COURTESY JOAN NAMKOONG
Ta Prohm, one of many temples in the Angkor area in Cambodia. After visiting temples, your path may lead to textiles.
Weaving a journey
Textiles from Southeast Asia reflect a region's culture and historical migration
STORY SUMMARY »
There is no doubt that Southeast Asia's main attraction are its "wats," or temples. There's Wat Phra Kaew, where the Emerald Buddha sits, and Wat Po, where Buddha reclines, both in Bangkok. There's the mountaintop Wat Pra That Doi Suthep overlooking Chiang Mai in northeastern Thailand. In Luang Prabang, Laos, Wat Xieng Thong's golden facades and murals are masterpieces of 16th-century Buddhist architecture. Wat Si Saket is one of Vientiane's most important cultural sites. And, of course, Siem Reap, Cambodia, is home to Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Ban Teay Srei and others.
After visiting the temples, perhaps you'll go on an eco-adventure, like hiking, river rafting or elephant riding. Sample each country's cuisine, and then it's time to shop. And no doubt, you'll be textile shopping.
There's an array of locally produced textiles in brilliant colors and simple to complicated weave structures available in each country, at every price point. Yardage, shawls, skirts, bags, cushion covers, clothing and household goods abound in every market and shop you encounter.
These textiles represent more than just a souvenir or gift. Weaving and textiles are a vital part of the culture, and woven fabrics are a record of ethnicity, culture and historical migration. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, weaving is not an art or craft performed in one's spare time, but a part of daily life, an activity performed out of necessity, to produce clothing. Woven cloth also expresses belief systems -- Buddhist, animist, shamanic or others -- as well as weavers' creativity.
Night markets offer bargain-hunters inexpensive cloth for skirts or shawls, but shoppers must realize that even these "mass-produced" tourist items are hand-woven, piece by piece. The threads might not be locally grown, hand-spun or naturally dyed (imports from Thailand and China are becoming common), but village weavers still take a few days or weeks to complete a piece, depending on its complexity. At $2 to $3 for a shawl, it's important to think about the hours that go into a piece.
Some shops specialize in old textiles, offering a treasure trove of culture and history for astute buyers. Most proprietors are seeking to preserve their cultural identity and heritage, collecting pieces from throughout the region. Some are replicating the patterns and colors to produce new pieces, recording the structural details for future weavers. Others fashion old pieces into contemporary clothing, preserving the art in a functional way.
Upscale designers, mostly foreigners with a passion for the weaving traditions of these countries, are also producing exciting textiles that appeal to Western tastes. They work with village weavers to fabricate contemporary pieces and applications in more sophisticated color palettes and designs. These shops are pricier for good reason: They usually work with locally grown materials that are hand-spun and naturally dyed. And these proprietors are not just producing textiles, but creating sustainable industries that take fair trade into account.
In exploring these countries, textile enthusiasts will meet many interesting people who are passionate about this most basic of human endeavors.
COURTESY JOAN NAMKOONG
Silkworm cocoons are put in boiling water, while silk thread is reeled (front basket).
FULL STORY »
Textiles, woven or knitted threads that become cloth, were the theme of a recent journey I took to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia with members of the Hawaii Handweavers' Hui. While we weave for fun, we explored a world that encompasses more than just art and craft: Weaving in this part of the world is of necessity and of such cultural significance that it is a part of everyday life.
In these countries, it is the skirt that reveals much about the country and people who wear it. The traditional skirt is made from a length of hand-woven cloth, banded at the waist and at the bottom by another strip of cloth. The skirt is tubular, simply wrapped around the waist, the excess folded to form a pleat and tucked at the waist or held in place by a belt. The skirt usually falls to the ankles, and with the tucked pleat it is a comfortable and functional garment. It is this single beautiful garment -- its pattern, color and composition -- that reveals the ethnicity, culture and history of the person wearing it.
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam were all settled by the Tai people who came from the Yangtze River area of China. The Tai were weavers and wore the textiles of their community. Women's skirts identify the village of the weaver, the colors and density of weave indicating the region and status of the wearer. Cotton was not considered high status; silk indicated higher status. More important, as people moved to different parts of the region, they kept their patterns but adapted new ones. Looking at old skirts is like reading a history book of migration of the Tai.
There are many ethnic groups or tribes throughout the region that originated with the Tai. Each one can be identified by their clothing, headdress and ornamentation. Decorative hand stitching joins the cotton waistband to the silk body and foot of the skirt in Thai textiles. The Hmong are known for their pleated skirts that incorporate appliqu and embroidery. The Mien Yao are known for their embroidery, and the women wear a red ruffled scarf that looks like a fabric lei.
COURTESY JOAN NAMKOONG
Carol Chessman demonstrates dyeing at Studio Naenna.
