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TEXTILE TRAVELS : THAILAND AND LAOS
Kathleen Forance Johnson
November 29, 1998, Taipei
On February 4 of this year I wrote "We have just returned from a two-week trip through Northern Thailand and neighboring Laos. I might just as well say, "Ive just been to weavers heaven and back again!" Within the area encompassed by the old Lan Na kingdom centered in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and extending into Northern Laos to its ancient capitol in Luang Prabang, a large number of diverse ethnic groups are found. Many have extremely old, rich and complex weaving traditions, and some maintain their vitality to this day in spite of modern economic and political disruptions. Over the borders in adjacent territories of Burma and of Chinas Yunnan Province, as well as in Northeastern Thailand and Southern Laos, related ethnic groups and similar weaving technology and decorative traditions exist.
The regions rivers, especially the Mekong, with its fertile plains, encouraged the development of agricultural communities and the movement of goods and people along a southern spur of the ancient trade routes which extended all the way from Persia to Canton and over which fibers, textiles and cultural ideas traveled. Having become familiar with Indias handloom textiles during the seven years I lived and worked there, I found myself often making mental comparisons and finding points of commonality and divergence. After all, Assam and other Indian states along the Burma border are not so far away.
As a hand weaver and collector of textiles, I found traveling through this region fascinating and was nearly overwhelmed by the variety of handloom textiles on display for sale in the local markets of Chiang Mai, Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Added to this is the current extremely favorable dollar exchange rate which makes this a prime time for "textile junkies" to be traveling and collecting a good range of reasonably-priced textiles. Antique textiles are more expensive but even they are half the price they would have been six months ago. With some pre-planning and willingness to adjust to variable local accommodations, a trip to these textile centers can be undertaken on a slim budget.
The primary objective of our trip was to re-visit the little town in Northern Thailand, near Chiang Mai, where my husband had taught English as a Peace Corps Volunteer thirty-five years ago. The weaving quest and general sightseeing formed a compatible sub-set. While my husband was planning where to go and what to see, I was trying to digest the contents of the few available books in English about the weaving styles and techniques we were likely to encounter. At the same time, I was able to talk with U. S. Government representatives about conditions in the region and to learn about development projects that involve various aspects of textile production. We also met two remarkable expatriate weavers who have been working in the region to collect, document, reproduce, re-design and market handloom textiles of the region to world markets.
At a certain point fairly early on in this journey, I realized that I would only be able to get a "quick take" on the complexities of the weaving we were seeing; to formulate a few basic concepts and amass a body of vivid impressions. My main conclusions are as follows: there seem to be historically two major categories of traditional handloom textiles. The first includes those produced in villages and individual households for domestic and local use and limited trade using indigenous materials, styles, motifs and technologies.
The second features opulent "palace textiles" which were professionally produced for wealthy patrons, including the aristocracy, or for special occasions. These often included outright importation of foreign materials and techniques or modifications and adaptations of foreign textiles. They often incorporated expensive imported materials, techniques and motifs.
Some design motifs came by way of the spread of Buddhism; others are more animistic, having protective or ceremonial significance, which may date back to pre-historic sources.
The symbols found on the bronze drums of the Dongson culture (in what is now part of Vietnam) are often cited as early sources for some textile designs (although it seems equally likely to me that the drum designs reproduced earlier textile designs or are related to textile -impressed designs on early pottery). Other designs seem to be more local in origin, possibly having totemic or protective significance or having "power qualities" which are imparted to the textile.
I was particularly interested in what has been called the "hook design," which apparently is found on the bronze drums and in many other forms and permutations throughout Southeast Asia. It starts out as an "S" hook, which may have been a snake "ancestor" sign but equally well transforms into the mythical Hindu snake guardian spirit called a "naga", which was pressed into service by Buddhism
Displays of rank or social standing, and of ethnic identity seem to play a part in both of the above categories, both in the past and present traditional context. Furthermore, specialized textiles were and are woven for a variety of functions, both secular and sacred. On the on hand, you have everyday clothing, household furnishings and in Thailand multipurpose cloths. On the other, there are those textiles which were/are specifically woven for festive and ceremonial occasions, including cloth offerings to the temple, through which the donor earns religious merit. Some traditional weavers are now finding new markets for their beautiful textiles and are able to earn respectable cash incomes for their work. In Laos, I was told that a skilled weaver could earn three to five times what the average agricultural worker could (which is still under $200 per month instead of just $30.)
