weavings of south-east asia

by | Mar 7, 2018 | Inspiration

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything, and that’s mainly because I spent the first month of the year travelling around South-East Asia, and second month of the year feeling sad that I was no longer travelling around South-East Asia…  However, now I’m back in the game, and ready to stop pining after the recent months, but to reflect happily upon them. 

I was incredibly lucky to spend about almost a month exploring the incredible sights of Thailand, Laos & Cambodia, and it was a journey filled with insight into the remarkable weaving techniques of three countries with such strong textile traditions.

Silk weaving in progress (Image source: Emma Wood)

These regions of South-East Asia are best-known for their intricate silk weaving, and over the course of my travels I was able to learn not just about the weaving process, but also about the meaning of pattern, how silk is spun and dyed naturally, and the important cultural role that textiles can play.

Raw silk cocoons (Image source: Emma Wood)

Seeing the silk spinning process was one of the most fascinating areas for me.  I remember visiting a silk museum in Yokohama on a school trip when I was young, and for some reason the memories really stuck with me.  Now I had the chance to revisit these experiences, to learn more, and to finally get some decent photos.

A single silk cocoon can provide up to 400 metres of silk, which is a mind-blowing fact when you consider that a single cocoon is only about 3cm long and weighs just over a single gram.  The bright yellow exterior is spun into a lower-cost, rougher silk, and a hidden inner layer produces a finer and softer silk thread. 

This Mulberry silkworm farming isn’t reserved just for large industry – in every weaving workshop in every village I visited, I was able to spot clusters of silk cocoons, slowly growing and being prepared for spinning.

Newly-spun raw silk in it’s natural state (Image source: Emma Wood)

Being able to witness the silk-spinning process was really important to me.  Being a weaver doesn’t mean being interested solely in the construction of cloth and the mechanics of structure; for me it’s equally important to understand the story and personality of the fibres you work with.  Each material has it’s own story, characteristics and quirks, and in order to make the best of their potential, you need to understand its journey.  Watching silk develop from a cocoon to a woven cloth can be an enlightening experience, and with each step you appreciate even more how something as small as a tiny silkworm can create something so tactile and powerful.

Material samples for natural silk dyes (Image source: Emma Wood)

The richness and wealth of colour also astounded me.  All provided from local flowers, trees and herbs, it was fascinating to see the sources of the vivid colours South-East Asian textiles are so well-known for.  I’ve dabbled with natural dyeing in the past, but have never been able to achieve anything close to the stunning silk colour palettes.  The preservation of the colours over time is equally remarkable; I was able to see woven pieces over 150 years old that still held their vibrancy and depth.

Roughly 150 years old, and this woven headscarf remains vibrant and colourful (Image source: Emma Wood)

What I found most fascinating, however, were the weaving techniques that were used, particularly in Laos.  I’ve long wondered how weavers in South-East Asia were able not only to construct such intricate patterns, but to weave them so quickly, and I was finally able to get all the answers.  I learnt about an entirely new system decorative weaving that I hadn’t encountered before – essentially, Jacquard-weaving without the Jacquard.

A silk weaving loom in Luang Prabang, Laos.  With only two shafts, this loom is able to weave incredibly intricate designs, thanks to it’s unique threading system (Image source: Emma Wood)

Hundreds (occasionally thousands) of vertical threads are suspended at the back of the loom, and these contain a programmable pattern.  This clever system lets you weave the most detailed Jacquard-based designs at a fast pace, but removes all need for a computer, punchcards, or power source.  Discovering this system at the end of my weaving journey was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and it’s something I’m certainly going to write more about in the near future.  In the meantime however, it’s time to put away the laptop, face the Berlin snow, and try to stay warm with thoughts of South-East Asia.

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