From Japanese Association in Thailand Newsletter 「Kurungteap February 2017」
Original English text by Stephen Salmon ( Japanese translation : Maki )
Copyright (text and images) is with ThaiCraft Fair Trade Co. Ltd.
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Steel Implements in Ayutthaya
History and background
Little is known about the origins and development of steel implements in Thailand. It is not surprising, though, that some communities not far from major centres of population (such as Ayutthaya, former capital of Siam) created an industry to supply citizens with utilities, farmers with tools as well as the army with weapons.
Aranyik has an ancient history in making steel implements. It is a village on the banks of a major river that leads to the city, which could be reached downstream within one day in former times.
Passed down through generations, most artisans have forging skills in their blood. A steady local market, always widening as communications improved by road and rail, has ensured the skills still survive until today.
In recent years, nearby farmland has been sold to developers for factories, rice mills and storage warehouses. This is providing new work opportunities on the doorstep for villagers who are taking advantage of a less arduous and more secure means of income. This puts the steel craft industry at considerable risk, especially if demand for these products should dip.
While formerly mainly men’s work, many aspects of the steelmaking have been taken up by women as well, especially when they seek work at or close to their homes so they can also take care of their children.
Safety and health protection measures are very important not just to artisans themselves but also to their families and the surrounding community.
In former days, hardened steel was used. Recycled car springs and other extra strength parts were the main materials and still used for agricultural products.
Increasingly, the market for steel implements prefers stainless. Producers have had to adapt to this modern, imported material which is expensive and subject to world price fluctuation. Unlike ordinary steel, stainless steel cannot easily be recycled so getting the product right every time is important. This requires careful training.
Selling products today requires good quality presentation. One group handmakes gift boxes to attractively display products using cardboard, handmade paper, silk covers and lining.
Workshops, formerly in tight areas under each artisan’s home, are now small, purpose-built shelters where some basic machinery, tools and raw materials are kept, away from children. Artisans gather together to complete the production procedure and maintain a high quality.
Usually, an artisan becomes skilled at just a few of the production procedures so there is division of labour with each artisan perfecting their own type of skill. Some intricate curved designs are shaped using only homemade handtools.
In one workshop, where tableware and cutlery is produced to a very high level of finish, more time is spent on polishing and finishing than on basic production. Most of the steps are done by hand using standard hand tools while a few old (some ancient) tooling machines are used for shaping and cutting. Even so, a high degree of handwork is involved as every machine needs to be hand-operated. Skilled artisans carry out
How to use
It is important to purchase stainless steel products from a known source which guarantees the quality of the steel. Low-grade steel may look attractive initially but can rust after some use or become very dull.
Tableware conforms to popular sizes for average homes in Asia and in the West. Stainless steel of high quality can be safely put in a dishwasher.
All stainless steel is liable to scratching so food should not be carved directly on the steel.
It is recommended to use a propriety metal cleaner sparingly from time to time in order to maintain a bright shine. High-grade stainless steel should keep its shine well even in constant use with gentle care.
Silk Weaving in Lower Isan (Buriram, Surin and Srisaket provinces)
The majority of people in Isan (northeast region of Thailand) have inherited similar customs and language to the Lao. The same can be said for their cultural heritage of craft.
Like with the Lao people, weaving is a way of life. It is part of a household’s being, like cooking, animal husbandry or rice growing. At least, that is what it used to be when communities were self-sufficient and not so dependent on communications and cash income.
Weaving may no longer be needed for supplying the family with clothing as cheaper and easier alternatives are now available and even preferred. But it does remain a symbol of identity and its potential as an income earner in a new way, dependent on communications, has the potential to keep weaving as a cultural heritage alive for future generations.
This is the thinking behind one daughter of a skilled weaver from a remote corner of this economically poor region. In a district of Buriram province, she re-organised the process by which weaving was traditionally done in her family’s community but held on to all the various skills and technical methods that had always been there. The innovation was in the introduction of new and exciting textile designs that would attract an international market.
Taking advantage of her art college education in Bangkok, followed by practical experience in commercial marketing early in her career, this young lady took the unusual step of challenging herself to apply all that she had learnt into the traditional weaving community of her birth. In other words, she built an enterprise around what was already there without changing the fundamental and familiar processes of this essential cultural activity.
