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Costumes and Textiles of Hilltribes

VISITOR TO the North of Thailand are often struck by the beauty of the often elaborate costumes of the minority hilltribes but, perhaps, confused on which style of costume belongs to which group. While generalizations can be made, they are only that any particular hilltribe may have several ethnic subdivisions with differing customs and traditional costumes. Also, the style of costumes may change for women before and after marriage, as with the Karen, and women may have especially splendid finery for special occasions like the lunar new year celebrations, such as the Hmong and Akha. But with a bit of observation, the visitor to the North will be able to differentiate the different hilltribe people encountered on a trek or a visit to the mountainous country around Chiangmai or Chiangrai according to the style of dress and ornamentation the people are wearing.

The Karen

karen Karen women weave particularly fine textiles. While the mode of decoration varies from subgroup to subgroup, clothing is usually made from two strips of handwoven cloth which are folded and stitched up the middle of the front and back of the garment with the incomplete stitching at the top forming a v-neck. The stitching is not hidden, but done with colorful thread and some embroidery becomes part of the decoration of the garment itself.

Unmarried Karen women wear a long white shift which may be decorated with embroidery or decorative brocaded inserts woven in using supplementary weft techniques. After marriage, women change their costume to a short blouse and a sarong which are much more colorful than the maiden's shift. A woman of the Sgaw Karen might wear a blouse where the upper half is plain fabric but the lower half is fancily decorated with embroidery and the applique in geometric designs of dried seeds. The Pwo Karen women weave fabric for their blouses in brightly colored, intricate geometric designs involving alternating colored squares, rectangles, and stripes.

Women's sarongs tend to be decorated with horizontal stripes woven into a predominantly red colored ground, with some decoration of the fabric done using the ikat warp technique, where portions of the warp threads are tie-dyed before weaving begins and the pattern or design can be seen clearly before the weft is woven in. Men's clothing is woven and constructed along the same lines but with plain decoration.

The Hmong

hmong The Hmong are easily recognized by their women wearing characteristic short skirts and leggings and piling their hair in a bun on top of the head. The women are particularly fine at embroidery and even the simplest everyday garment might be richly decorated. A woman's traditional costume consists of a tightly-pleated full skirt of about knee-length, with black leggings completing the lower costume. The skirt fabric is usually dyed in intricate patterns of blue and white using batik techniques and decorated with a wide border at the bottom of applique or elaborate cross-stitch embroidery in bright colors. The upper garment is usually of black fabric with applique or embroidery decoration at the cuffs and placket. Men wear plain black pants and a similarly decorated long-sleeved jacket. For special occasions men add an embroidered sash and women add a decorated apron.

The Yao or Mien

yao Yao or Mien women are also highly skilled at embroidery and devote a great deal of time to the decoration of their traditional costume. Women wear pants with two elaborately embroidered panels running the full length of the front. This is topped with a black, long tunic decorated with a red yarn ruff around the collar and along the edges. Their hair is bound with a turban that is also embroidered on the edge. Men wear indigo-dyed trousers and a loose jacket which buttons across the chest fastened with small silver buttons.

The Lisu

lisu Lisu women go in more for applique work to decorate their costumes, and for brighter colors than other groups. Women wear a long tunic, frequently blue or green, with multicolored appliqued strips of cloth decorating the sleeves near the shoulder and collar, over short pants and leggings. The costume is topped off with a decorated apron tied with a sash with brightly colored yarn pom-poms. The men wear voluminous, baggy pants with leggings and a simple tunic.

The Akha

akha Akha women are easily recognized by their elaborate headdresses, usually involving a great deal of silver and beaded decoration. The women's black, long-sleeved jacket is richly decorated with fine, colorful applique work in geometric patterns, and decoration may include sewn on silver studs or cowrie shells. This is worn over a short black skirt, and leggings appliqued in a pattern similar to that decorating the jacket completes the costume. Men wear a loose black jacket which is similarly colorfully appliqued along the placket and the lower half of the back. Cloth shoulder bags decorated with the same geometric applique are carried by both sexes.

The Musser or Lahu

lahu There is more variation in Lahu traditional costume among subgroups, but the basic colors are black with red decoration for the Lahu Nyi and Lahu Na, and black and white for the Lahu Sheh Leh. Lahu Nyi women wear a long-sleeved short black jacket with broad red stripes of fabric on the cuffs and around the neck and down the edges of closure. This may be further decorated with large, round silver medallions. The costume is completed with a sarong with red horizontal stripes woven in or a decorative border. Lahu Sheh Leh women wear a long black tunic ending in two panels in front falling to knee length. The edges of the closure and shoulders are decorated with broad piping of strips of white fabric, as are the three sides of the front panels. This is worn over short black pants and knee-high leggings. The men wear loose black jackets with the closure running diagonally across the chest ending at one side over loose black trousers and leggings. Decoration of women's tunics may involve embroidery, applique, or decorative silver studs sewn on.

All of the groups discussed here go in for sometimes very elaborate silver jewellery for further decoration. So keep your eyes peeled and see if you can identify the different hilltribe groups you might encounter during you visit to the North.

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