Tribal Trappings – Asian Ethnic Art, Artifacts, Textiles and Folk Art Tribal Trappings – Thoughts about Thailand, Chiang Mai, things tribal including textiles, ethnographica and folk art <data:blog.pageTitle/>

Monday, February 13, 2012

Born to Weave

Deep in the hills of northern Thailand, and down in a small valley, lies the little town of Mae Chaem, surrounded by verdant fields and terraces of rice and vegetables. Some call it the "new Pai", but it seems too sleepy to become a must-stop on the well-traveled trail of the hip and trendy. For me, Mae Chaem's charms are its very remoteness, tranquility and its famous weaving traditions. This is a bastion of Tai Yuan people who are known for creating stunning hembands ('teen') for their traditional skirts ( 'phaa sin') using the technique of discontinuous supplementary weft weaving ('jok); thus the textile for which they're so well known is called 'teen jok'. The technique has been likened to "embroidery on the loom", as it consists of carefully inserting and 'picking' weft threads of different colors through the warp threads to make complex, colorful patterns that run around the skirt hem. This weaver is using a porcupine quill as a pick, and works on the back of the cloth, with the finished side on the underside. Both silk and cotton are used in the patterned areas, with the lower edge usually in red cotton.

Every year on the first weekend in February they celebrate this heritage with a 'Teen Jok Festival' and this year I rounded up a group of textile fans to make a daytrip. A real treat was seeing a lovely, 90 year old weaver demonstrating the sharpness of her skills at such an advanced age. I marveled at her lack of glasses and her dexterity with the fine threads. It was so inspiring to see that one could still contribute to their weaving heritage at that age.

Another treat was seeing a very beautiful antique example of a Tai Yuan skirt, consisting of a body of indigo cotton with a woven pattern in a soft pale green silk, and a hemband of complex design in age-softened natural colors which complemented and contrasted so well with the skirt body (below). The age of the skirt was estimated to be around 150 years.

The photo below shows a collection of new award-winning skirts in colorful array with others displayed behind. A few members of our group were able to purchase some of these fine skirts. The hunting and gathering was not as good as in the past, as the festival grounds had been rearranged to accommodate a construction project and there were fewer booths selling textiles. Prices were also quite high, but for work of this quality one should expect to compensate the creators for their time and the materials.

After shopping, friend Nussara Tiengate, who has a home in Mae Chaem as well as a shop in Chiang Mai, invited us to visit her beautiful old teak home where we saw the antique skirt, as well as various 'still lifes' of local weavings (above and below). She has been a strong advocate for keeping weaving alive by teaching girls the techniques as an extra-curricular activity in school. She is also active in promoting the use of natural dyes, especially indigo. Above, hanks of indigo-dyed cotton hang to dry beside a colorful collection of local 'phaa sin' in her home. Below, some cloth, skirts and skeins of thread are arranged with local baskets and weaving tools.

We also saw some attractive prototypes that Nussara designed using the 'jok' technique on the body of the skirt (below). Note the lovely use of natural colors and the harmonious combinations. Above are woven rolls with panels of individual designs probably destined to become the ends on traditional rectangular pillows.

After we'd shopped until dropping, we detoured briefly on our way out of town to visit Wat Pa Daed. With murals in the 'vihaan' said to be from the late 1860's it charmed us all with its simplicity and honest expression of beliefs. Most of the murals were deteriorated to the point of illegibility, but one somehow escaped the ravages of time and the elements (below) and showed a lovely use of natural pigments and the quirky, flattened perspective so typical of temple murals. I would love to know the story the artist was conveying. These murals often include scenes from local culture and are a source of information about the past.

The large Buddha figure in the 'vihaan' was adorned with scarlet lips and had a painted 'canopy' above - the sun, moon and stars, seas and four points of the compass?

A more recently-constructed building was sited outside the main temple walls and was extremely photogenic in the late afternoon sun. I found its use of wood, and refined use of gold and red accents to be very elegant and beautiful. No mirrors or polychrome to dazzle, just well-proportioned massing and appropriate decoration to uplift the soul. What a nice note on which to depart little Mae Chaem. But, as Arnie said... I'll be baaaaack!

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