As the market has grown, so the opportunities for more and more weavers to continue to weave for a much needed income has increased. The pressure for working age people to leave their homes to seek employment in other areas far away has been greatly reduced and these families can remain intact to bring up their children and care for their parents in a complete unit.
There is nothing unusual about the producers in this cooperative venture. They are artisans who have inherited the skills of silk production and weaving and wish to carry on with their lives without disruption and to farm their fields to provide for their everyday needs.
What is different is that they belong to a cooperative that provides the means by which to achieve their wishes and their willingness to adapt in a way that makes production more efficient and better value in the outside market.
The cooperative is geared to producing large quantities of product to satisfy their market. Such is the quality for their work and designs that their pieces are sold in up-market outlets, department stores, at international airports and at specialist craft fairs like ThaiCraft, as well as export orders.
It is necessary to ensure a large and steady availability of village-produced silk yarns. Several villages in the area focus on traditional silk yarn production
Both natural and chemical dyes are used and the work is done by employing known skilled people in dye processes. Adequate supplies of the natural materials for dyeing needs to be assured so that production is not held up.
All the traditional methods of silk production that are practised by village weavers in Isan are maintained in the production process. No new techniques have been introduced and the procedure is very promotes handmade.
What is essentially different is that the various skills are divided among the members. While traditionally one woman would learn and carry out all the skills needed for silk weaving, here members are chosen for their particular skill and encouraged to concentrate on that alone. This production process is more akin to a factory method but without actually being in a factory.
Most of the work is done in and around weavers’ homes but they cooperative has a large centre where all the producers visit for meetings, to collect new work and to deliver their finished pieces. Some work also at the centre, usually on specialist work and developing new design samples for orders.
Instead of producing products that are made everywhere else in Isan, startlingly different designs have been introduced that are modern and more international in taste. This has become the mainstay of their production as this is what sells best.
However, the traditional patterns have not been forgotten. Small amounts are produced to assure this as well as to satisfy a local demand for high quality traditional silk pieces.
The centre has developed a museum area to display the traditional patterns which all the producers can visit and admire.
All this requires skilful management of people and of finances. This where their leader’s commercial business experience is most important. She trains a separate team of local people to carry out these day-to-day management responsibilities.
How to Use
Contrary to many western people's conception, silk is a very robust fibre. It can be washed and used in rough conditions (farmers use it as their preferred material) and reused for years.
It is a purely natural material and is comfortable in hot and cold as well as humid situations.
It is best not to use chemicals as cleaners and should be understood that increased wear will affect colouring, as will exposure to strong sunlight (bleaching).
Silk is expensive because of the lengthy and complex process of production and because of a shortage of raw material. The amount produced by any one weaver is limited by space available for growing mulberry bushes, weather, seasons and time. To buy new indigenous yarn from elsewhere is always increasing with fewer people producing it for sale. (Hybrid yarns, used in factories and workshops with powered looms, is not generally suitable for village type handlooms – and the products is distinctly different.)
Ceramics in Northern Thailand
Archaeological discoveries in northern Thailand show that pottery was made to a high standard in prehistoric times using several kinds of local clay.
During the past millennium, potters were influenced by Chinese ceramics but retained its distinctive style. There was extensive trading in the region and the ceramics from Sukhothai (Suwankalok) was best known in 13th and 14th centuries (AD).
More recently, during the present Rama dynasty, fine colourful porcelain (5-colour “bencharong”) was developed in central Thailand for the royal court while in Lampang, in the North, small factories began producing pottery for the masses making use of the white clay found in that area.
In modern times, many small family-run potteries have started up, especially in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Phayao and Chiang Rai, restoring traditional techniques to create crockery for contemporary use. One popular technique derived from the past is 'celedon', featuring cracked transparent glazing.
Unlike other crafts found in Thailand, pottery was not so commonly passed down in families through generations. Today, villagers can learn the basic skills at an art college or from just by observing others. Most potters take on young apprentices and often teach children in nearby schools thereby inspiring new craftspeople.
