small pile of beautiful ikat scarves. We probably buy more and pay more than we should, but these may be the last and it seems silly to walk away from them.

Shopping done, we can take in a bit of “protest tourism” and wander up familiar roads made totally strange by the absence of cars, the pop up tents and the crowds of makeshift stalls selling “Shutdown Bangkok” accoutrements. The Thais do love an excuse to set up a market and here’s another one – protest whistles, plastic clappy hands, hats, headbands, flags, armbands, and t-shirts by the thousand, all in the blue, white a red of the Thai national flag and the protesters, colours. I very much doubt the “Occupy London” campaign got their merchandising act together as fast as this.

Protest merchandise for sale

Protest merchandise for sale

We wander through peaceful scenes of elderly ladies kipping down in see-through pop-up tents, protesters sitting on plastic mats and eating at canopied canteens, and past the big screens showing a live relay of the speakers on a big stage set up near the Erawan junction ahead. When we get there I am delighted to see that “Gaysorn Plaza” has been forced to close. It’s one of my least favourite “shopping malls”, not just because of its crap name but for the soulless international rich-git brand name shops in it.

Now it’s had to close because there is a bloody great stage right in front of it and revolution or at least reform is being spouted outside its very doors. Ha! The mood is light and totally non-threatening. The protesters themselves are serious and determined, but others seem to be there for the crack, to see what the fuss is about, to buy a T shirt or blow a whistle and cheer the speeches. Strangest of all; there is not a copper or a soldier to be seen anywhere. At all.

How long is it going to last? How long can anti government protesters just set up camp at key road junctions in the centre of a capital city without the baton charges, water cannon, tear gas or rubber bullets which would ensue in London, Beijing, Istanbul, or Cairo, or indeed the all-out brutality which has been the response to anti Government protest in Syria, Libya, Burma and Bahrain? In Thailand it seems the famous tolerance and laid back approach extends to civil disobedience too. At least for the time being.

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Silk from the Fergana valley

Our final stop in Uzbekistan is the “fabled” Fergana Valley as Jim keeps calling it. Fabled for its “heavenly” horses, and possibly for nefarious drugs. Anyway it’s here that most of the silk in this country is produced, and as this is a Silk Road story, it’s somewhere I really wanted to visit.

We’ve come to the town of Margilon where there are two enormous silk producing factories (apparently the biggest in Central Asia). There is also one place which makes silk ikat in the old way – the way they used to make it before electricity and big machines.

Ikat really is Uzbekistan’s national fabric, and many of the women, tables and cushions of this country are covered in fabrics with ikat designs (although it’s rarely real ikat)

We have heard good things about the “wonderful tour” they give at the Yodgorlik “Souvenir Silk factory” so I am really looking forward to it and set out with a merry heart, two fully charged cameras at the ready.

Woman with silk thread ready for weavingThings have obviously changed as when we get there, there is only one very grumpy chap who ignores us for 5 minutes and when we dare to ask about the tour growls “Wait a minute” as if we have interrupted his very important day. He finally finishes his fag, spits on the ground and he’s off, with us hurrying behind. Anyway his English is crap and he can’t answer any of our questions

But there will now follow a short lesson in warp ikat and how it is made accompanied by informative photos. Skip this if you already know or couldn’t care less.


As you can imagine we were in seventh heaven here and would have been happy to sit and watch for ages, but Old Grumpy guts was having none of it. He was sighing deeply and tapping his watch, so unfortunately we had to be delivered back to the cramped little shop. Here we did our consumerist duties and bought a lovely piece of warp ikat “adras” (silk warp, cotton weft) with a design of great big tulips on it.

Ikat on a stall

The finished products

Things are obviously not going too well for Yodgirlik at the moment. We counted a total of about 20 people working. There is only one woman working in the silk spinning room with one hot water vat out of five in use. In the ikat tying room, only one set of yarns was being tied. There were a couple of guys in the dyeing room and a couple measuring out a warp and in the big weaving room, only five looms had a warp on them.

Let me say now that the idea behind this whole enterprise is wonderful. Its aims are thoroughly worthy: to revive traditional warp ikat textiles, to give employment in skilled handicrafts to weavers and dyers, to use natural dyes where possible and to produce top quality textiles. It was started in 1983 with high hopes – but enterprises like this need support. Support such as grants, national marketing and sales networks, Royal or government patronage or access to a domestic middle and upper class market.

