Traditional Lanna Textiles

Woven textiles are a village handicraft and cultural heritage which have evolved throughout the centuries. Evidence proving the antiquity of this handicraft can be seen in the fragments of cotton, silk and jute textiles discovered at Ban Chiang which is said to pre-date the Christian era by 700 years.

These textiles reflect the identity unique to each community and are an important record of the lifestyle of the villagers which is based on superstitions, traditions, religion and culture, as well as their relationship with their environment and locale. The weaving techniques employed, the styles, patterns, colours and materials used, differ from community to community.

The upper northern part of Thailand, especially the region known as Lanna with Chiang Mai as the capital, has a richly diverse population both in the lowlands and in the mountains where many different hilitribe groups are living. This diversity in population has resulted in a similar diversity in textiles in terms of style, design, techniques and knowledge which is rooted in the wisdom of each ethnic group.

Ancient murals on temple walls such as those found in the Viharn Lai Kham at Wat Phra Singh and in the viharn at Wat Buak Khrok Luang in Chiang Mai serve as an historical record of local dress traditions and show the evolution of textile weaving along with the patterns unique to Lanna textiles.

In former times, weaving was an integral part of community life in the Lanna Kingdom, espocially amongst women. Looms and other weaving equipment could be found in almost evry household. Natural products readily found locally were used and weaving required skilled hands. Equipment was simple and techniques were very basic. The most common fibre used in weaving was cotton, especially locally grown cotton which is of two types, one which produces white tufts and one which produces light brown tufts, the latter being known locally as fai tun or ‘mole rat cotton’. Even though locally grown cotton gives a lower yield, has coarser threads and is light brown in colour rather than white, it has a special quality which makes it suitable for weaving textiles as it can be used in any season. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, or as the locals say, it breathes. Silk was formerly used only by high ranking dignitaries and was made into tubeskirts, known as pha sin, decorative hem pieces woven using the discontinuous supplementary weft technique, known as tin chok, tubeskirts embroidered with sliver and gold threads, and brocades.

Textiles were woven for a variety of purposes with the type and shape dependent on the intended use. Generally, they can be divided into two types. The first type includes tubeskirts woven for daily use which were not so finely detailed and were used for home wear or for working in the fields. These were usually made of cotton and had little design or were plain black or navy blue like the mo hom shirts which are well known in the north.

Apart from clothing, general purpose textiles were woven for use as all purpose cloths, bed covers and shoulder bags, etc.. They were simple in style and carried little or no design.

The other type includes textiles woven for special purposes such as those used or worn in merit making ceremonies, celebrations and major festivals or for use in various rituals such as banners known colloquially as tung. Textiles of this type were much more elaborate and required meticulous skill in weaving. Different techniques such as the continuous and discontinuous supplementary weft, twill weave, and ikat were used to enhance the beauty of the textile and to show off the weaver’s skills. They also display the deep faith the people have in their rituals and ceremonies which are grounded on traditional customs and beliefs.

A variety of plants were used in making the dyes, but mostly they were plants that were easily found in the vicinity of the community. Plants used include indigo which gives a navy blue colour, Ordxylum indicum which produces green or brown when mixed with other vegetable products, the ebony tree which gives black, myrobalan wood which gives a military green colour, sappan which produces red, Bisea orellra which gives orange, and the wood of the jackfruit tree which gives a dark yellow colour. The part of the plant used varies and could be the bark, leaves, fruits and seeds or a combination. Each plant yields a different colour and sometimes the colour can change depending on the time of day or the season the plant was gathered. This variation of colour adds to the charm and beauty of the locally produced textiles because each piece of fabric has its own individual identity which is almost impossible to reproduce.

Apart from using plants and vegetables to produce dyes, insects such as the coccus lacca beetle which yields a red colour can also be used.

Dyeing begins with extracting the colour from the plant by using traditional methods. Sometimes the plants are left soaking overnight and sometimes they are beaten and pulverised. Others need to be cut into small pieces and boiled. In some cases all the above methods are used. The actual dyeing process requires careful attention and patience, especially if a dark dolour is desired, in which case the process needs to be repeated as many as ten times. Traditional village weavers tend to have special techniques which they use to produce variation in the colours. In some instances, the fermentation method is used, plant products are combined, or colours are mixed. To help prevent the colours running salt or other natural products such as alum are added to the dye bath.

Once the natural dyeing process has been completed, a special technique using natural acids or alkalines is employed to make sure that the colours are fast and do not fade easily. Acids are extracted from tamarind or olives while alkaline is produced by mixing water with ash or lime. These materials are easily found locally. In the case of dark colours, the yarns or fabrics are sometimes soaked in mire. Weavers learn from experience and trial and error. For example, they know that sour tasting products yield an acid reaction while salty or astringent tastes give an alkaline reaction.

Because the process is complicated and time consuming and requires much work in both preparation and action, plus the fact that much of the knowledge has come from the weavers own experience, there are virtually no written records or instruction. Anything taught is passed down orally. Consequently, knowledge is limited and much has been lost. Changes in lifestyles and environment have also contributed to a reduction in the weaving and dyeing of Lanna textiles. Modern methods and technology are being introduced and these days people prefer factory produced textiles which are finer and more durable. Designs have been modified so that they are easier and quicker to produce than the traditional designs. Chemical dyes offering a wider range of colours and which are readily available in the market place are rapidly replacing natural dyes. These days is it difficult to find woven textiles which have been dyed in the traditional manner using natural pigments.

The intrinsic value and beauty of locally woven textiles, a product of untiring effort and patience in all stages from spinning to dyeing and weaving, plus the meticulous patterns and designs created by the weavers, has helped to win them popularity among both Thais and foreigners, however. Today Lanna textiles have been adapted for a variety of uses and are being made into popular fashions. The interest from both the private and public sectors in preserving and promoting this outstanding tradition has enabled village weavers to practice their art as a cottage industry and as a way of supplementing their income. Groups have been established to help facilitate the production processes and marketing. Renowned centres can be found at Ban Rai Phai Ngam add Ban Nong Ap Chang in Chom Thong District, Ban Tan in Hod District and at Mae Chaem District. Through these centres the tradition of weaving is being preserved and knowledge of natural dyeing techniques propagated so that these magnificent textiles and unique colours remain today and Into the future.

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