Potters use different clays as suits an item's purpose and artistic look, though they will primarily use clay that is available nearest to them.
Most potters who adopt fully handmade techniques also ensure that their products are free of chemicals, both in the clay itself and in the glazing. Instead of chemical dyes, leaves, roots and barks of plants, bushes and trees are used. The glazes are applied by adding water to ash, traditionally gathered from wood-fired kilns.
Few potters use wood-burning kilns any more. Gas or electric-fired kilns are more controllable and easier to use. Also, there is a shortage of available waste wood as large quantities are needed for each firing.
In many cases, potters will quickly adopt their own style of products that will identify them from others, though the basic production remains very similar. Often, for identity (branding), the potter's name is etched on the base of each piece prior to firing.
There are three main ways of creating ceramic pieces. First is rolling and shaping by hand, rather similar to pastry making. Second is by 'throwing' clay on a horizontal fast-turning potter's wheel to form a round shape. Lastly, a mould is used to shape pieces. This latter is only economical when many pieces of exactly the same size and shape are required because the mould itself can be expensive to make.
Once the shaped, the pottery is 'biscuit' fired to a high temperature in a kiln for many hours. Then the glaze is applied before a second firing at a higher temperature. It takes much experience and trial and error to get the firings exactly right for different kinds of pottery.
Even experienced potteries encounter problems with production. Hours of work and much raw material can be wasted if the firing is not correct in some way. Some pieces may be sold as spoiled items at cheaper prices but generally, these losses as well as breakages need to be factored into the final price of all the perfect finished pieces.
How to Use
All kinds of pottery are easily broken if not carefully looked after. In normal use, though, most ceramics will last a long time, are easy to clean and will withstand heat, micro-waves and, if properly stacked, can safely placed in a dish-washing machine.
Glazed pottery holds water well. The hard glaze prevents liquid from penetrating the biscuit-fired clay. Unglazed pottery (terracotta), though, is porous and water will seep through. This is, though, a useful way of keeping a liquid cool. Before refrigerators, a soaked up-turned terracotta jar was an effective way to keep milk fresh.
Stools for Hilltribes
History and background
The many hilltribe minority ethnic groups found in northern Thailand have settled in the region's forested hillsides for many generations. Their families migrated there in clan or community groups gradually over the past 150 years. Some are originally from south China while others are from present day Myanmar (Burmese) states.
Although they differ a lot in cultural activities, language and racial origin, there are commonalities in their lifestyle. This comes from sharing a similar geographic environment, with the same resources, and that they are traditionally semi-nomadic, though this is no longer the case. The government has developed modern infrastructure for them that requires permanent settlement.
One area which most tribes share is their homes and everyday artefacts which largely reflect the natural resources available to them. Rattan and bamboo stools, mostly low to the ground, are to be found in every household in almost every tribal village.
The tribal stool is an essential article of furniture used by women and men while resting or doing craftwork or cooking. Most are low, about 20 cm in height. They are used instead of sitting on the ground, which is either dusty or muddy soil. More recently, when tables have been introduced to some homes, higher stools (about 50cms) have been made. Nevertheless, their style and construction has not changed.
Stool-making is nearly always men's work, as with the construction of houses, shelters, etc.
The stools usually last a long time, especially when well made with sound materials, so stool-making these days is only found in a few communities where there are men who have inherited the craft. They make many stools and then carry them, often on foot, to other villages to sell.
No one tribal group predominates in this craft and stools are sold into tribal communities different from those who make them. However, there are far fewer stool-makers in recent years. Raw materials scarcity (with higher cost) and an abundant availability of cheap plastic stools has decreased the demand for the traditionally made stool.
Hilltribe stools are made entirely from natural materials found in the forests, mainly wood, bamboo and rattan, both wide and thin varieties.
These days, a few nails and some wire may be used to strengthen the tension of the seat 'pad' (woven from the outer skin of rattan). Traditionally, though, this should not be needed.
Often, rubber is used as 'feet' to prevent stools from slipping or to protect a cement or tiled floor found in more modern homes. The rubber is recycled from old bicycle tyres.
Of all these materials, the increasingly scarce resource is the thick rattan which is slow growing and requires virgin forest conditions.