It's important to note that the threads used to weave the cloth are grown and processed in these countries. Cotton and hemp are part of the agricultural scene, as well as mulberry trees to feed silkworms. Once these products are processed into threads for weaving, natural plant-based dyes are use to color the threads. It is a long process from plant to garment and involves many people whose survival depends upon the continuation of the tradition.
Even for experienced weavers, the structure of the textiles is puzzling: supplementary weft patterning (also known as brocade), "ikat" (a resist-dyeing technique that forms patterns when woven) and tapestry weaving can all appear in one piece of cloth, a painstaking process few of us would attempt. But for weavers that learn at a young age, it is second nature and simply what they do to produce clothing.
COURTESY JOAN NAMKOONG
Traditional weaving on a back-strap loom at Studio Naenna.
THESE WEAVING TRADITIONS go back thousands of years, but the influence of Western fashion and the availability of machine-woven fabric and clothing, especially from China, loom over the survival of this tradition.
Thanks to people who are passionate about preserving this way of producing clothing and sparking innovation, the tradition continues. The queen of Thailand supports the hand-weaving tradition by wearing garments produced by Thai weavers. The law firm of Tilleke & Gibbins maintains an archival collection of textiles in its Bangkok offices, with a full-time curator.
For the visitor to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, here are some places to visit and a glimpse of the people behind them.
Carol Cassiday textiles are available in Honolulu at Fishcake, 307-C Kamani St. For information, call (808) 593-1231.
Tips for shoppers
Cotton, hemp and silk are the primary fibers used in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. If you want to support producers within the country, be sure the threads originate in the country you are in.
Ask about the dyes used in the piece of fabric: Natural dyes might not be as brilliant as chemical dyes, but they speak of the handcrafted nature of the piece. Natural plant dyes are also more eco-friendly and sustainable.
If you're buying a piece of cloth, ask where it was woven, whether a nearby village or elsewhere in the country. You want to buy a textile that originates in the country you are visiting, thus supporting local weavers.
Color palettes in these countries might not suit Western homes. You be the judge; some workshops can accommodate special orders.
Prices will range from being inexpensive to very high. Bargaining in local markets is acceptable, but do consider how much effort goes into the production of a piece. In "designer" workshops, prices are fixed and reflect the collective effort of many people in the process.
Jim Thompson House
At 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road
Jim Thompson is the foremost name when it comes to silk in Thailand. He was the pioneer of the Thai silk industry, and his upscale, fashion-savvy designs are well regarded and readily available at several locations, including the new Suvarnabhumi Airport. A visit to the Jim Thompson House will also lead to other textile treasures.
Baan Krua Thai Silk
At 837 Baan Krua Nua Soi 9, Rajthavee. Call 02 2157458.
Khun Niphon continues several decades of silk weaving in the old Muslim quarter of Bangkok. Niphon's mother started the business; it was her fabric that caught the attention of Jim Thompson, and this workshop produced silk fabric for Thompson until his disappearance in 1967. Just a 10-minute walk over the canal from the Jim Thompson house, Baan Krua is worth a visit just to see the looms in action, weaving the finest of silk thread in brilliant colors. Silk yardage can be purchased here; transform it into a finished garment at one of Bangkok's tailor shops.
Prayer Textile Gallery
197 Phayathai Road, Patumwan, Siam Square. Call 02 2517549.
Napajaree "Nim" Suanduenchai is the proprietor of this small shop hidden beneath the elevated walkways and sky train track at the busy intersection where MBK store is located; it's a 10-minute walk from the Jim Thompson House. Nim is a collector of textiles from northern and northeastern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and from ethnic tribes throughout the region. She has a wonderful collection of garments made of naturally dyed silk and cotton for sale.
Sop Moei Arts
Sukhumvit Soi 49, Soi Promsri 1, in the Soi Klang, Racket Club Compound. Call 02 7147269.
9 Chareonrajd Road
Watgate, Muang, Chiang Mai. Call 6653 262419.
Kent Gregory is a U.S.-educated Thai national who returned to his birthplace with a degree in environmental and tropical diseases, seeking to establish a health clinic for children among the Pwokaren people in Mae Tola, a remote village near the Burmese border.
After 10 years of treating basic illnesses among 17 villages in the area, he realized that malnutrition and diseases were not going to decrease unless the economic vitality of the villages increased. The Pwokaren women grew cotton and wove; the men wove baskets. With help from a Swedish agency, Gregory started a weaving project among the villagers, eventually meeting a Swedish designer who helped with color swatches and a collection of garments.
Today, Gregory's enterprise sustains 70 people on looms, providing greater economic security, better housing, more self-sufficiency and less malnutrition.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Sbun Nga Textile Museum
Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center, Wua Lai Road, Chiang Mai. Call 053 200655.
