Woven Works of Art

Since ancient times man has used his creative talents to produce a wide range of handicrafts for use in his daily life. Basketwork is one of the oldest forms of handicraft created by man, with the art dating back thousands of years. Because of the fragile nature of the materials used in making baskets and other woven utensils, hard historical evidence no longer remains. However, traces of basketry found on the surface of antique clay pots, unearthed at archaeological sites in various parts of the world, particularly in Thailand at Ban Chiang in Udon Thani Province and in Lopburi Province, prove that this craft was practiced in prehistoric times and has been preserved until the present.

These prehistoric clay pots show the relationship between clay pots and basketry. Earliest clay pots were probably made by pressing the clay into a mould made of such things as gourds or even woven caneware. They would be left until the clay was completely dry and then taken for firing. During the firing process, the mould would be completely burned leaving only the clay utensil bearing the same shape as the mould. Through this method, traces of basketwork were left on the clay pots.

Cane weaving is an important handicraft in agricultural societies because it is easy to make using materials which are commonly found in the local vicinity. In the earliest days of history, the shapes and methods used in making baskets did not differ greatly from community to community. The work began with the gathering of vines, branches and leaves which were coarsely woven together into basic shapes and forms. The finished products were used as mats for sitting or sleeping on or as household utensils. The weaving techniques were simple and were merely a matter of crossing the warp over the weft.

Man later developed his craft and progressed from crudely woven leaves and vines to producing more intricately detailed crafts woven from a wider variety of materials such as rattan, jute, cane and water hyacinth. Weaving methods became more complicated and a variety of motifs and designs were introduced to add greater beauty to the craft and to make it more versatile. There were also basketworks which used moulds made of wood or clay in order to create special shapes and forms such as hats.

Cane weaving in Thailand has been practised for hundreds of years and has been passed on from one generation to another. As an agricultural society, materials such as fibre, leaves, bark and vegetable products are found in abundance. These materials are used for weaving and have become a normal part of life for the Thais. Techniques and shapes have been developed and designs and forms unique to crafts and areas have now appeared. Even though hard historical evidence is not available, evidence of basketwork appears in other forms such as inscriptions, chronicles and mural paintings proving that the relationship between basketwork and Thais stretches back into the past and has been preserved to this day and is spread through every region of the country. Basketwork not only reflects the skills and wisdom of the Thais, but it also serves as a record showing the connection between Thai society and people of other lands and cultures.

Before Thailand entered the age of plastics and synthetics, the daily life of the Thais was surrounded by all types of basketwork which was used in almost every daily activity. For example, from the time of birth small children rested peacefully in woven bamboo hammocks. Above them hung colourful carp woven from palm leaf. Their mothers sat to the side on woven mats gently rocking the hammock. The kitchen was furnished with an amazing variety of woven utensils such as baskets of all shapes and sizes, rice containers and even water scoops. When the people went into the fields to work they wore woven hats and many of their implements and utensils, such as the rice thrashers, were made of woven materials. The traps and snares used for catching birds and fish were all hand-woven from different materials into various shapes and sizes and included bird cages and chicken pens.

In addition to crafting a diverse range of utensils for use in daily life, a wide selection of items were also made for religious purposes and traditional rituals. Among them are the small cones and baskets used to hold offerings presented to monks during certain merit making ceremonies and the ritualistic symbols (talaeo) of the hilltribe peoples.

A close inspection of the woven utensils found in the different regions of Thailand shows that they come in diverse shapes and sizes, designs, patterns, materials and colours. Some have features unique to the region they come from. The woven hats in the north, for example, are designed in both tapering and flat styles. There are also special containers for holding tobacco and medicines, and containers that are painted with varnish or lacquer. The hilltribes also have their woven wares such as the long baskets which they carry slung over the shoulder or suspended from the head. In the northeast the people have woven trays (traditionally made from polished wood in the north), woven rice containers in both tubular and bulbuous shapes, as well as a variety of other utensils. A whole range of woven implements are used in the Central Region for catching fish, while the south is famous for its delicately woven lipao bags and colourful bulrush mats.

Thailand abounds with materials that can be used for weaving utensils. The types used vary according to area. Most woven utensils, however, are made from different types of bamboo rather than other materials. Bamboo is followed by rattan, rush, palm leaf, jute and water hyacinth. Other materials are exclusive to certain areas such as the lipao palm and bulrush found in the south.

As Thailand began to change from an agricultural society, changes also began to appear in the different types of woven utensils which once formed an integral part of Thai society. Whereas these skilfully crafted items were once laboriously created by hand to ensure the utmost beauty and practicality in use and in bartering, the making of them has now become a vocation. Changes have been introduced to production systems and methods and the emphasis is now on simplicity of style so they can be produced more quickly. New materials such as nylon and plastics have also been adopted to provide greater convenience and regularity in production.

We are still fortunate, however, to be able to see people in rural areas sitting weaving utensils for family use and there are still stores in rural villages which sell a variety of woven goods. Some designs have been modified and developed so that the items can be used as ornaments or for decoration. These include ladies’ handbags, bracelets, souvenirs and household furniture, all of which are gaining increasing popularity at a time when people are becoming bored with synthetic materials.

The largest production area in Chiang Mai is along the Chiang Mai-Hot Road where a large number of stores carry a diverse range of household items and gifts for sale. For souvenirs there is no place better than the Night Bazaar where traditional hilltribe goods can be found alongside antique objects and newly made products — all guaranteed to bring the greatest satisfaction.

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