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Weaving in the North:
Maintaining a Tradition

weaving A new building sits back from the main road in the Sankhampaeng factory area. It's long, narrow and white. Surrounded by green fields and mountains in the background, it seems out of place on a newly cleared flat of brown land. In the building sit hundreds of women at hand looms, spinning cotton in the traditional way. The only difference between this setting and that of the past is that all the women are together in a large area. Before they were at home in their village or in small groups at home factories. This is a new development in Chiangmai's weaving industry, for a large cotton-making operation has placed the traditional loom in a new, large factory setting.

Down the road at one of Chiangmai's largest silk factories, a woman sits alone with large bamboo trays on either side and a charcoal fire burning in a concrete bucket at her feet Over the fire is a small iron kettle with three iron prongs leading from the edges upward. These prongs lead up to a narrowed top where a bamboo spool holds silk freshly extracted from a cocoon. The woman holds the cocoon in a boiling liquid with a set of bamboo thongs in one hand, and she delicately manoeuvres the silk upward to the spool with her other hand. She is preparing silk for the weavers. Nearby, a group of women sit with the finished silk on a large round spool, and from it they wind the thread onto smaller spools that can be used in commercial application of the thread.

Those two greatly contrasting scenes are real, and they are indicative of one of northern Thailand's oldest and most precious arts, the art of weaving. Whether in cotton or silk, the traditional hand loom is responsible for the fine and beautiful woven fabrics so well known to the North.

There is something strangely prescient about this very Thai way of maintaining a tradition. The woman we saw spooling silk thread from the cocoon in the kettle is one of many hundreds in the Chiangmai area who spend their days working over such kettles, and often working over larger vats where many work at the same time, processing the tens of thousands of cocoons that come in from the local mulberry nurseries where silkworm are raised, and from the more productive silkworm area of Thailand's Northeast.

In the actual hand loom setting, there are various types of looms, and there are many loom sizes. Silk or cotton thread, produced here in the North through a long and complex process, is wrapped around the many boards of the loom and run to a central board, which is then attached to the main moving mechanism and connected with the loom foot pedal. On some of the older looms, used for weaving the delicate designs we see on cotton and silk Thai skirts and blouses, the thread is fed into the loom from a large spool that hangs near the weaver's head. This thread, in large bunches and very long lengths, is pulled across the top of the loom down over the back at an angle to a low board, and then up to the flat board section where the thread is pulled through at the weaver's hands. In this way, the weaver has more dexterous control over the pattern to be weaved, and wrapped boards of thread in other colors can be inserted at the proper time.

On a larger, more complicated loom for broad rolls of silk on cotton cloth, the thread is most often already wrapped around rolls that are specifically made for lengths of mass-market fabric. This is a more advanced mechanized process also, but the loom itself is basically the same. In any of the larger silk or cotton factories of Chiangmai, a combination of the smaller, simpler looms and the larger, more complex looms are used.

Further north, in the town of Chiang Khong in Chiangrai Province, we see a more basic type of hand loom. This is the homemade loom of bamboo that was once the universal loom in northern Southeast Asia. It is now often referred to at the Lao hand loom because of it's common use in Laos, but actually 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 (Laos) and those of Northeastern Thailand (Esarn). It is on these looms that the very famous Lao, Thai and Khmer silks and cocoons were woven for centuries.

Today, Chiang Khong is a lively woven textile center on the Thai-Lao border, and many of its styles and patterns are distinctly Lao because of the neighboring influence across the Mekhong. The silk and cocoon pieces woven in the Lao and Northeastern Thai areas are often of a different texture and quality because of the raw materials used, because of the more traditional patterns in weaving, and because of the older, more traditional hand looms themselves. The products are often of rougher texture and character but no less attractive.

The process of silk and cotton spinning in northern Southeast Asia begins with the growing of the raw materials: silk from the silkworm cocoons; cotton from the cotton fields on the plains of Chiangmai. By the time the actual weaving begins, a great deal of work and time has already gone into this local industry. Once the spinning begins, the main tool is the hand loom, and with the loom the weavers of the North continue a refined and artistic tradition that the Thai apparently are intent on maintaining indefinitely.

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