An Introduction

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Samorn Sanixay is the owner of Eastern Weft, a company based between Laos and Australia. They produce silk and linen goods for you and your home. I approached Samorn because of her stance on natural dyes. Eastern Weft, as well as Samorn’s personal projects are dyed solely with dyes that can either be grown or gathered. Turmeric to create varying tones of yellow and orange. Pure indigo to create their blues. Black rice patties to create black and greys, and avocado peels to conjure pinks. 

Samorn was born in Laos, but fled the country with her parents after the end of the Vietnam war. She and her family resettled and Samorn went on to study Political Science and diploma in Japanese Language. After her graduation, she returned to Laos to work with UNICEF as a script writer for children’s books to improve health and education—with an emphasis on empowering and offering support to girls in south East Asia.

 

"We traveled to remote villages and saw the women weaving clothes and blankets for their family. Born out of necessity, since there were no markets near by. I thought it was incredible, they were illiterate, but able to create any pattern through weaving. There’s a connection between weaving and mathematics, in terms of counting thread and the often geometrical nature of pattern design. I was taught to weave plain fabric, it took me two months to weave two metres. The fabric was made into a skirt and my love for craft and weaving grew from there."

 

A Conversation

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How does the process in creating the weaves and colours for Eastern Weft differ from your creations at home?

 

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Samorn - Eastern weft was established to support young women of ethnic minority hill tribes. Each of them has their own unique textile traditions, such as ikat or embroidery. When creating new designs we usually combine several of these techniques. Everything is quite perfect and regular. The textiles are dyed using whatever natural dyes are available each season.

With natural dyes, as a result of weather such as heavy rainfall one year and no rain during the next year, the same colour can never be produced twice.

At home, in Australia, I’m free to play and experiment. The nature in Australia is very unique, we have plants and flowers that don’t exist anywhere else, I like the irregularity of it. I wanted to include them in my own products. I like to create textiles that have a lot of texture. The weavers in Laos they like when silk is perfect and flat, they think my compost creations are just a smelly mess!

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What makes Eastern Weft truly yours and the women you work with?

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Samorn - Working with UNICEF truly opened my eyes to many political and social issues. I really enjoyed my time with them. After my contract ended, I wanted to keep ties with my birthplace. I wanted to create something that was non-political. I saw a possibility to do this through the craft and skills we have in Laos.

Eastern Weft Weaving Cooperative was set up in 2004 to support young gifted artisans to enhance their lives through the beauty and diversity of Lao weaving and textiles. These were skills they already possessed, passed down from their mothers, so no training was needed. The weavers belong to ethnic minority hill tribes and each bring their own set of skills and traditional motifs. I feel it's important that each weaver is allowed creative input. It benefits everyone. They are proud of their work and the knowledge that each piece they create will be shipped far and wide across the world. Places they will never see, but they are grateful for the people that care for their skill and who they are.

After many years together, we have become a family.

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Storytelling, along with traditions and cultures can be distilled down into graphic and pictorial representations. With each piece more is told than its weft. Each characteristic tells you something about the weaver, their history, their culture’s history, their influences, how much of them is in the piece, how much is the assignment. On and on, a story caught in fiber and thread.

Take ikat for example, it sounds like a specific pattern, but when you research it, you see that the end results can differ so much from each other, and you discover it’s a dye resistant technique. The same with embroidery, a technique practiced through out history and different cultures. So considering these differences, what does Eastern Weft lean to the most and has it evolved throughout the years?

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Samorn - We use several techniques, but the main type of weaving is the supplementary weft—this is where individual threads are slotted in the weft to create patterns. You can either create freely or follow a template. It is difficult and labour intensive. I think it’s mostly practiced in Asia these days. 

Ikat is a dying art. These days with technology and digital printing it is rather difficult for most people to tell the difference. The difference lies in the texture. You can always see and feel the difference, because of the slight imperfections present in true ikat, at least in the pieces that we create. Ikat is probably the most difficult of all weaving techniques because it not only requires skill but precision. You tie and dye threads before weaving, then the threads are spun onto spools and bobbins, ready for weaving.  It’s when you weave that the parts of the threads that have not touched the dye should all meet at the same point on the loom to create your pattern. If your un-dyed thread does not meet, there is no pattern. Ikat is very mathematical. What I find incredible is that many of the ikat weavers in the world are illiterate, regardless of it they create beautifully intricate work. Most traditional ikat patterns are geometric and regular, and very time consuming. This is where I wanted to change things, simplify the designs. I wanted to test what would happen if we jumbled all the threads together.

There are so many types of embroidery we can use because there are almost seventy different ethnic hill tribes in Laos. Textiles and clothing are identifiers of your tribe and geographical location. The most sophisticated embroideries are from the north of Laos that borders with China and Vietnam. Some of the antique pieces are incredible, the intricacy, the details, and layers of work cannot be replicated or repeated today, because they are so time consuming and no one seems interested in this type of labour any longer.

For our own textiles we haven't used embroidery but we create a lot of pieces for private clients and orders. The customer provides us with a pattern or picture and the best embroiders work on these pieces. 

