In Vientiane’s Traditional Cultural Education Center lies the Lao Textile Museum, where Laos’s textile tradition is being kept alive. The museum offers displays of various weaving and dyeing techniques. There is also a small gift shop where you can purchase hand-made fabric and other items made on-site. As a part of the tour, you can purchase some fabric (such as a t-shirt, scarf, or tablecloth) that you can dye yourself. In the neighboring building, you can also try your hands at weaving (you won’t make anything, but you can get a feel for it.) However, we’ll be focusing on the dyeing process.
The dye that they use is made from Indigo. Indigo is one of the oldest dyes currently used, the oldest artifact dating back 6000 years. The dye was primarily used as a silk dye in Southeast Asian countries, India, and Japan (especially during the Edo period.) The textile museum harvests its own silk from silkworms, a process explained during the guided tour. The museum stores its mixture of Indigo in vats, aiding in its fermentation. The Indican inside the plants is oxidized into the dye we are all familiar with today.
According to our guide, the Indigo leaves are mixed with alcohol and lye to make what they call “Indigo Mud”. That mud is then left to ferment to make the Indigo dye. Rather than convert that to powder form, you can directly dye articles of clothing by soaking in the Indigo vat. The cloth is continuously submerged in the indigo mixture, soaking in the dye in the process. The dye is squeezed out and reabsorbed for several minutes. The stronger you want the blue color to appear, the more you will have to soak. Don’t let the smile fool ya, your arms WILL get sore.
Once you are finished soaking in the dye, you have to wash off any excess. That process is done in steps, moving along buckets of water as the cloth gets consecutively cleaner and the water clearer. You will notice some of the cloth is still white. That’s because you will have to cover any part you don’t want to dye. This process will also give your forearms a little workout as you squeeze the water out of the cloth. If you decide to try it out, make sure you wash thoroughly. Otherwise, the dye will leak. The final step is to hang the cloth to dry. As a bonus, our guides said to later soak the cloth in cold salt water to finish cleaning.
It was a really interesting day learning about this aspect of Lao culture. It was definitely worth the money to take part in the tour. I recommend anyone who visits Vientiane to give it a try. As a part of the tour, we learned more about the other aspects of weaving and textile manufacturing. I didn’t include it in the written blog but you can catch it in the vlog video.