Making of: Teen Chok in Tai Yuan Textiles, Thailand
Words & photos by Sali Sasaki
Mae Chaem District, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand – The Tai Yuan’s ancestors are the founders of traditional polities (muang) in northern Thailand, which previously formed the Kingdom of Lanna of which Chiang Mai was made the centre in 1296. Today the Tai Yuan group is mainly present in the north (including Chiang Mai, Chiang Saeng, and Chiang Rai) but is also located in central provinces of Thailand.
Mae Chaem is a windy road trip across the tree-covered mountains, typical of northern provinces, almost two hours away from the city of Chiang Mai. The area is home to different groups including the Tai and Karen, however, the weavers are not easy to find and the most talented weaving communities are like best-kept secrets, quietly hidden from public view.
With their distinctive diamond patterns, the colourful Tai Yuan textiles of Mae Chaem have found a niche market among local communities as well as urban residents from Chiang Mai and beyond. Their intricate woven details make them very valuable and sought-after textiles in Thailand. A local explains: “see the details of this part of the skirt, the technique is called ‘teen chok’, the value of the skirt depends on the weaver’s time spent on the ‘chok’.”
‘Teen chok’, is the skirt border distinctive of Tai Yuan textiles from Mae Chaem. Chok is a discontinuous supplementary weft technique that is used by most Tai groups in Southeast Asia*. It consists of using a stick, a porcupine quill or fingers to pick out warp threads to which a supplementary yarn is threaded while still on the loom. It is a time-consuming process because the yarn does not pass from selvedge to selvedge, hence making it “discontinuous”. Generally, it takes a month to weave a few centimetres. The main yarn used for Tai Yuan skirts is yellow cotton, which is either produced locally or imported. The thick supplementary threads for the skirt borders are sometimes mixed with metallic or silk threads, following a traditional Chiang Mai court style that combines different materials on a single piece of garment. Today the majority of local weavers in the area are unable to explain the symbolic meaning embedded in the textiles and instead refer to family habits and also customer demand to justify the choices made for the patterns and style.
In the communities around Mae Chaem, it is apparent that young women do not commonly practice weaving these days and often migrate to urban areas for other work opportunities. Locals are not concerned about this transition and do not seem to be imposing any pressure on the younger generations to continue the practice with the guidance of elder women. With the decreasing skilled weaving population in the area and a growing niche demand for Tai traditional skirts among young Thais, authentic Tai Yuan textiles are likely to increase in value in the future.
*Presently, Tai groups in Thailand include Tai Lue, Tai Khoen, Tai Yai, Tai Yuan, Tai Mao, Tai Phuan, and Lao.