The thick, mature rattan is used to make the base. When soaked in water, it can be bent to make a complete circle. Slightly thinner pieces are used to make the upper ring and, for the taller stools, a middle ring.
Bamboo or wood (stronger) slats, slightly tapered, are used for the eight to ten risers which are connected to the rings with joints.
The seat pad is made by weaving the skin from thin rattan. It overlaps the upper rattan ring and is fixed underneath it by another thin rattan circle. Two strong rigid cords made from rattan run diagonally underneath to provide tension to the pad.
While visually they seem simply constructed, the stools are actually skilfully put together so they are strong and can withstand hard use as well as the elements when left outside for a long time.
How to use
These traditional stools, though used by tribal people in a very different situation, can be placed in modern homes where they become an unusual addition to the décor. They fit well in any room needing a stool rather than a chair and they are lightweight to carry around.
No maintenance is needed but, as they are made from natural materials, they should not be roughly handled. The joints could weaken a little in a dry, heated or air-conditioned environment.
Stools made with bamboo are less rigid than those made from wooden struts but they should still adequately bear the weight of an adult. It is recommended, though, not to use these stools to stand on.
Basket Weaving in Thailand's Deep South
History and background
While in recent times Thailand's three southernmost provinces have been an area of ethnic and religious unrest, this has not always been the case. Apart from periodic but short separatist uprisings, the area has been peaceful with Muslim and Buddhist communities living peacefully in social harmony.
The deep South, though, is different from most of Thailand. Having an indigenous majority of mainly Muslim Malay people, their cultural tradition dominates but Buddhist influences are never far away, either.
Nothing could be seem to be more sublime than the fishing villages along the long, eastern coastline. These are proud, independent communities whose religion preaches peace and who are in tune with the nature at sea and on the land, both of which provide for them.
When pollution and gross overuse of marine resources by outsiders upset nature's balance, their survival is severely threatened.
Civil unrest is a blight on these these people who often feel off from the rest of the country. Even more than before, they feel very remote from Bangkok and the governance they need to depend on.
In a community who love art inspired by the sea and coastal lands, these women seek a better life in face of environmental and political challenges from outside.
Young and old, these women continue to use their locally available natural materials to gain and income to pay of their children's education and upkeep their homes and communities.
Their Muslim faith is as important to them as it is to their menfolk, who are nearly all independent fishermen. The women weave their mats for daily prayers. They make baskets for rice and for containing all kinds of household items.
These producers have been blessed with assistance from Her Majesty Queen Sirikit's SUPPORT Foundation. The group leaders regularly train others in the area at the Royal Arts and Crafts Centre in Narathiwat. More recently, they travelled to Bangkok and other cities from time to time to demonstrate their skills and sell their products.
A sea coastal grass, a sedge known in Thai as krajoot, is grows in abundance along the shoreline. The women collect this themselves or employ others to collect them.
In this area, the krajoot variety has long blades (leaves of sedge) which enables large baskets to be made (which is not possible in many other areas of Thailand's coast)
For making different colours, the women use chemical dyes. Since producing basketware for selling, they have turned to using high quality imported dyes which do not rub off and are safer to use than locally obtained acid-based dyestuffs.
Once cut, the sedge grasses are dried in the sun for several days. If they are to be coloured, they will be dyed before the weaving begins. The women will cut the blades t the correct length and start weaving by sitting cross-legged on the floor and placing the work on the floor in front of them.
Early learners start with mats and simple baskets. With experience, they begin to learn to make more complex shapes. The pumpkin-shaped round boxes are the most difficult and only a few women have the skill to make them so that the lids fit well.
How to use
Traditionally, mats have been made for Muslim prayers. Many have beautiful patterns woven into them. In the marketplace, customers buy these durable mats for use inside their homes.
Smaller, open round baskets, many with rolled top rims, are used in the producers' homes to keep or carry rice. Customers purchase these baskets for many reasons, including storage, a place to keep children's toys, and for placing pot plants in the home.
The pumpkin-shaped baskets with lids come in many sizes. The producers keep their clothes in these. Customers think of many useful ways to utilise them but mostly it is for storage of items in the living room or bedrooms of their homes, either on the floor or on the top of cupboards.
