An initiative of Narrative Made, The Textile Atlas preserves a record of disappearing Asian crafts with their reflected cultural stories, and provides a resource platform for both the commercial industry and academia.

Culture of: Tai Lue’s Mirror-like Textiles, Thailand

Culture of: Tai Lue’s Mirror-like Textiles, Thailand

Words & photos by Sali Sasaki

Pua District, Nan Province, Thailand – Spanning across southern China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, the migration of the Tai Lue group is intricate, and even researchers have struggled to trace back its roots due to changing historical facts. “The original settlement of the Lue was the traditional kingdom of Sipsongpanna with Chiang Rung as the center of administration. This was located in the southeastern part of present day Yunnan Province in China. The history of Sipsongpanna was however rather unsettled and is continuously changing.” – extract from Cultural Heritage of Tai Lue Textiles by Soangsak Prangwatanakun, Chiang Mai University © 2008. 

The Tai groups share many weaving techniques and patterns. Tai Lue women use a range of them, from weft ikat (Mat Kan), supplementary weft (Khit and Chok) to embroidery and cross-stitching. Tai textiles provide a mirror-like reflection on the state of local communities, including their social and livelihood structure. The nature of traditional textiles has long been attached to their strong connection to women’s role in the households. The purpose and use of textiles within a community directly influences a woman’s role in a village setting. Traditionally textiles were a means for a woman to show that she could be a good wife. Ahead of her marriage she would carefully prepare a number of items such as a decorated mattress, pillows, bed sheets, mosquito nets and curtains for her new home.

A weaver-entrepreneur who produces textiles in Pua to sell in Chiang Mai

A weaver-entrepreneur who produces textiles in Pua to sell in Chiang Mai

Mat Kan (weft ikat) in purple, a color that is typical for Tai Lue skirts made in Pua

Mat Kan (weft ikat) in purple, a color that is typical for Tai Lue skirts made in Pua

A photo album used by a weaver to remember older patterns and design structures

A photo album used by a weaver to remember older patterns and design structures

With changing lifestyles, weaving has now transitioned to a supplementary source of income for rural families who make a living from farming. These days, modern supply chains influence what and how women weave: “textile buyers want us to produce faster and cheaper, so many patterns have become much simpler than before and we are sometimes supplied with synthetic fibres because they are cheaper and easier to use.”

In Nan Province, Tai Lue costumes were traditionally composed of the sua pat, a simple indigo-dyed blouse without any decoration and the pha sin (traditional skirt) which are usually composed of a red waistband often made with both cotton and silk yarns. The design structure of the skirts may combine weft ikat and supplementary weft, or just simply use weft ikat. The stripes are unevenly placed and give the skirts their special character.

Migration across borders and coexistence between various groups have influenced the stylistic composition of Tai textiles over the years. In Pua, a few weavers have admitted to mixing styles in order to come up with new designs. The gradual transformation of local textiles is a cross-cultural experiment that is not calculated or planned. It is an intangible and organic process of cultural re-invention that only weavers can manage to steer in their own particular way.

The structure of a Tai Lue tube skirt displays the range of techniques used

The structure of a Tai Lue tube skirt displays the range of techniques used

A little boy with his grandmother spinning cotton yarn in Pua

A little boy with his grandmother spinning cotton yarn in Pua

Profile of: Bagru Textiles, The Indelible Art of Indian Block Printing, India

Profile of: Bagru Textiles, The Indelible Art of Indian Block Printing, India

Profile of: Wan Mei Du, Master of Miao Double-sided Blackwork Embroidery, China

Profile of: Wan Mei Du, Master of Miao Double-sided Blackwork Embroidery, China