The most frequently used fibers are cotton and silk. In Thailand, sericulture enjoys royal patronage. Throughout her reign, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit has been active in promoting Thai silk and silk weaving as a national industry and source of national pride. What was once almost a lost art, has now been taken to new heights of sophistication;
In the village setting, most weaving activities take place in the space under the house platforms where houses are built on stilts, or under a side sheltered work area in the case of houses built on the ground. Women and girls do most of the weaving, and education for this kind of work starts early, from the age of eight to ten and onward. The most common kind of loom is a frame loom with a hanging beater with split bamboo reed, bamboo heddle sticks with string heddles, heavy wooden shed sword, bamboo shed sticks or the string vertical heddle system for executing complicated continuous and discontinuous weft inlays. I bought a whole loom outfit minus the wooden frame in Vientiane for $3.00. Its an amazingly simple piece of equipment, just sticks and strings, but wonderfully efficient in the hands of a skilled weaver. . Beautiful weft ikat patterns are woven as well as continuous and discontinuous weft patterns and tapestry inlays. I was told that warp ikats are not frequently used in this area. Patterns using a supplementary warp technique are used but we did not happen to see any in process. I found it interesting that most of the looms we came across did not have a rotating back beam for winding on the warp. It was either wound onto a board and anchored at the back of the loom, or wound under the back beam and up into the part of the frame and advanced manually from one cross beam to the next. Complex patterns of supplementary weft, tapestry technique and supplementary warp are controlled with an ingenious system of pattern-shed sticks and the horizontal heddle system. Each stick controls one shot of the pattern. The stick (or string, as the case may be) is brought down through the system and the required set of warps is raised. After the shot is thrown, the vertical heddle shed is kept open and the stick removed from the upper position and into the open space in the string heddles below the warp. Here it is safely kept in order until the next time the pattern is to be repeated. Then the process is reversed and the pattern shed is opened, woven, and the stick taken out and put in the string heddles above the warp. This arrangement, while quite simple, is very timesaving and handy for saving and trading patterns.
I was told that the more well-to-do weavers can pay to have a specialist come in and set up their vertical string heddle system as this part is very technical and time consuming. In India this was called "naksha bandan", literally "to tie the pattern ".
Back strap looms are in use in some of he Thai hill tribe villages we visited. In this settlement there were only a few older women at home weaving simple traditional cloths for domestic use and a couple of younger women weaving souvenir type bags and belts for sale to tourists. They use a type of backstrap loom with their warp tied to a railing on the "front porch" of their houses which are often built on stilts. The colorfully banded tube skirt is a basic item of clothing for the women of these communities. In some other places we saw a few women wearing inexpensive sarong prints, but they still seem to be in a minority.
Weavers in Development:
We were fortunate to be able to meet with Carol Cassidy at her internationally famous weaving workshop in Vientiane, Laos and with Patricia Naeena at her textile studio in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both are extremely knowledgeable, doing very interesting and worthwhile work, but each is approaching the social, educational, artistic and commercial development of weaving from different angles. The region of Northern Thailand and Laos we are talking about includes "the Golden Triangle," one of the worldss most famous opium poppy growing areas. Efforts are being made to institute crop substitution and re-locate poppy growing tribes out of the higher mountain areas where their slash and burn agriculture takes a terrible toll on the environment. United States governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations are involved in various aspects of some of these projects. Encouraging sericulture and weaving as an income producing cottage industry is having great success in some of the model projects we heard about precisely because it puts economic power into the hands of women who do most of the work involved and they know it is good for their families.
Given the proper circumstances, a skilled hand weaver can earn three to five times the average income of an ordinary agricultural worker, even more than they would have earned raising poppies, and without the negative consequences of the opium trade. I was told that such projects are meeting with great success because the women love it. It is the women who have grown the poppies and the women who grow the silk worms and weave the cloth. They know that the poppies ruin the environment and that the fields have to be moved every two years, with more slash and burning of the forests every time they move. Furthermore, working in the poppy fields takes them far away from homes and children during the day. With sericulture and weaving, they can stay closer to home, care for their families, earn some cash and avoid the danger of having their men folk become addicts.
Much is made of the beauty of the natural dyes used in the textiles of the past. However, a quick look at some of the brighter than bright colors which have crept into otherwise rustic textiles is enough to convince me that synthetic dyes have made it into the farthest reaches of the weaving hinterlands. Nevertheless, a number of natural dyestuffs are still available and are apparently used on a limited scale. Sappan wood, Stick Lac, Jack fruit wood, Turmeric root, Ermarginate wood, Annato seeds and Ebony fruit are some of the dyestuffs derived from local natural resources used in these areas. How many weavers actually have the time to gather and process them instead of buying synthetics in the market, is another question.