These baskets are durable but should not be treated roughly as the fibres are quite light. They are strong and yet quite flexible, so they won't break if they are compressed a little.
The basketware is washable but care should be made with those dyed in dark colours, especially dark reds and blues.
Karen Tribal Jewellery
History and background
The Karen are ethnic minority group who can be found in Myanmar and Thailand. There are two main sub-groups. Sgau Karen and Pwo Karen (altogether about 7 million people)
In Thailand, this group are often called a hill tribe but that is not altogether correct. They do tend to live in mountain slope areas but never at high altitude. The Karen usually occupy small valleys where they prefer to grow permanent paddy rice (unlike the other tribes who grow hillside rice) and they are not normally nomadic.
The Karen have a conservationist attitude towards their agriculture and natural surroundings. They live in sophisticated communities, blending well with their ethnic majority neighbours.
The Karen have largely held on to their cultural traditions. Many still wear Karen style dress and distinctive embellishments. Weaving of cotton cloth for clothing and blankets is found in many communities but few now practice natural dyeing, preferring bright colours instead.
Originally spirit worshippers, the Karen have mostly adopted other regions in response to outside influence and contacts, mainly Buddhism and Christianity. However, many of their less spiritual customs have remained in tact. Like all cultures, this is being increasingly challenged in modern times.
While Karen women are weavers and embroiders, it is the men who traditionally make ornaments and jewellery from silver. It is a show of wealth and, originally, the raw material was supplied through the pure silver coins of past colonial powers in the region.
The design seen on Karen silver relates to their environment, primarily that of nature. (This is in contrast with some other ethnic groups in the region who like to make symbols of everyday artefacts and tools)
The jewellery is mostly worn by the women folk in the form of earrings (usually requiring a large hole in the earlobe), as well as necklaces and bangles for wrists and ankles.
Much patience is needed to get very delicate silver correctly made and not all young men are able to apply their skill in this way. Becasue of this, it can be difficut to find young men to take up this craft professionally.
Materials and tools
Pure silver is used to make jewellery. Sterling silver is 92.5% pure but most Karen like to use silver as pure as possible to enable better etching and design stamping on smaller parts. Usually, their silver is around 98% pure.
Due to the high cost of silver (a precious metal), some traders encourage silversmiths to make their jewellery with silver mixed with other alloys, such as nickel. This is not always recognised by customers at first and they think they are getting a bargain price, which in fact they are not.
The Karen silversmith traditionally makes all his own hand tools. He uses a small foot pumped acetylene torch for welding.
Today, many workshops have invested in a machine for converting a nugget of silver into silver wire and tape of different thicknesses, that form the basis of much of the beads and pendants in Karen silver jewellery.
Raw silver is nowadays mostly bought through gold shops in the cities. It is in the form of tiny pellets which is useful for accurate weighing.
The pellets are melted down in a small heat-resisting pot using the acetylene torch until the silver is white hot and like a liquid. As soon as it is liquid, the silver is poured into prepared metal moulds and then thrown into cold water for quick cooling and hardening as a silver nugget.
The nuggets are then converted into silver wire or silver tape using an electric driven “mangle” machine made for this purpose. (Traditionally, this was done on a long bench with a strap to pull the wire through a hole fixed to the other end of the bench. A hard and laborious process.)
Silversmiths will then make beads and pendants with their hand tools. The beads are then threaded onto cotton thread for necklaces and bangles. Pendants are shaped and stamped or etched with designs. Hooks, etc., are welded on to the finished pieces as necessary.
When completed, the piece will be washed and the polished, according to the style of piece. Some are finished as shining silver while others are kept dull to give a more natural look.
How to use
Silver is a metal that can tarnish easily. At the same time, it is not hard to polish using a proprietary cream or paste, or even a purpose-made impregnated cleaning cloth.
The silver parts are delicate and need to be carefully handled
The jewellery should be stored airtight in a ziplock plastic bag. This will help prevent tarnishing when not in use.
Wearing this Karen silver is a way of demonstrating support for the traditions of minority ethnic groups and helping to maintain this valuable craft heritage.
