I never fully understood my mother’s passion for fabrics until I made a trip to Isaan (Northeast Thailand). In her younger days, she spent endless hours browsing fabric shops, acquiring a huge assortment of cloths in a wide range of colors and textures. They filled a large bureau in her bedroom. During her spare time from cooking and being a mom, she would select pieces from her collection and happily sew up beautiful clothes for herself and pretty little dresses for my sister and me.
Before I left home for college in America, she made sure I learned to sew and sent me to apprentice with a seamstress. I learned to draw patterns from pictures of dresses I saw in fashion magazines. Though I was able to make myself a wardrobe of new clothes for college, I didn’t really take to sewing with a passion like mother hoped I would.
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In my youth, I took more to my father’s love of travel and photography. During school breaks and on long weekends, he would take us on excursions to different parts of the country that were just opening up to domestic tourism in the 1960’s. Among the places we visited were the awesome Angkor-era Khmer ruins at Phimai and Phanom Rung in the northeast. Both have since received World Heritage designation and remain the highlights of any trip to Isaan for first-time travelers. Following college I also discovered and admired several other smaller, but no less inspiring, atmospheric Khmer stone sanctuaries, such as Prasat Hin Peuy Noi in the Khon Kaen countryside and the charming Prasat Hin Sikhoraphum in Surin province with its well-appointed reflecting pool.
It wasn’t until a couple of decades later, after I started my home-based cooking school in Oakland, that I decided to explore Isaan’s other hidden treasures. I hired a van and traveled with a few friends from province to province, relying on off-the-beaten-track Thai travel magazines and locals to direct our journey. We drove down many narrow, almost deserted roads to unknown destinations. Soon what consumed the trip turned out to be the seemingly countless weaving villages scattered throughout the northeastern region. As we drove through the countryside, I saw one home after another, in one village after another, where women could be seen weaving in the shade of the open space beneath their wooden house raised on stilts. It was such a contrasting sight that easily grabbed my eye: simple, weathered wooden houses of farming families and brilliant, richly colored silk unfolding from generations-old looms beneath them. The diversity of ethnic peoples settled in small villages here and there on the Isaan plateau meant a profusion of different styles of weaving producing an abundant array of silk and cotton textiles, each unique and beautiful on its own right.
I couldn’t help making stops whenever I saw wooden looms clicking and clacking away beneath the homes in quaint villages. It didn’t take long before I began to fully appreciate the time and effort that went into creating such lovely textiles. The friendly villagers were curious to see us drop by, as few outside people ever did, and most of them were weaving fabrics that they would use to make beautiful traditional clothing for village festivals and to wear to temples for special religious ceremonies. The cloths they were weaving had special meaning in their daily lives.
We stopped at several villages which were particularly known for their fine silk and cotton weaving and observed the entire process from start to finish – from silk worm rearing or raw cotton processing to the elaborate process of dyeing and hand-weaving. I soon became captivated by the unending range of colors, designs and textures that I couldn’t help buying the enchanting works of art. Besides, I have a soft heart for helping villagers who’d been so kind to show us around and even shared with us their food at mealtimes. When piece after piece of gorgeous material was unfolded to reveal its glorious detail and lustrous texture and sheen, how could I refuse to show my appreciation for their talent by not acquiring at least one of the pieces? And the lovely children who followed us around with curious eyes and eager smiles made each stop worth every baht I spent. My own textile collection had finally begun and by the end of the trip, I had completely filled a large, striped fiberglass bag with maybe twenty, thirty or was it forty pieces of textiles, ranging from small scarves to four-meter yardage. Many I purchased with mother in mind and she was very happy with the pieces I brought back for her. Some became gifts for special friends and a few were made into skirts and dresses I cherished. The remainder which included some of the most exquisite pieces returned with me to Oakland to hang on walls or live with other precious items acquired from my travels in my bamboo treasure chest.
Although weaving is done in small villages all over Isaan, there are several provinces particularly known for their weaving villages. In these villages, a large concentration of people weave textiles not only for their own use during their spare time in between rice planting and harvesting, but are actively involved in producing fabrics for sale to visitors and to send to markets far and wide. From the villages of Ban Khwao in Chaiyaphum province and Chonabot in Khon Kaen come some of the finest mudmee (Thai-style ikat or tied-and dyed) silk in the country. I have fond memories of visiting both these villages where the people are very warm and friendly. I remember walking around the village with my traveling companions, witnessing all the different stages of silk production. From smiling grandmas and grandpas to teenage children, entire families take pride in their work to make a supplementary income during their spare time from farming. Seeing how silk threads are tied to resist dye before each dyeing is a special treat, adding to our appreciation for all the knowledge of design and color theory and the special care that go into tying, dyeing and weaving to produce the intended results. The more colors in a piece of mudmee silk, the more complicated it is to design and make.
The finest piece of mudmee silk I own is from Ban Khwao. It has especially fine motifs and delicate, multi-colored contrasting borders. It’s simply too beautiful to be touched by the sharp edges of scissors. The mudmee silks in Chonabot are equally exquisite though the feel and designs are noticeably different. After having seen and felt dozens of pieces of mudmee silk from these two villages, I think I can pretty much tell from which village a piece of mudmee originates when I see it in a shop in the city. Each village does have its signature style.
One of my favorite weaving villages is Ban Poen in Kalasin province, home of the unique “praewa” silk It’s a small village of the Phu Thai ethnic people. I remember on my first trip there we drove for a long while on narrow and somewhat winding roads through open hilly country before we descended onto a small village in the middle of nowhere. It certainly was a treasure of a find. These days, the road has much improved as the same route now takes you to the world-famous dinosaur excavation site and museum. Sirindhorn Museum (named after our beloved crowned princess), opened in 2007, has recently become one of Thailand’s top ten destinations, though 95 percent of the visitors remain Thai and only a handful of foreign tourists venture out to this remote area.
