This is the story of Paa Vanhthong. A story that thousands of weavers in Laos share. In Ban Nayang Tai, three hours north of Luang Prabang, Paa Vanhthong’s busy days run into each other. From dawn to dusk.
It’s barely 5.00 a.m. when the roosters all around Ban Nayang Tai start their symphony, waking up Paa Vanhthong’s households, with a 66 year-old weaver as the main protagonist. A quick — cold — wash, her jet black hair tied into a tight bun on the top of her head maintained by a traditional Lao silver hairpin, a few rebellious white hairs going astray, her smooth face barely showing her age, so strong in spite of the test of time… Paa Vanhthong is ready to start her day. […]
She starts another fire pit outside. She has some dyeing to do and she’ll need boiling water. On a flattened can of fish in tomato sauce transformed into a grater — Lao are ingenious like this — she repeats the same movement, over and over again. Tirelessly. Until she has enough grated turmeric to dye a couple of skeins of handspun cotton into a deep golden yellow.
Now onto the ‘piece de la resistance’, indigo! The Tai Lue of the Nam Ou and Tha waterways are masters of the indigo and stick lack dyes (blue and red). In Paa Vanhthong’s “backyard” — meaning going down into the woods at the back of her house — are some indigo plants. Not many, as the rainy season has been over for a few months now. But enough for her to “feed” her indigo vats. Next to her traditional wooden Tai Lue house on stilts, in a little shed covered by woven bamboo, Paa Vanhthong attends to several vats of indigo. She adds a little jug of the deepest shade of indigo to some more brownish liquid.
Her cotton skeins are ready. She plunges them one by one into the vat. Holding them at arm’s length, she brings them out. Again. Repeatedly. In different vats. Exposed to air, the indigo oxidizes. Paa Vanhthong’s hands go deep into the indigo vat. She stirs, squeezes. After several minutes, satisfied, she removes the skeins, squeezes to remove the excess dye and with a piece of wood firmly in her indigo-stained hands, she starts pounding the cotton.
Paa Vanhthong is on a mission! A nod to someone, a word to another one, she keeps going! The cotton is not going to wash itself… Ankles deep in the river, she picks a flat rounded rock to try to get rid of the indigo stains on her hands. She can keep on trying, her hands will always have this little tint of indigo, so specific to this community. […]
Like for most of the others in the village, weaving is the main source of income for Paa Vanhthong’s family. Under her house on stilts, she has all her weaving equipment; looms, spinning wheels and just everything she could use to help her work. So, when she’s done spinning bobbins and bobbins of cotton, she wraps the thread around the stilts of the house to prepare her warp. This walk around the stilts is fascinating! A creative way of measuring dozens of meters of warp…
But today, Paa Vanhthong is completing an order of 30 meters of handspun indigo-dyed cotton for Ock Pop Tok. Just one more meter and she will be done. She has been working with Ock Pop Tok since 2003 — shortly after we started the Village Weavers Project — and after all these years and several travels which took her from Vientiane to Peru, she knows how much quality control is important. So when she slides her shuttle from side to side one last time, her cousin, who lives next door, is waiting for her. Glasses kept together with a piece of black tape, needle and scissors in hand, she will help Paa Vanhthong check the fabric for any defects.
They need to be done before 5.00 p.m. because no weaving is allowed in the village after that time. When asked why it is so, Paa Vanhthong only replies that it has always been this way and they’ve never questioned it… Right before 5.00 p.m., receipt done, order packed, Paa Vanhthong goes for a stroll around the village. […]
It’s now 8.00 p.m. Paa Vanhthong hangs up the phone, switches off the television, turns off the lights. You can hear someone snoring in the house next door. Minutes later, Paa Vanhthong is sound asleep. With a few welcomed — or unwelcomed — surprises, tomorrow will be much the same, as well as the day after tomorrow, and the day after that.
A day in the life of Paa Vanhthong. A day in the life of thousands of weavers of Laos…