The Karen weavers of Doi Tao
History and background
Of all the different tribal groups settled in northern Thailand, the Karen are the most numerous and in many ways the most developed in terms of practicing sustainable forms of agriculture and environmental protection.
Traditionally living on lower slopes and highland valleys, the Karen have learned how to manage their relationship with nature and that is reflected in their crafts
Over the past 40 years or so, the use of factory processed cotton yarns and chemical dyestuffs had more or less taken over completely, even if the traditional weaving and patterns were retained in producing their tribal costumes.
However, more recently, some Karen communities have been a reviving their interest in restoring the traditional methods of their crafts including textile production.
This trend is as a result of new marketing prospects as well as a realisation that growing one’s own cotton, spinning it and dyeing using nearby plants is a cheaper and, importantly, healthier investment. It also helps to bring the community together as more people become involved in this self-reliance activity rather than needing to seek work outside their village.
In one Karen community in Doi Tao district of Chiang Mai, villagers have led the way towards bringing back former craft techniques before the older people pass away without transferring their age-old knowledge to the younger generation.
While the old folk possess the knowledge, it is the younger generation and their children who are learning, step by step, the processes in textile production in a purely natural way.
These weavers and their families get much encouragement from potential customers of their products and those from universities and colleges, in Thailand and further afield,
Indigenous varieties of cotton is grown on unused land near to the village in increasing quantities. The seeds are collected for the next planting seasons.
This cotton, unlike hybrid cotton grown for factory production, needs no dangerous chemical fertilizer spraying, is not blighted with insects and has long fibres suitable for hand-spinning.
Indigenous cotton is naturally white and brown, enabling two-colour weaving without any dyeing.
Natural dyeing of yarns is a craft of its own and many products of nature are involved in producing different colour effects. Leaves, fruits, barks, roots and branch wood from trees and shrubs as well as insect excretion produce different colours while minerals are used to fix the colours to prevent colour run and fading.
Basic homemade seed-removing, spinning, fluffing, carding and reeling machines are used to produce yarns. The cloth itself is woven on back-strap looms.
Cotton is grown around the village or various vacant plots. The pods are harvested by hand and the cotton filament removed ready for seed removing and spinning.
After fluffing and carding, the cotton thread is reeled several times, each time removing tangles and impurities.
Threads are entwined together to produce yarns which are wound into skeins (coils), ready to be dyed.
Natural materials are boiled and prepared in a large bowl for inserting the yarn skeins. After approximately one hour of boiling, stirring all this time, the yarns are removed and hung up to dry in the air. Often significant colour change can happen from the oxygen in the air.
The yarns are then immersed again into a bowl of water containing a fixing agent, such as soda ash, alum, rust or soil (mud). Once washed and dry, the yarns are ready for weaving
Karen women weave using back-strap loom equipment. A strap around the weavers back enables her to hold the attached warp yarns taught with the other end fixed to a pole
A short weaving comb helps to separate the warp yarns as she feeds the weft yarns, wound in a hand-thrown shuttle, from side to side.
This kind of loom is simple to set up and can easily be packed and taken anywhere as no fixed frame is involved.
The limitations are firstly that only simple patterns are usually possible and secondly the maximum width of the cloth is the approximate width of the weaver herself, no more than 50 cm.
This limits the flexibility in cloth usage but is overcome by the Karen by hand-stitching several lengths together to make a shirt or a blanket. Karen clothing is always basic and simple in style in contrast to the ornateness of many other tribal groups.
How to use
Karen natural dyed cotton cloth when it is thickly woven (e.g. for blankets) is very strong and can be as tough as a canvas.
However, most Karen textiles are thinner and need to be carefully looked after. Handwashing is recommended in most cases.
Natural dyes can react to strong detergents and use of pure soap is preferred.
The cloth can be used to create clothing and is suitable for men as well as women’s wear.
The width limitation restricts its use to some extent but, with careful planning, these can be sewn together in hidden places or sewn together with large visible hand-stitching as a feature for added effect.
This totally handmade and natural textile is a joy to own and a reminder that proven methods of the past can still bring us closer to nature and a more sustainable world environment.
