Isn’t the English language wonderful? In the title “Weaving Communities” you probably read ‘weaving’ as an adjective – that is, communities that exist about or for weaving. But, weaving is more usually a verb: the art of forming something, (a fabric or a fabric item; a basket, a story, a rug, a community…) into a pattern by interlacing long threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle.
As I mentioned last week, I had the pleasure of visiting a number of villages in Surin; villages where both meanings are true. These are communities of weavers who produce beautiful textiles, and it is the act of producing these textiles that binds the community members together and allows the communities to grow and flourish while staying grounded in traditional values and practices.
Traditionally, women and girls produced silks and cottons for their household to use and to present to the local temple. In the old days, bells were attached to the moving parts of looms, so that local bachelors knew that ‘a modest, hardworking, diligent girl’ who might make a good wife, was hard at work. Every village in Surin has at least one loom, and although weaving usually only takes place in the free time when the rice harvest is in, most villages these days manage to produce silk for sale, to supplement their meagre cash-crop income.
Some communities, however, have taken the traditionally sought-after Surin silks to a whole new level. The first place we visited, Thasawang Silk Village, has been developed into an atelier of world standard by Ajarn Weeratham Trakulngernthai. A. Weeratham studied Arts before returning to the village to expand the silk production there to such an extent that he was chosen to design and produce the gift-silks for the international leaders visiting Thailand for APEC, 2003. He also produces much of the silk used by the Thai royal family.
This community of artists is involved in every aspect of silk-making. One purpose-build open-air building houses two-story looms operated by three or four workers.
Silk sales take place in expensive up-market shops, street stalls and in the downstairs open areas of village houses; anywhere that the community has a bit extra to sell and the buyers are ready.
Surin boasts 700 traditional silk designs, many which were of Khmer origins. They involve complex weaving or dying processes, or both. Many villages produce “Mut Mee” or tie-dyed silk. The warp threads are wound onto a frame of the correct size, banana fibre is carefully tied around sections of thread according to a specific pattern, and then the whole frame is dipped in dye. When the dye is dry, the fibre is carefully cut away and the undyed spots are dabbed with other colours.
What impressed me, even more than the silks, however, was the way silk production, as a community cottage industry, drew the neighbourhoods together. Because it is such a labour-intensive and important industry, there is meaningful work for everyone, and the loom or looms become the village centre. At Ban Khwao Sinarin, when it was getting too dark for the carful attention that preparing and weaving Mut-Mee silks require, the traditional instruments came out and the singing and dancing started. The undisputed star of this impromptu “show” was the master-weaver’s eight-year-old daughter. One of my Thai companions said: “I am so glad that this is still happening in my country!” I completely understood her emotional pride.
It was truly an enchanting experience, and a reminder of the true value of locally produced, hand-crafted products. ‘Till next time…