Tradtional Cotton Fabric Weaving in Northern Thailand
My recent trip into the mountains along the border of Myanmar was my first trip into real back country in Thailand. I had somehow succeeded in getting on on a mailing list for trips and events that focus on traditional Thai textiles. You never know how these trips will go, especially when you sign on as a single for a trip where you don’t know anybody. But as an old friend of mine used to say, “It’s all part of the adventure.”
It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable tours I’ve ever taken. We were a small informal group of seven textile and fiber arts enthusiasts from around the world. Four of us were expats from different parts of the United States. There was a couple from Spain who were researching Thai textiles for their clothing design business, and a lady from Hawaii, who had been coming to Thailand in winter for years. Susan, our organizer had arranged a van with driver to take us up into the mountains. So, we enjoyed the view in comfort.
Our first stop was just a little over an hour south of Chiang Mai near the little village of Chom Thong near Doi Inthanon National Park. Hidden in the forest down a dirt road was the textile museum known as Pa-Da Cotton Textile Museum or Saeng-Da Cotton Textile Museum, after its founder, Mrs. Saeng-Da Bunsiddhi.
The museum compound includes the founder’s original home with working looms located underneath traditional Thai style house on stilts. There is a small gift shop, a spinning shed, and an outdoor dye workshop. Cotton is grown and processed on site and hand dyed by the founder’s daughter who continues to oversee the museum project. The property overlooks a meadow along a river where newly dyed fibers are often set out to dry.
There were two weavers working at the big floor looms that day and it was amazing to see how swiftly they threw their shuttle across the warp threads, making the fabric seem to grow before our eyes. The original house upstairs has been kept much as it was when the Mrs. Saeng-Da Bunsiddhi lived there. The bedroom and kitchen took up only a small portion of the house, while the rest of the rooms were used as work rooms where she planned weaving patterns and dye lots.
We were allowed to explore the other areas of the property and when we reached the dye workshop, the director was there to show us how she dyed the cotton yarn. She spoke no English, but Susan understands Thai and interpreted for us. As she raised the lids on the various pots she showed us the plant that was used for each dye and explained how colors change, not only during the dye process, but in some cases continue to change when exposed to air to dry.
Of course, most of the fiber is dyed with indigo. But they use many different colors for the patterned borders that are always woven into Thai fabric. She showed us an unusual fuzzy looking pod with seeds inside, which is used for red dye. She let us touch it to see how a red powder came off on our hands and explained that it was also used for lip color before commercial cosmetics became readily available. I had to try some on my lips. How elegant to have just that touch of color on the lips with no artificial shine!
I really felt welcome at the Saeng-Da Textile Museum and I am so grateful to Susan for being there and interpreting for us.
Our next stop took us deep into the mountains, almost to the border of Myanmar/Burma. I’ve noticed that in Thailand, they still say Burma out of respect to the many Burmese people who live in these mountains and have been there for centuries. Our destination was Mae Chaem Village for the annual Teen Jok Textile Festival. It was two hours northwest of Chong Thong, so if you decide to do this trip on your own, be sure to start early or perhaps plan an overnight stay in the mountains. The journey is a pleasant drive going through Doi Inthanon National Park as you travel higher and higher into the mountains.
Mae Chaem is a small village, but it is the nearest town for many of the tribes that live in the high country. This annual festival is a chance for them to bring the textiles they have been working on all year down to market. There is a competition for the best textiles and lots of individual booths set up where the crafts people can sell both full lengths of fabric and hand made garments. Fabrics are sold in lengths of about six meters, so even with narrow width of the fabric, you will have enough yardage to make your own creation from real Thai fabric.
We took a shorter route back to Chiang Mai and arrived tired, but happy. This was a trip that I will long remember. There were no ziplines or wild animals, just real people engaging in beautiful textile craftwork. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in traditional fiber arts.