Batik Textiles of the Blue Hmong Hilltribe
History and background
The Hmong are a large Sino-Tibetan ethnic group originating from southern China. They can be found not only in Yunnan (China) but also in northern areas of Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Vietnam and in Thailand, where they are also named 'Meo', which they themselves consider to be derogatory.
It is thought that migration to Thailand, probably mainly for economic reasons, started about 150 years ago with new immigrants settling in the hills progressively until the borders were closed to them in the 1970s.
A potentially large influx of Hmong was prevented from settling in Thailand who had fled Laos following the Communist takeover in 1975. Most of the Hmong had supported USA during the Vietnam War in return for promises for an autonomous Hmong state in northern Laos. Instead, they were put into refugee camps with large numbers later resettling in USA, Canada, France and even in South America. Only a relatively few returned to Laos.
This ethnic group were once well-known as opium growers though this is no longer the case.
The Hmong are a proud people with strong family groups (clans). In Thailand, there are two main group subdivisions, known locally as White Hmong and Blue Hmong, distinguished by their different costumes utilising different craft skills.
The “Blue” Hmong group are well known for their batik craft work with indigo (blue) dyes.
The batik indigo cloth is mainly used for the fully circular, pleated, knee-length skirts of a woman’s costume. The skirts have a wide embroidered lower hem and parts of the batik cloth may have embroidered or appliqué embellishments.
Most traditional patterns used have meanings that depict personal characteristics.
All textile related craft work is carried out by women. Girls are first taught these skills when very young. They are expected to be very skilful by the time they are eligible for marriage, which for the Hmong can be in their early teens (though this is changing).
Young male suiters visiting from other communities at Hmong New Year may initially base their choice of partner on the craft skill of a girl’s costume.
Batik craftwork is practised by women throughout their life. Costumes need replacing at least annually with new costumes for all the family required for Hmong New Year (12th lunar month) festivities.
Today, many women make indigo batik crafts to sell to other Hmong and also to tourists. Use of the cloth has been adapted to create different finished products for the outside market and dressmakers and tailors often incorporate batik pieces into their clothing designs.
Batik is done on long lengths of raw cotton cloth about 30 cm. up to 50 cm. wide. This cloth is usually factory-made, bought in the market by the roll. The cloth is cut to the required width and a very long piece can make several skirts.
Traditionally, a woman would have grown her own cotton, spun it and woven it all by hand but this is seldom done these days. In some areas, hemp has been used for its hard-wearing properties, though this is not the case in Thailand in living memory.
Again traditionally, the artisan would grow indigo plants and prepare the dye from its leaves by fermentation in a vat (jar) for many months. Today, powdered synthetic indigo, commercially available, is normally used as a cold dye.
The wax (applied on the cloth in areas not to be dyed) is usually a mixture of beeswax (25%) and paraffin (75%).
The used wax can be skimmed during the boiling process to melt the wax and then used again on another piece of work.
The patterning on the finished cloth is revealed in the original colour of the cloth before dyeing. Therefore, the pattern needs to be protected from the indigo dye. This is done by drawing the pattern onto the cloth using wax.
Less experienced artisans will stencil the pattern first in pencil but, in time, will learn to do this work entirely freehand.
The wax is applied by using a special homemade “pen” with a copper nib.
The wax is melted in a pot on a fire situated next to the artisan so she can frequently dip the pen into the wax while it is still liquid hot.
The artisan draws the wax onto the cloth using a design which is traditionally geometric, made up of straight lines, short, medium and long. Recent designs sometimes include curved motifs more often seen on Hmong embroidery or appliqué work.
The pen is held in the fingers with the nib facing backwards under the palm. This enables the artisan to more easily draw straight lines with arm (i.e. not wrist) movements and without any guide.
Once the wax design on the whole length is completed, the cloth can be cold-dyed in the fermented indigo. (If it was hot, the wax would melt!)
The cloth is then thoroughly rinsed in cold water several times so excess colour will run out.
After drying, the cloth is then immersed in hot water so that the wax will melt, revealing the pattern where the wax had been.
How to use
There is a lot more to be done to the batik cloth when it is made up with many embellishments into a pleated full-circle skirt. This is work for the Hmong people themselves. The finished skirt, while very beautiful, is integral to the costume belonging to Hmong women as a means of expression and ethnic identity.
