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The Art Form of Woven Textiles

TEXTILES ARE ONE OF the most significant features of Thai heritage. Long ago, the various Tai tribes in southwestern China, Laos, northern Thailand and northern Burma developed societies in which clothing represented much more than protection from the elements. The colors, patterns and weave all designated the specific tribe, the exact village, and the status of the individual within the village. When the Thais moved southward into their present homeland, they brought this clothing and texture culture with them. And, these traditions have been kept alive right up to the present time here in the North of Thailand. One only has to observe the uniqueness of the costumes of the various hilltribe members one sees here in Chiangmai to appreciate how well the tribal identities are maintained by the clothing they wear.

Typical Looms

The local textiles are produced on hand looms of various sizes. While various factories may have dozens of weavers in one location, many of the textiles available here are still produced by women in their homes in outlying villages as a source of supplemental income.

Further north, in the town of Chiang Khong in Chiangrai Province, a more basic type of hand loom is used. This is the homemade loom of bamboo that was once the universal loom in northern Southeast Asia. It is now often called the Lao hand loom because of its common use in Laos, but it is typical of the very old looms of Chiangmai also. This loom is now most common not only in Chiang Khong, but also on the other side of the Mekhong River in Laos, and in the weaving villages of Vientiane and those of northeastern Thailand (Esarn). It is on these looms that the very famous Thai, Lao and Khmer silks and cottons were woven for centuries.

The loom required for weaving a Dteen Jok piece is a horizontal two-harness loom with cotton heddles and a suspended metal beater. The weaver also hand stitches with a porcupine quill that has been threaded with colored silk or cotton or silver.

Appealing Colors

Traditionally natural substances such as leaves, plants and barks were the source of dyes. The village women used a variety of applied chemistry techniques to produce the dyes. Just like a good recipe for tom yum, the secrets of how beautiful colors were produced were passed down from mother to daughter throughout the generations. Many different methods had to be applied for not every natural material could be just boiled up for successful color baths.

Natural materials produce the colors of beige, tan and yellow tones with red highlights and some pale greens. The leaves of fresh indigo plant produce subtle colors from grey and lavender through pink. If you have ever pared the Maangkood or mangosteen fruit, you know the outer skin produces a deep purple. A striking red color is from the resin of the lac insect while strong orange is from boiled annatto seeds. The rich brown of forest monks robes is produced from the wood of the jackfruit or kanoon tree boiled in combination with a red residual soil known as laterite. Pineapple leaves produce greens and blues.

Currently several NGOs are working to preserve the art of natural dyes as a part of rural social history. While numerous plants produce colors many colors are not dense enough to impress the fabric for favored pattern designs. Weavers prefer chemical dyes that are easy to work with plus a wide selection of bright colors is available.

Moh Hom

A classic example of a centuries-old clothing tradition can be seen in and around Chiangmai every day, that is the simple Moh Hom, often called the northern Thai farmer's shirt. This familiar shirt has its origins in the distant past, and was part of the normal attire of the Tai Lue and the Tai Yai, when they migrated south from what is now China's Yunnan Province over 1,100 years ago.

The original Moh Hom was made of woven, homespun cotton and dyed with indigo. The men's outfit consists of a collarless three-quarter sleeved shirt, with rope fastenings down the front, a matching pair of baggy, three-quarter length trousers (Sador), and the check-patterned cloth called Pha Khao Mah. This versatile cloth can be used as a wraparound, a bath towel, a belt for holding a hatchet or knife, a sunshade, a turban or any number of things. Women wore a similar outfit, but the blouse (also called Moh Hom) was full sleeved and fastened with wooden buttons. The matching skirt was the wraparound tubular Pha Zin, and the outfit could be completed with a silver belt.

Leaves of the Hom tree, which is indigenous to the northern forests, were placed in large pots together with lime and the ash of burnt banana stems. This mixture was allowed to ferment for 3 or 4 days, when the indigo dye was formed, from which the garments derive their customary color. The name of the garment derives its name from this process: the Hom leaves were mixed in the pot, or Moh, so in the Thai language, you have "pot for Hom leaves", or Moh Hom.

Today, many Thai farmers can be seen wearing the Moh Hom as they work in the fields, but it has become a far more widely worn garment than that. It is worn by waiters, shop assistants, and workers in certain Government agencies as "cultural" dress every Friday. The Moh Hom is readily available in many of the shops in Chiangmai's famous Night Bazaar.

We can recommend the following places to buy cottons located on the maps and advertisements inside this issue. Studio Naenna, Tita Gallery, Jinapa Decor, Fasai, Thai Tribal Crafts, Cotton & Hemp Shop and Earth Tone.

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Last modified on:  October 27 2013