Ock Pop Tok
“The mission of our work at Ock Pop Tok is continuing traditional culture in a way that can improve economic opportunities for artisans and facilitate creative and educational collaborations in Laos.”
In Laos, there are few income generating opportunities for women. In the case of Ock Pop Tok, an award-winning and innovative cooperative founded by Veomanee Duongdala, weaving is an opportunity to make livable wages and preserve cultural heritage. For the people of the Tai Kadai culture, a linguistically connected group whose ties stretch from China to Southeast Asia, including Laos, weaving is closely associated with the role of women and what they contribute to the household. “By paying our weavers a respectable wage, we spread the message that weaving is a respectable and worthy employment option for women of all ages,” explains Veomanee.
Not only does Veomanee ensure that the weavers who work for her receive fair pay, the work that Ock Pop Tok does helps to keep Tai Kadai weaving traditions alive in a world that seems to value the convenience and price of machine-made goods. “Many ancient traditions are in danger of disappearing as a result of globalization,” Veomanee says. Born in Luang Prabang, she grew up with her mother, father and three brothers. She was surrounded by weaving all of her life, began to weave when she was eight years old, and has been doing it for the last thirty years. Deep-rooted tradition and love for the art form compels her to help keep the culture alive. For Veomanee, being a weaver has more to do with weaving being in her blood than a choice. She says, “It’s not really a decision, it’s part of me.”
She has been in the weaving business for the last 16 years, and Ock Pop Tok employs around sixty on-site weavers as well as four-hundred fair-trade artists across Laos who are part of their ‘Weaver’s Project.’ Together they create textile pieces ranging scarves, shawls, wall hangings, hand-sewn dolls, home décor, including cushions, rugs, placemats and table runners for “textile enthusiastic tourists,” who Veomanee says are their best customers.
The weavers of Ock Pop Tok utilize a variety of materials, including silk, cotton and hemp, incorporating four traditional techniques--Kit (continuous supplementary weft), Chok (noncontinuous supplementary weft), Matmee (Ikat weft) and namlai (tapestry). In addition to sourcing raw materials locally, the cooperative buys from Laotian suppliers as well as ones in other Asian countries.
While Ock Pop Tok uses traditional techniques and colors that come from natural dyes, they are known for making products that conform to the aesthetics of Western taste. Historically, women were required to create certain clothes for their new families in marriage, but now they create a variety of textile products appreciated the world over. And the cooperative upholds a love for merging the old with the new. Ock Pop Tok's namesake literally means ‘East Meets West.’ Artists find their inspiration in traditional motifs (the protective Naga (water serpent) or the strengthening Siho (elephant-bird). Then they translate those ideas to contemporary pieces that collectors desire. Of course tradition also informs how Laotians dress. Ock Pop Tok started a project that involves the collection and preservation of age-old textiles from around Laos. The use of folk art in everyday Laotian culture can be seen when women wear the sinh, or a tubular skirt that is part of traditional required temple attire. They pair it with a temple shawl, but women will wear the skirts to work as well as formal events.
The pieces they collect are used as point of references for traditional designs and inspiration as the weavers create their pieces. Smaller items can be made more quickly, while more complicated pieces that utilize the sitting loom with a string pattern can take anywhere from two to eight weeks.
Ultimately, Veomanee hopes that people around the world will recognize how humanity is all interconnected through “our common dreams, our struggles and our successes.” She says that she and her team feel like they are part of a global family of artists. She is hopeful that their story will impact folk art collectors to support their work because of these similarities. In the meantime, she is happy to build awareness of the beauty of Laotian textiles around the world, which creates a sustainable source of income for their artists. This results in more opportunities, schooling for their children, healthcare access, and a better quality of life.