For example (and these are just from personal knowledge)

  • In Malaysia and Indonesia, handmade batik is time consuming and expensive to produce but it is supported by the well-off middle classes, who still buy it and wear it.
  • In Thailand, ikat weavers, indigo dyers, and numerous other handicraft workers are supported by foundations set up by the Queen of Thailand and promoted in outlets throughout the country.
  • In Turkey, naturally dyed hand -made carpets are making a comeback because of good demand for them from Europe.
  • In Bali top quality wood carvings, textiles and other crafts can be sold to the many foreign and domestic tourists.
The Ikat Factory

The Ikat Factory

At the moment Uzbekistan has none of these so all the small craft enterprises are struggling. President Karimov is only interested in selling the country’s industrial and agricultural assets (particularly cotton) and it has virtually no middle class market for high quality products. Perhaps foreign tourists could play a part but at the moment Uzbekistan is not top of everybody’s list and the Yodgorlik needs to sell itself with an informative tour of the workshops and a good shop.

In other words, getting rid of Old Grumpy would be a start. But it’s sad to say that without some help I don’t think this wonderful project will be able to sustain itself, and true Uzbek warp ikat will no longer be made in the Fergana Valley.

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We have started our journey from its furthest western point – the truly amazing town of Khiva in Uzbekistan. The first sight of it is gob smacking – towering mud brick walls surround an inner city of a square kilometre where every house and street is the same pale sandy colour. But what buildings! Mosques and minarets, palaces and medressas, domes and courtyards of stunning turquoise blue tiles.

Khiva seems to have been ruled over by a succession of cruel and bloodthirsty Khans who enjoyed enslaving, beheading, and generally behaving very badly. It was eventually conquered by the Russians and 50 or so years later by the Bolsheviks and became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist State and thus the USSR in 1924. The place was so impressive that even the Soviet planning department left it alone.

I chose the Meros B and B because of a book called “Carpet Ride to Khiva” which I read last year. The author lodged with the family here for 7 years and while he was here, started a silk carpet weaving workshop and later an embroidery workshop which are both nearby. Once we decided to come to Uzbekistan, I knew I wanted to visit Khiva and see the workshops. Anyway, the house is full of kilims and embroidered suzanis, the family is welcoming, the view from the roof is great and our balcony looks out on the western wall, so it was a pretty good choice.

The weaving workshop is in an old madressa with a domed courtyard surrounded by lots of small rooms where the women sit at looms knotting silk into beautiful carpets. The dyestuffs used to dye the silk are all natural – pomegranate and onion skins, madder and indigo, walnut and oak galls. They have to get a lot of it from Afghanistan which is expensive and somewhat hazardous these days.

The weavers sit three abreast knotting furiously, beating down ferociously and listening to loud pop music but they are all very jolly and even understand our Turkish (yay!)

Madrim, the master dyer shows us where the silk is dyed. He drives us a couple of miles down a potholed track, through a blue door and into a garden full of madder plants. There are bowls of onions skins with apple, mulberry and vine leaves, pomegranate skins and madder, alum mordants and steaming vats of wood ash and grated soap which are used to scour and wash the silk before dyeing it.

The workshop was set up about 10 years ago with help from UNESCO and The British Council but now they have to stand on their own two feet and so they’re trying to produce more dyestuffs locally and experiment with using wool which is cheaper than silk.

The silk carpets themselves are stunning. The designs come from the tile work and the enormous carved wooden doors in Khiva. Jim and I both fall in love with one particular carpet and we think long and hard, but the price is beyond us – especially at the beginning of a long trip.

This blog is going to feature one particular textile from each of the places we visit. If we could have spared a thousand quid it would have been the carpet……… however…….the project has also set up an embroidery workshop, employing another 24 women. Here the same naturally dyed silk is used to produce the traditional embroideries commonly known as suzanis for which Central Asia is famous. We can afford 2 exquisite cushion covers, one featuring a design painstakingly copied from an ancient hand-carved door, the other taken from beautiful old tiles.

So that’s what we got from Khiva. The carpet’s still waiting there, giving us a very good reason to go back one day.

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