One rainy season, Wilai Praijitkanjanakul noticed that piled up fallen leaves that were left to rot on concrete left indelible stains. A teacher of economics, it occurred to her that maybe such leaves could be used to stain fabric as well. Many years before, her grandmother, who often ate fermented tea leaves, had once warned her that the stains from fermented leaves would be difficult to wash off her clothes. Remembering this mundane warning inspired Wilai to experiment and find out how this might work, so she began to research tea leaf fermentation, which is a traditional food preservation technique commonly known in the northern region as “ouke.” By combining it with natural dying, she invented a new technique to create patterns on fabric using colors from leaves and went on to found OUKE in 2017.
Wilai experimented with many kinds of leaves. Her technique is like eco-printing, but OUKE can create distinct artistic designs utilizing leaves differently. After meticulously placing leaves on cloth, she steams it and lets it ferment overnight. Wilai admitted she would get excited when unravelling the work to see how the pattern had turned out, the aromatic scent of the fermentation process making her happy. Though making a 20-meter-long roll of “ouke cloth” takes a lot of effort, the thrill of conceiving a design and then creating it enthralls Wilai.
OUKE uses leaves from plants in Wilai’s garden specially chosen for the colors they render. She constantly looks for more plants to make the most of her garden and keep costs down. Most of the leaves she uses are common to the local area, such as teak, Indian trumpet, Indian cork, pine and makleua. While the leaves will look green to the ordinary eye, Wilai says they have different hidden colors, the saturation of which depends on humidity and the fermentation process.
OUKE is a brand that focuses on fabric. In addition to printing using fermentation, “ouke” threads are used to make hand-woven cloth. Extracting colors from leaves onto hundreds of cotton threads is not an easy feat, but this just emphasizes the passion and determination behind her brand. By developing and recording her techniques during the past four years, Wilai is hoping she can pass them on to the next generation.