I used to believe that the long tradition of Thai silk weaving would vanish some day in the future. No one knows what the future will be; we can, however, make predictions from our experiences, which then help us make reasonable judgments. My beliefs about the future of silk changed on a field project in mid May 2009, to Khon Kaen in northeastern Thailand. It was there that I gained a deeper understanding of the process of producing Thai silk and I no longer believe that the appreciation of Thai silk will disappear.
It was first week of May, late afternoon, and we had spent the entire morning on a slow bus ride from Khon Kaen to Baan Pai. We met my new friend, Dr. Rosanne Trottier, an anthropologist and interpreter, who invited us to her project, Sawangboran. I believe that she is a wonder woman for the women of the project who happened to be hardworking wives, mothers and artists. She is like a mother to them who helps them create their art. Walking into their village felt like a new world to me. I heard hyperactive birds in bamboo cages nervously marching in circles; I saw a big black dog slowly digging a hole for a cooler napping place. Babies chicks followed their mothers in a row and colourful and supreme rosters strutted by. It was here that we settled in for an interview with Khun Daeng for the next two hours. I saw a spinning wheel and loom; I wondered how to proceed. I took a deep breath when Khun Daeng walked towards me with a beautiful smile as she invited us to her porch where two more weavers waited. I began with prepared questions I had compiled from my research of weavers from around the globe. We immediately shared laughter with our common and not so common backgrounds. They amazed me with their enthusiasm and earnest responses to my questions.
The three weavers whom I spoke with were K.Jaun, K.Dang, and Mae Supat, aged 30-45 years. They have been weaving since they were children. They told me that their Thai silk is the symbol of the Isan people, which their ancestors have passed on from generation to generation. K. Daeng shared her own story explaining that initially, she was only allowed to watch her mother weave. Later, because her parents were afraid that she would ruin their silk pieces, she secretly wove her own piece and then would hide it. She made it clear that the loom was to be respected; it was not for children to play on because their great-grand mothers would have woven on it, and therefore, it must be honoured.
- Daeng explained that “Women are valued for their ability to do weaving and house work”. She told me that they have no free time because they are always taking care of their own children, doing housework, sugar cane farming and weaving. The weavers explained that the majority of their workday is spent on the sugar cane farming. In the morning, they make breakfast for their children and send them off to school. During the day, their weaving tempts them to leave their housework and farming to create their art, but they must resist. The women said they often weave eight hours a day. I remain flummoxed at how they can juggle all this work and still be able to weave. My question remained; don’t they feel too tired to weave after a long day? Their answer is that they cannot sit still. They are no longer tired when they sit at the loom and create their beautiful silk pieces. Their sense of creating beauty gives them the energy to continue work and be proud of their creations.
I looked closely at the shawls and scarves and noticed that they were not flawless. It is true that each woven product is unique because it is not machine made. Questions began to linger on my mind: Can they be haute couture? Is there a market for their silk?
Every idea of this piece of silk that they have woven has their own flower signature on it. Rosanne’s inspiration for this signature truly marks pride and ownership and validates their long hours of work. It makes them happy because it represents the entire process of spinning the thread, to dying the thread, with nature dyes and finally weaving, by hand, their own unique patterns.
Khun Daeng told me that she shares her knowledge of weaving with the others in the group; there are no secrets between the members in the weaving group. The weavers often go to Rosanne’s house to share their ideas; Rosanne also updates them on the progress of sales from marketing.
In the past, silk clothing was valuable to everyone because of the tradition of the Isan province. Meanwhile, many modern Thai people are not aware of the significance of the pattern in the silk which indicates the province and the status of the weaver. As silk has become more popular around the world, the prices have also risen considerably. Thirty years ago, silk was not readily available and the high cost made it affordable to only the wealthy; silk indicated a high status. Most Thai people rarely wear silk on a daily basis because it is expensive and not easy to clean. They often wear it when they go to the temple or for special occasions. Although I have changed my perspective on the view that less people wear silk, I still believe that mature people wear silk on the daily basis. In the Khon Kaen hotel, I noticed that many people were wearing silk for a wedding. Silk is aesthetically pleasing, feels good to wear, is an item in many people’s closets, but, now I am curious if it ever going to be an item in a Jet setter’s wardrobe. My continuing research tells me that it is, but there are many more places and ideas to investigate.
After I finished the interview, I asked if I could see the silk worms. They eagerly showed me hundreds of tiny silk worms. I am usually afraid of worms, but when I saw these, I thought of the results, of the silk that they make for us, and that changed my opinion to appreciate them. The twirled braids of finished golden silk threads glistened in the sun, as if even they were proud of their appearance. Even though the touch of this golden silk is not as smooth as the finished product, this raw silk is nature’s true beauty.
We were taken to the home of an eighty- seven year old grandmother who is also one of the weaving members. When I first saw her, she was sitting on the ground spinning pure silk. She stopped working and looked up at me through her very thick glasses and smiled. Her eyesight may not be that good, but she is an expert on silk because she has been weaving over seventy years. When she spoke to me, I could not understand what she said, because she spoke in Isan, the dialect of her province, but the other women translated her warm welcome to me.
The story, which followed, was that she only recently began weaving once again after seeing the activity of other weavers in her village. Patterns from seventy years ago have re-emerged, patterns which would have been forever lost without the Sawangboran Project. We left her to visit the other homes in the village and see their looms. I noticed that in every home, the loom is in a different place, which means they each have different environments where they create their patterns.
I enjoyed this journey; the environment in Baan Pai is one of honest, dedicated, active, proud and happy people preserving their traditions. I rediscovered an art and learned many fascinating facts about silk production. I now think differently about Thai silk. I learned there is a long and beautiful story woven in each piece of silk. I learned that people are capable of incredible things when they have the will, the energy, the persistence and the support. Thai silk tends to live longer than we do, we might do well to care for it like precious treasures. Silk is more than a piece of cloth we wear. It represents generations of Thai traditions, the heart and soul of Thai women. Every woven thread is love. I am grateful to my chaperones, Dr. Trottier, her project members and my parents for their support in my project. For more information, please see www.sawangboran.com