I’ve only created one piece of embroidery, myself, for an exhibition some years ago. I would love to work on more embroidery pieces and I’m planning to do so in the coming year.

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What drew you to natural dyes?

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Samorn - Before the advent of synthetic dyes, textiles were dyed solely with natural dyes. It’s fascinating when you think of all the ways we extract dyes. Think of the cochineal beetle, who ever thought of that. Fruit, leaves, bark, and even rice paddy mud. The colours that can be achieved are spectacular, there’s a depth you can’t seem to recreate through synthetic dyes.

For me, it’s about the whole. Working in harmony with the environment, using locally sourced materials, and what’s available each season. Take the mulberry tree, the new leaves feed the silk worms and the older leaves can be used to make tea. You can eat the berries or turn them into a dye. The twigs and branches are used for firewood when boiling the dyes and dying the silks. The same thing can be done with coconuts. The meat is used in cooking, whilst the shells can be made into various objects. The fibers can be woven, and we can use the husk to turn into a golden brown dye. It’s a closed system, with very little waste.

With natural dyes there’s a story to be told, which I feel is missing from synthetic dyes. 

What I love the most about natural dyes is the ability to get your hands dirty. You don’t have to wear gloves*—I’m not fond of plastic—or worry about breathing in toxic chemicals. As an added benefit, most dyes I use in my personal work and in my workshops are edible. When dying with berries, you can eat and work at the same time.

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Most guides and teachers will say to wet your fabric before you submerge it in the dye vat. Do you have a different way of doing things?

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Samorn - I think it all depends on the outcome you are after. In the weaving house in Laos everything is dyed before weaving so that the colour of the textiles is even. Which is important for the products we create. If you want fabric that is perfectly even then I recommend that you wet the fabric before submerging it in the dye vat. 

Once you’ve learned several techniques it’s possible to keep experimenting. This is the part of my work that I enjoy the most. Finding new colours is like striking gold.

When I create the compost scarf, I don’t usually wet the fabric. I’ve tried it, but I didn’t like the way the colour ran through the silk. I like a certain measure of control. When the fabric is dry the colour is more intense.

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Is there anything you’ve dyed with that you thought would fail, but worked quite well, and vice versa?

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Samorn - I’ve wrapped fabrics, such as thin cotton or mixed silk, around metal and forgotten about them. Rust can often create interesting patterns or change the colour of the dye, but when you leave it too long the rust can eat away at the fabric.

I usually have several projects going at once, sometimes I’m absent minded and leave the fabric soaking for too long. I’ve found a colony of ants eating the fruit I’m dying with. Some of the projects can get quite sticky and rather messy. A while ago, I received an order for a bright yellow silk. I usually use turmeric and don’t let it boil for too long. On this occasion however, I left it in the pot for two days. The longer you leave your fabric in turmeric, the darker it becomes. The silk went from a bright yellow to a brown-orange. No one wants to look like a Buddhist monk, unless you’re one.

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Aside from the silken and linen goods you produce, you also sell leather goods. Since they’re produced in Australia, how does their creation differ from your process in Laos. 

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Samorn - We came up with the leather goods idea in 2012 and it was really about starting Chapter Two of our Eastern Weft story. We’d been creating textiles for eight years and I wanted to work with other materials, but wasn't sure what else could work with our silk. The idea first came to me when I was in an upscale boutique and picked up a bag, inside the label read “Genuine Italian Leather” and I thought to myself “What does that mean?”. I began to research leather and found several local tanneries. Each warehouse had a big section of off cuts and seconds. Almost perfect, but binned for their minor imperfections and scratches.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in discarded or faulty objects. I find imperfections fascinating. I wanted to give the scraps a second life. It was a big task, so I enlisted the help of some very talented local Australian designers who shared the same passion and design ethos as I do. The project ended up as a collaboration between The Fortynine studio and S-T (Stephanie Said/Taka Shirai). The designs were about merging east and west, the traditional meeting contemporary. With Lao silk at the heart

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What are your workshops like?

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Samorn - I’ve had the opportunity to learn weaving and dyeing from old masters. For years the traditional techniques and methods have only been in my head. So, I had to sit and think about the different natural dyeing techniques that I had been taught, before I could share them with my own students. 

I’m still very new at teaching, so we are all learning. We started by creating 'the compost scarf’ which means dyes created from vegetable scraps. I’m about ‘zero waste’. I explain how to extract dyes and how to obtain different shades of colour from one type of dye (flower or fruit). Mostly, it’s about creating awareness about natural dyes—or the way textiles were made long ago. Sourcing local and seasonal. You'd be amazed what you can find in your backyard or street.

a note on dying without gloves

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Traditional indigo dyers will often dye without gloves. It stains the skin underneath their nails, as well as their hands, a perpetual intense blue. This way nothing comes between them and the fabric. If you’d like to see what traditional indigo dying looks like, take a look at these accounts on Instagram: Aboubakar Fofana and Buaisou

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Thank you, Samorn, for taking the time to share your story and knowledge of natural dyes with me. You can follow Samorn on Instagram where she shares a great deal on natural dyes.

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This interview has been condensed and edited


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