Southern-Style Fabrics

The neighboring Malay culture and the imported Chinese, Indian, and Arabic cultures have greatly influenced southern art and culture. However, many localities have developed their own signature fabrics, such as the intricately woven design pha yok from Nakhon Si Thammarat; pha phumriang from Amphoe Chaiya, Surat Thani; pha Ban Na Muen Si from Trang; and pha ko yo from Ko Yo, Songkhla. All these fabrics are made into garments and other items for special occasions, such as a decorative piece of cloth used in a wedding ceremony, a funeral, and a prayer.

A piece of “phan chang” fabric from Ban Na Muen Si, Trang.

Northeastern-Style Fabrics

The majority of the northeastern Thai people are Lao descendants. There are also Cambodian descendants scattered in Surin and Buri Ram. These ethnic groups have different cultural heritage, which is highly visible in their dialect, traditional costume, and belief systems.

Most of them, however, share basic cultural beliefs and practices common among people in agrarian communities. They spend 7-9 months from the rain to the cold seasons on planting and harvesting. The 3-5 months of summer are for making preparations for the planting season and repairing tools for everyday use, as well as for some entertainment and religious festivals. A traditional saying “After the rice planting season, women weave fabric and men strike iron,” clearly summarizes local activities and practices.

Northeastern farmers grow cotton and mulberry trees (for silk worms) simultaneously with rice planting. After the rice harvest, the cotton will also be ready for the harvest. Villagers will then begin the fabric production process. They weave both cotton and silk fabrics for different occasions. Many localities have their own

signature fabric. For example, the hole and prom fabrics are from the Lower Northeastern areas of Surin, Buri Ram, and Si Sa Ket. The khit designs are especially popular among the Lao descendants in Maha Sarakham, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, and Chaiyaphum.

Northeastern fabric is different from that of the northern people. The stripes and designs run vertically along the length of the wearer. A robe usually has only one seam, which is carefully hidden and invisible under the front fold of the robe. The northern fabric, in contrast, runs the stripes and the patterns horizontally across the wearer’s body. A northern robe often has two seams. When worn, one will be visible in front and the other at the back of the wearer.

In addition to fabrics for clothing, people also make other items to meet the market demand, such as bags, handbags, tablecloths, doilies, napkins, scarves, shawls, and bed spreads. Silk from the Northeast is very beautiful and second to none. HM Queen Sirikit has recently encouraged people to continue their weaving art. She has graciously included their weaving art to the SUPPORT Handicraft Center’s programs under her royal patronage.

Silk threads in “matmi” design.

Central-Style Fabrics

Many ethnic people in the Central Plains were immigrants from Laos. Some were from the northern city of Chiang Saen. They have retained their ethnic culture in fabric making and costume. Most of them make cotton robes for home use, and silk robes for temple visits or for auspicious occasions. Chiang Saen descendants in Uttaradit, Saraburi, and Ratchaburi, for example, still preserve their northern cultural heritage in dressing style. They still make intricate embroidered borders for robes called “tinjok.” The Thai Song Dam in Khao Yoi, Phetchaburi, for instance, still weave and wear their traditional costume made from cotton fabric: a black or dark blue robe with red stripes, and a blouse of the same color. If they are about to go to the temple, a decorative piece of cloth will be placed on their shoulders. Many other ethnic groups maintain their traditional costume in the similar way.

The Central style of clothing varied from one ethnic culture to another. In general, however, they still dressed conservatively. The changes came in the reign of Rama V when imported western outfits and dressing style soon replaced the Siamese traditional attire in the Central Region.

A full-size robe with “tinjok” border.

Northern-Style Fabrics

The northern highlands comprise of various ethnic groups with their own traditional costume. The Thai Yuan, or Khon Mueang, in the plains and in the city areas, for example, have their own dressing style much different from that of the hill tribes.

