SANTA FE, N.M. — Within a week of returning home to London in late 1999, Jo Smith knew she needed to be back in Laos.
The English photographer had been on assignment in the Asian region and also spent three months volunteering at an English school in the historic town of Luang Prabang. It was there where she hit it off with Veomanee Douangdala, who taught Smith the art of traditional Laos weaving.
It’s a skill that Douangdala learned from her mother when she was a kid, like many other girls in Laos. Her mother had her own weaving business.
“Just by that chance encounter, we became sisters in a way,” said Smith – “sisters” who both were interested in the idea of an arts collective and in textiles that differed from traditional Lao styles.
The following year, the two women founded Ock Pop Tok with five local weavers. The collective, which now employs about 50 weavers in Luang Prabang and works with hundreds more across the country, will make its 11th visit to Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market next week to sell its tradition-meets-modern textiles.
This year, the group can be found in the market’s Innovation section, which is returning for a second year.
“We’re all about bringing people together through textiles to exchange knowledge and ideas,” said Smith.
Ock Pop Tok, or “East meets West” in Lao, was founded with the idea of creating pieces rooted in tradition that also have Western cultural appeal. It’s an idea Douangdala said came to her after her hometown became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and emerged as an international tourist destination.
“People can bring Laos back home, but still have the Laos identity,” she said. The collective’s popular items – made of silk, cotton and hemp – include patterned scarves, bags, and clothing like shirts and dresses.
The designs play off motifs typically found in Laos textiles – inspired by ancient temple architecture or mythical creatures like Buddism’s Naga serpent – while also experimenting with color schemes.
Traditionally, Douangdala said, many Laos weavings have been made with red, gold and yellow fabrics. Reflecting on when she met her British business partner almost 20 years ago and helped her weave two skirts, Douangdala recalled her fascination with how Smith had used a black, white and gray color scheme – a large step away from the local norm.
Ock Pop Tok has continued in that direction, shaking things up, she said.
“It’s still first colors like red (and) gold, but we add on like blue – softer colors, lighter colors,” she said. The group’s collections also include pieces that have various shades of indigo, pink or orange, colors that could already be seen in old textiles, but pairing them with gray and white.
Of the approximately 50 women weavers of Ock Pop Tok – half work in its Living Craft Centre, where visitors can take a tour or hands-on classes, and half work in a village a few minutes away – each specializes within three different weaving techniques, Douangdala explained.
The three methods are Ikat, a process of dying yarn before weaving to create various designs; supplementary wrap, a technique Douangdala likened to embroidery in which additional weaving is added on top of a base textile; and tapestry work.
Ock Pop Tok also works with hundreds of separate artists across Laos through its Village Weaver Project.
Smith explained that Ock Pop Tok conducts training in rural villages and among different ethnic groups to help develop cultural handicrafts and identify local or national markets for weavers to break into.
The programs sometimes are established at the request of government agencies, which target communities where the country wants to reduce poverty.
The villages aren’t required to sell their products through Ock Pop Tok, but Smith said that, more often than not, the collective will become a buyer. Some of the crafts Ock Pop Tok brings to Santa Fe for the Folk Art Market include “love gift” handkerchiefs and wedding scarves from the Houaphan province and jackets made by women of the Tai Lue ethnic group.
“You have to put your money where your mouth is and say we’ll be the first ones to place an order with you,” she said. “We nurture these villages so that they can become these really independent cottage industries and not just produce items for us, but (also for) as many markets as they can: Thai markets, Vietnamese markets, tourist markets.”
In the Living Craft Centre, fabric is purchased from producers in Laos and dyed on-site.
Smith said half of the dyes are made from natural sources like wood, berries and seeds, and the other half are chemical dyes used because of certain colors the artists need. The artists use their techniques to create their own designs.
Despite bringing an “evolution” to Lao weaving style, as Smith described it, Douangdala said her goal is to preserve the traditional art form. Weaving hasn’t always been considered a cool job among Laos’ younger crowd. But by offering economic opportunities for artisans, she hopes to inspire others to continue with the craft.
“(They see) ‘I can earn money for my weaving,’ ” Douangdala said. “That help(s) a young generation to practice the skill.”