I have a particular affinity with the Phu Thai people of Ban Poen. Perhaps it’s because of their warmth that is so welcoming and make me feel at home. Perhaps it’s the adorable children who come out with their mothers to greet us and who sit beside them when they weave, learning to become the next generation of artisans. Perhaps it’s the unique “praewa” silk that is produced here and which I’ve long admired whenever I see members of the royal family wear it with such elegance. It is aptly called by some as the “Queen of silks” and has acquired both domestic and international fame. I hear that a patent has been applied (and maybe already granted) for praewa silk to preserve this age-old weaving technique of the Phu Thai. Traditionally, Phu Thai women weave praewa as a shawl (sabai) that is draped across one shoulder and as a headdress or hood worn for special ceremonies. For sure, the entire village is radiantly dressed in their traditional praewa clothing for their festive events. Praewa is part of an age-old living culture that will continue to thrive in the modern era as deserved recognition is awarded to it for its exquisite excellence.
My first visit to Ban Poen was truly unforgettable. The women proudly brought out remarkably beautiful pieces of silk to show us on old wooden tables beneath their homes. Some were for sale while others were superb masterpieces reserved for their own ceremonial use or that were in the process of being completed as gifts to members of the royal family. One woman eagerly unfolded a long piece with elaborate panels of intricate, raised designs, each unlike the others. It was almost five meters long. Her 17-year old daughter had been weaving it for over a year to enter in the Queen’s textile contest. I was very impressed and touched by the talent of this shy and humble teenager. She created each panel on the piece spontaneously, each telling a story either about herself, her village or their culture in symbols. It was quite a breathtaking work of art. I found out later that she did win the coveted Queen’s award for excellence in weaving, which she much deserved.
Another province renown for silk weaving is Surin in the lower northeast bordering Cambodia. There are several weaving villages not far from the provincial capital. Here the textiles incorporate Khmer designs and motifs and some have pronounced imagery of people and animals. Rich dark browns, yellows and warm reds and oranges are combined in textural background weaves to yield cloths unique to this area. Currently, the most popular weaving village in Surin is Thasawang, from which comes some of the most magnificient silks the world has ever seen. Although it is touted as the largest silk co-op weaving center in the country, unlike traditional weaving villages where women weave cloth for their own use in their own homes and make extra pieces to sell for supplementary income, the weavers here are paid a daily wage and weave extraordinarily fine cloths fit for kings and queens that they themselves can only dream of owning.
The village was conceived by a teacher who gathered together weavers from many villages in the area to share and preserve knowledge of different weaving techniques and collaborate on producing ever finer grades of silk that each of them cannot produce on their own. The central government was persuaded to fund the large, two – to three-storey, open-air buildings where weavers could work to create masterpieces to deliver to the affluent in Bangkok and the world. Unlike weaving villages that have been around for generations and represent the crafts of particular ethnic peoples, Thasawang came about only recently, within the past 10 to 20 years. i believe it was set up also as a workshop for the teacher to instruct others on ancient weaving techniques and to showcase the teacher’s own work. While I love the human element in visiting traditional weaving villages where weavers own their work, Thasawang, nevertheless, is a most fascinating place to visit. It is a heaven for textile lovers.
Some of the looms are as tall as two storeys. Some are specially made to weave particular pieces of silk and are dismantled after the pieces are completed. Miles of silk threads are strung on the looms and it’s a wonder how they are kept from entangling into a strangling mess. Some pieces of fabric employ such complicated weaving processes that four or more people are required to work the loom to weave only a few centimeters a day of the most extraordinary silk the world has ever known. It;s quite a sight when all four are involved in sorting out threads, with one of them sitting in a pit or on the floor beneath the main loom with a mass of silk threads draped in front of her. Here, too, you see young men involved in helping the weaving process, which tells me that they are specially trained for the work and most likely not traditional village weavers.
Though silk is highly regarded as a treasure of Isaan, there are much more cotton textiles woven in the region than silk. The Prae Pan women’s group in Khon Kaen makes heavily textured, raised designm reversible cotton cloths in warm natural colors. They are woven into blankets, tablecloths, napkins, placemats, table runners, wall hangings and yardage lengths for making sarongs and skirts. Practical and for everyday use, I find these textiles just as attractive as silk and classy in their own special way. Other well-known cotton textiles of the northeast include the “khit” pattern fabrics of Udon Thani province and the cotton cloths of the Phu Thai of Renu Nakhon in Nakhon Phanom. While silk is breathtaking to behold, I wear much more clothes made from Isaan cotton textiles. They come in simple mudmee design, plain pastel colors, in stripes and a combination of mudmee alternated with raised-design weaving much like embroidery done on the loom. I adore their simple beauty and admire them just as much as the magnificent silks that garner more press and attention.
So if you are heading to Isaan for the first time, be sure to include a few weaving villages in your itinerary – in between visits to the Khmer ruins, national parklands with unusual, weathered rock formations reminiscent of parts of the American Southwest and, if you like pre-history, the excavation sites of ancient civilizations and fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. These are the treasures of Isaan and, to me, the weaving villages breathe the life of the country’s heartland where you meet wonderful people in their surroundings and can take home a piece of Isaan to remember your journey by.
See also: More pictures of Northeastern fabrics.
Heres the website of the Thai Textile Society.
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2009.