In the old days, male Thai Yuan descendants wore a piece of thigh-length wrap, in order to show off elaborate tattoo designs on their body. They did not cover the upper part of the body, but they wore a long decorative piece of cloth across the shoulders. The aristocrats, however, wore a shirt with a long piece of decorative cloth tied around their waist. Women wore an ankle-length robe with horizontal stripes but no blouse. They covered the upper part of the body with a wrap and did their hair in a high chignon decorated with a hairpin or flowers. This dressing style has been depicted in several murals in temples around Chiang Mai.

Presently, local Lanna women wear long robes, but they also wear blouses instead of chest wraps, the practice observed since the Fifth Reign.

The blouses are usually made from off-white cotton in a T-shirt pattern with a buttoned slit along the front. Men wear indigo pants and shirts made from specially dyed fabric called “mohom.”

In addition, there are still many kinds of
homespun fabric made in hill tribe villages.
They also make several kinds of fabric items
such as northern-style decorative flags,
blankets, and other household items.

“Nam lai”fabric design.

Traditional Thai Clothing

Clothing normally serves as protection from severe heat or cold. In ancient times, human beings must have clothed themselves with any natural materials available. Later, they must have made simple woven wear from certain fibrous plants such as flax, jute, or pineapple leaves, before knowing how to acquire threads and how to weave fabrics from cotton, wool, or silk.

After having learned to acquire silk thread and to make silk cloth, humans must have learned coloring with natural dyes from readily available plants such as the indigo dye from the indigo plant, the black dye from ebony fruits (Diospyros mollis), yellow from jackfruit wood or cumin, red from Sappan wood (Caesalpinia sappan), green from leaves of wild olive (Vitex pinnata, LABIATAE), light green from leaves of cork wood trees, and khaki from teak leaves

It has been hypothesized that humans must have developed weaving techniques from knitting. Weaving gradually became more sophisticated with the invention of percussion loom about 1,800 years ago. The tool had made weaving much faster. In Europe, this had led to a breakthrough in human history, the Industrial Revolution, when machines were invented to replace human hands in cotton mills in the mid-19th Century CE.

In Thailand, however, back-strap looms or handlooms are still in used for certain kinds of materials weaving, especially in some rural villages around the country.

Fabric Designs:Art Woven withThai Wisdom.

Rollers made from terra cotta unearthed at Ban Chiang indicate the printing (or rolling) of patterns on fabrics in solid colors. Certain archeological fragments discovered support the idea that early fabric designs may have been similar to those on pottery, such as spiral, saw tooth, coiled rope, or wave designs. After human communities had developed and become more complex, certain patterns for example, naga, serpent, hemsa, or peacock designs must have been invented to signify group identities.

Since the Sukhothai Period, the Golden Age of art, Thai artisans had invented many new designs from the surrounding natural objects, and from some mythical characters after their imagination, as reflected in unearthed pottery fragments. There were three methods to imprint these designs on to the fabrics: by embroidering, weaving, and painting. However, certain designs were reserved for nobility or dignitaries. Therefore, fabric designs were not simply artistic expressions but they also denoted subtle stratification in the fabric of Thai society.

Local Fabricsand Attire

The Siamese formerly dressed very simply, with “a piece to wear and another piece to wrap” themselves-as a Thai saying goes. Men usually covered the lower part of their body from the waist down. Women had something to wear and to wrap the upper part of the body. Most of their clothes were home spun. Wealthy people may have imported fabrics from abroad, but they were careful not to “emulate the lords and masters,” by wearing certain kinds of valuable and rare clothes reserved for nobility. As a matter of fact, in the late Ayutthaya Period, there was a decree to forbid commoners to use certain kinds of fabric and clothing reserved for dignitaries. The decree was repealed in the Fifth Reign (1868-1910), when western attire was adopted and widely used in the court as well as among commoners.

Local fabrics and dresses that commoners used in their daily life, however, reflected both ancestral wisdom and local belief systems. They can be regionally divided into four areas.