There are many other ways that this beautiful indigo-patterned cloth can be used by outsiders. It can be made up unto cushion (pillow) covers and other furnishings. It can be made into shirts, dresses and incorporated into clothing of all kinds. Finished pieces can make unusual table cloths, runners, placemats and coasters.
While the washing process by the artisan should remove most of the excess dye colour, newly-made Hmong batik may still run somewhat in early washes. Therefore, it should be washed separately using cold water and only soap or mild detergent.
Eventually, the indigo will no longer run and will give years of pleasure in the home or as a favourite article of clothing. While well-used pieces will eventually fade a little, they take on an ageing quality which is most attractive.
Known in Thai as “nang taloong”, the shadow puppet theatre has been a form of village entertainment for many centuries. The shows are usually performed by just one puppeteer with one or two assistants.
It is thought that this type of puppet art originated in Indonesia and quickly spread to several other areas of SE Asia, especially in several parts of today's Thailand.
Touring all over Thailand, in the past, Nang talung shows were a popular night-time entertainment which included social, educational and political messages – often as thinly-disguised satire. (It was the forerunner of film and television. A way to get messages and information to the common people)
Today, there are only a very few families remaining who still perform nang talung, usually at special events, weddings, funerals, temple fairs, etc. Most live in the southern provinces of Nakhon Si Thammarat and Phatthalung.
The puppets are silhouettes of (usually well-known traditional) characters and objects used to tell a story. They are jointed in the limbs and mouth which can be moved with an attached stick as the story is told. The puppeteer sits behind a white cloth screen with a light just behind where he holds up the puppets so the characters appear to the audience as a shadow.
A skilled puppeteer can manipulate several characters at the same time. He will also speak the words of every character which he makes up as he goes along. An assistant will add percussion noises to add to drama, using instruments of a traditional Thai band. (This embellishment is still used in many Thai TV dramas and comedy shows today.)
The puppeteer is also the master craftsman making the puppets, a skill handed down through generations in family or community groups.
The few families still making the puppets for their nan talung shows have adapted their craft to make intricate pictures, usually of Thai scenes, landscapes, mythical animals, religious themes, etc. They can be framed or mounted and backlit.
More recently, many of these pictures have been coloured so they can be framed without a backlight. These are popular with tourists who can carry them easily back to their country and frame them at home.
Income from selling these pictures helps support a family group, enabling them to maintain their puppet shows, which are only in demand for occasional events.
The skills needed for making the pictures are the same as those used for puppet making. This ensures that future generations need not loose the age-old craft skill which is at the heart of this traditional performing art-form.
Both the traditional puppets and the more modern pictures are made from cured cow or oxen hide (skin).
Sticks from pared bamboo stalk are used as handles to manipulate the puppets
Various colour agents (poster, acrylic, oil paints) are used to colour the pictures. These days, puppets made to sell as souvenirs are coloured black with red embellishments.
The tools used are mostly handmade by the craftspeople themselves.
The pattern outline is drawn onto the leather, usually freehand, with a pencil.
Using a small, thin and very sharp knife, the main outlines are cut. As leather is supple and strong, very thin lines are possible.
For the detail, tiny chisels of many various shapes are used with a wooden or horn mallet to punch out small holes that create the pattern.
The artisan will traditionally use a wide sawn tree trunk as a wooden block to work on.
Though relatively simple in procedure, this work is highly skilled and would take a newcomer a very long time and much patience to attain a standard even close to that of the master puppeteers and their families.
How to use
For those who are not puppeteers (i.e. most of us) these products are artwork, probably for decorative use only. The traditional puppets themselves are very attractive but can be quite difficult to display.
The pictures (in natural brown, black or multicoloured) can be framed or mounted in a variety of ways that best suits the surroundings.
These products represent a memento of Thailand depicted in an unusual way. This makes it interesting not just to the visitor to this country but also to others who may have never seen artwork cut from leather in such a highly skilled way.
This is certainly an ancient craft well worth keeping alive. The more people who know and appreciate its skill, the better the future will be for both this craft and its related ancient performing art of shadow puppets in Thailand and SE Asia generally.