A visit here will inform your textile purchases. Five Tai ethnic groups are showcased in this museum focusing on Thai and Burmese clothing and artifacts. One can compare the work of the Tai Lur, Tai Yuan, Tai Karen, Tai Lao and Tai Yai and see how confusing and interesting it can be to trace the groups' migration through their cloth.
Studio Naenna Workshop
138/8 Soi Changkhian, Huay Keow Road, T. Changpeuak. Call 053 226042; www.studio-naenna.com.
22 Soi 1 Nimmanhaemind Road, Suthep, A. Muang. Call 053 895136.
Patricia Chessman, born in Singapore, raised in Asia, is a teacher at Chiang Mai University, where ceramics and textiles are her forte. She is trying to sustain the regional textile tradition by training weavers and designing fabrics and clothing that preserve ancient techniques. She also started Weavers for the Environment, which seeks to train people in the disposal of natural and chemical dyes to minimize environmental damage. Her shops feature cotton and silk clothing, all produced in Thailand from thread to finished garment.
Baan Rai Pai Ngarm
206 Tappanetr Shopping Center, Tippanetr Road. Call 53 273625.
This is the retail outlet for a cotton-weaving workshop nearby that features native cotton yarn, hand-spun, naturally dyed and woven into fine fabrics. Founded by Saeng-da Bunsiddhi, this center's work is being carried on by her granddaughter. The shop is located in a Thai products shopping mall within a shopping center near the airport.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre
Ban Khamyong. Call 71 253364; www.taeclaos.org.
This recently opened museum is a must if you're in Luang Prabang, ancient capital of Laos. Tara Gujadhur, born in Malaysia, educated in the U.S., has organized an impressive collection of clothing and daily artifacts of the country's diverse ethnic groups. The displays are visually effective and clear, well lighted and well designed. The content is informative without being textbookish; this is as good as museums get in a country that is just developing its cultural presentations. A gift shop offers woven fabrics and products, batik hemp fabric, books and other handcrafted items.
Caruso Lao Home Craft
Sakaline Road 60, Ban Vat Sene, Luang Prabang. Call 71 254574; www.carusolao.com
Ban Phiavath #008
Fa Ngum Road. Call 21 223644.
Former fashion designer Sandra Yuck worked in Asia many years before settling in Luang Prabang, where her sense of color, design and style has helped to transform Lao weaving and woodworking traditions into modern-day applications for the Western home. Wall hangings, table runners and bed, pillow and cushion covers reflect the complicated Lao weaving structures with a sophisticated sense of color, style and function. Wood vases, bowls and furniture pieces are expertly and finely finished.
Ock Pop Tok
73/5 Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang. Call 856 71 253219; www.ockpoptok.com.
Vau Ho of Luang Prabang, and Joanna Smith, a British photographer sent to Laos on a project, met seven years ago and started this "East Meets West" textile gallery and weaving center along the Mekong River bank. You can peer over the shoulders of expert weavers, take a class or purchase spectacular wall hangings, clothing and other items at their two retail stores in the city. Yellow and white silk is sourced from Lao silkworm farms. They are hand-spun and soft in texture. The pair work with 150-plus artisans in Northern Lao villages, maintaining traditional weaving structures with innovative applications to modern life.
A block from the Lao National Culture Hall. Call 21 212123.
Anyone in Vientiane can point you to Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles Studio. The American works with rural silk farmers and Lao weavers to produce interior architectural fabrics, working with interior designers and architects worldwide. She has been in Vientiane since 1989, when she began working on a United Nations project to promote traditional weaving. Cassidy was the first foreigner allowed to start a business here, and a thriving one it is. She has more than 40 weavers in her studio, where Lao-produced silk is used to weave traditional patterns in contemporary interpretations. Here again, it's not just about textiles, but about a "global women's culture," as she calls it, taking a traditional skill that can employ people in a sustainable industry.
Taykeo Textiles Gallery
236 Unit 10 Saphanthongkang. Call 21 314031.
Taykeo Sayavongkhamdy has a passion for collecting old Lao textiles. She is about to create a gallery, alongside her home, for viewing them. Even more intriguing, Taykeo's workshop tries to re-create some of the antique pieces, and she's trying to record the weaving structures on paper. She sells a variety of Lao textile pieces.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Institute for Khmer Textiles
472 Vihear Chen Village, Road to Tonle Sap. Call 63 964437.
Kikuo Morimoto is a Japanese native who used to paint kimonos in Kyoto. He saw his first Cambodian silk ikat in 1980, moved to the country in 1983 and began buying pieces in Thai border refugee camps. Seeing the poverty, he encouraged weavers, and after years of travel and research, he established this workshop to preserve the process. He trains weavers as well as young children to develop their talents.
Cambodia is known for ikat, a dye-resist technique that requires intricate tying to create patterns where the dye does not adhere. Cambodian ikat is especially renowned for its pictorial patterns and fine detail requiring painstaking effort and experience to produce.