Patricia Chessman Naenna is a remarkable Englishwoman now living in Chiang Mai, Thailand and before that in Laos for a number of years. She has made an in-depth study of historic and contemporary textiles of Thailand and Laos, and is an avid collector and documentor, and is working to help preserve traditional weaving forms and skills through inspiration and marketing. She has established a weavers co-operative and she works with this community of weavers and she helps to support its members through the sale of their products in her "Textile Gallery".
She is also knowledgeable about Lao textiles and spent a number of years there before settling in Chiang Mai. . She genuinely loves these textiles and is a much repeated and published authority. She displays a special love of the natural dyed fabric.
She has made a comprehensive collection of representative antique textiles and works with weavers in about twenty villages to reproduce, recombine or recompose some of the old designs and textiles. She does some of the natural dying of yarns, particularly indigo, herself then distributes them to weavers in her women co-operative, "Weavers for the Environment". Their finished products are returned to her for sale at her showroom/workshop. The weavers take into consideration her suggestions and preferences, their own inclinations and traditions and then return the finished pieces to her for sale.
The beneficial effect of the marginal tinkering she does with color scheme, composition and design and motif selection is immediately apparent when you leave her textile gallery and go to the local markets. Here the senses can easily be saturated with the amount of raw color and the sheer volume of surface decoration in pieces offered for sale. Some pre-selection and supervision seems a very good service in this case. All of her pieces, both antique and new, are beautifully designed, well finished and very affordable. She continues to go out on collecting trips and has also recently taken textile tour groups out into the more remote villages of weaving interest.
Carol Cassidy is an excellent weaver, an outstanding designer, and a dedicated and energetic worker. She has also become a successful businesswoman in a climate, which is not necessarily "business friendly" in Laos. After years of struggling to survive, she has succeeded, and her hand-dyed and hand-woven silk designs, based on modified and refined traditional Lao weaving motifs and techniques, have finally taken off.Her work has recently been shown in a major exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and received media coverage in the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times and CNN. She has been credited with " single-handedly" rescuing traditional Lao weaving techniques and designs from obscurity, if not extinction.
However much this overstates the case, she has certainly put Lao weaving on the map in world markets. We were very lucky to have the opportunity to spend part of our first afternoon in Vientiane with her in her weaving workshop where Lao weavers produce all of these
marvelous textiles. Most of her thirty weavers are women, although her former gardener, a man, does the dying and other non-weaving jobs. In most of Southeast Asia weaving is exclusively "women's work".
Out in the weaving villages of Laos, northern Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, women are weaving their hopes and dreams, delights and worries into textiles for their own use or for the prestige of the family, sometimes for sale to put food in the cooking pot. Many of the motifs and techniques are older than we can say for sure, many materials are old but others are new and have to be purchased.
With the current Asian financial crisis impacting traditional cultures in some of these areas, many families are going hungry and there is no money to buy the raw materials for weaving. We have to wonder if and how long these rich textile traditions can survive? I hope for a long time.
Beyond tradition: Lao Textiles Revisited ,Catalogue of Carol Cassidy's Exhibition, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1995 Kuala Lumpur, 1996
Connors, Mary F,. Lao Textiles and Traditions, Oxford University Press,
Frazer-Lu, Sylvia, Handwoven Textiles of Southeast Asia ,Oxford University Press Singapore, 1988
Gittinger, Mattibelle and H. Leedom Lefferts, Jr. Textiles and the Tai Experience in Southeast Asia The textile Museum, Washington D.C., 1992
Howard, Michael C. Textiles of Southeast Asia: an Annotated and Illustrated Bibliography White Lotus Press, Bangkok, Thailand 1994
Pragwatthanakun, Songsak Textiles of Asia: a Common Heritage Office of the National Culture Commission, Ministry of Education and Center for the Promotion of Arts and Culture, Chiang Mai University Amarin Printing and Publishing Company, Ltd. Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1993
Naenna, Patricia and Songsak Prangwatthanakun, Lan Na Textiles:Uan Lue Lao, Center for the Promotion of Arts and Culture, Chiang Mai University Amarin Printing And Publishing Co., Bangkok, 1996
Naenna, Patricia and Vithi Phanichphant, Thai Textiles,: Threads of a Cultural Heritage ,Center for the Promotion of Art and Culture, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai Thailand, 1996