Thailand Week Two II: Studio Naenna Workshops and Museum Visit

In my last blog post I talked a bit about Studio Naenna in Chiang Mai and all the amazing work they do there. In this blog post I will be talking about my time there, doing their weaving and Indigo dyeing workshops.

The weaving workshop is a one to one workshop. I used a traditional Karen back-strap loom and worked with naturally dyed cotton. When I arrived the staff showed me different patterns I could create (using only vertical lines). After choosing a pattern, the next step was to choose my colours. I chose four colours for my warp: blue (indigo), orange (anato seeds), yellow (jackfruit) and light green (jackfruit and indigo) and a darker blue (indigo) for my weft. I spent most of my first day winding the threads into balls, and then setting up the loom. I enjoyed doing this and it was nice to see the whole process, instead of just weaving which is what I did in Mae Wang. 

Because I didn’t have enough time, we ended up combining the weaving and indigo workshops.  My second day at Studio Naenna, the morning started with harvesting Indigo. We went to a field half an hour away from Nimman. A friend of Patricia’s owns the land and they grow the indigo plant there, (Khram in Thai, Indigofera Tinctoria in Latin). We spent around three hours harvesting.  The plants can give two crops per year, one at the beginning of the rain season and one at the end. The plants are harvested when the flowers appear. 

When we returned to the studio, we tied them into bundles using a khram stalk as a cord. After weighing (118 kgs of indigo leaves and stalks were harvested) the bundles were placed in large bins with enough water to cover the leaves. Then we weighted them down with rocks. Khram indigo requires 24 hours of soaking, so we covered the bins and left them for the night. Overnight the water turned into a peacock green with a strong but fresh smell and fermentation bubbles. 

Being too tired because of all the harvesting and the hot weather (30 degrees!) I went home after lunch instead of continuing my weaving workshop. 

The next day, the bundles were removed. The small leaves were removed with a sieve. The bundles and leaves can be used as organic fertiliser, so there is no waste! In order to collect the indigo pigment from the green liquid, we added 1.5% powdered slacked lime. (To collect the indigo it has to be precipitated by oxidation.)

The next step was to forcefully beat the lime into the green water by scooping and pouring buckets of the liquid by hand continuously for about 20 minutes. (Very tiring - my arms were hurting so much after this!) The liquid changes colour gradually from green to deep indigo blue and some froth is formed. It is ready when the bubbles start to burst and dissipate. The liquid needs another night to precipitate, so we covered the bins and left them overnight. 

Like I mentioned in the previous post, one of the things I liked the most about this studio is how the seven people that work there all helped each other out. Everyone went to harvest and everyone sat together to make the bundles and beat the indigo. Seven people that specialise in different things, from dyeing to weaving to sewing to dealing with orders and owning the studio. The indigo making process was collective.

The next day, the liquid in the bins was clear brown on the top. We carefully took that out and threw it away. At the base of the bins was a thick liquid, which is what contains the indigo pigment. This was then collected by first pouring it through an open sieve to remove any excess plant matter and then through a fine cloth to collect the indigo paste. The indigo paste was stored in lidded plastic bins in the shade.

I didn’t stay for enough time to see how they use the paste to make an indigo vat. However, Patricia gave me lots of detailed information and a recipe! 

The traditional Thai method of making a successful indigo dye vat is by developing good bacteria in the vat. If you use this way you will definitely have a very beautiful and strong blue, however it needs constant attention and care. Patricia is the master of this - she has indigo dye vats that are as old as me

I spent the rest of the afternoon weaving, simple / plain weave. It took me a while to not make mistakes and have an even tension, but my teacher was lovely and helped me out. Her name is Ann and she is Thai, she didn’t know much English but still she helped me a lot and corrected my mistakes, showing me what I was doing wrong. I love how even though most of the teachers I’ve had in this trip couldn’t speak English they taught me so much. It’s amazing how textiles and crafts in general can connect people. Trying to explain by hand gestures and always with a smile - it’s something I will always remember. 

To make the indigo bacteria vat, the indigo paste is mixed with ash water. The paste is slowly mixed into the ash water by gently rubbing it with your fingers until it is completely dissolved. According to Patricia, around 1 kg of paste requires 10L of ash water. In Thailand, traditionally, you mix these in ceramic jars with basketry covers. Until the liquid in the vat turns green and bubbles appear in the surface, you are supposed to ‘feed’ the vat daily, in Thailand they use fermented water or tamarind pulp. This ‘feeding’ and preparation might take between four to ten days. The vat should be left in the shade, and you should also mix it daily. The PH of the vat should always be about 10. After a few days, the vat should begin to show an inky crust and the liquid should be greenish - this means it’s ready to be used for dyeing!

That afternoon, I continued my weaving. I love the process of weaving - the repetitiveness for me is meditating. While I was weaving at Studio Naenna, I found myself relax in a way that I hadn’t for a long time. The rhythmic movement of the shuttle going from one side to the other, brought me peace and made me unwind and calm down. After weaving everyday for four days, I felt much more balanced. I didn’t manage to finish the table runner I was making, but - guess what I did! I bought the loom and sent it to Greece! Even though my back hurt quite a bit, weaving is something I want to definitely continue doing in the future - and I will have a loom and a project waiting for me when I’m back! 

The last two days except from weaving I also did some dyeing - some indigo dyeing and shibori using one of the studio’s already made vats and also some plant dyeing with Juree, the studio’s main dyer. As I mentioned in my previous post, at the studio they use both natural and chemical dyes. In the past I think they were more focused on natural dyes, now however, they have a lot of clients who prefer really bright colours that cannot be achieved with natural dyes. Still, they do a lot of natural dyeing mostly for their wall hangings and less for their clothing. They use plants from their garden but they are also contacted every time their neighbours cut down trees for safety reasons etc. While I was there this happened - a tree close to the studio was cut because it was doing damage to a house. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the tree but we cut some of the bark off and used it to dye some silk skeins. The colour was a beautiful yellow. 

Here are some of the plants they use and the colours they make:

Anato (seeds): orange
Betal (nuts): brown / beige
Burmese ebony (inner bark): beige
Coconut (husk): beige / light pink
Cutch (wood): dark brown
Ebony (fruits): black / grey
Fresh indigo (leaves): green
Indian mulberry (roots): red
Indian trumpet (bark): yellow
Indigo (leaves): blueJackfruit (wood): yellow
Pomegranate (fruit skin): yellow
Sappan (roots and wood): pink / red
Stick Lac (resin and insect): pink / red

A very interesting fact I didn’t know, is that in Thailand after they dye the silk with natural dyes they put it into a mixture of water and flour (yes, baking flour) and massage it. It makes the silk softer and it’s easier to weave with!

Indigo Dyeing: 

Before dyeing with indigo you have to stir the mixture in the vat. You also have to take a small amount out, you can use a small bowl to take some out and leave it to the side. After the dyeing you put it back in - this helps to strengthen the fermentation quickly because it has fresh enzymes and bacteria, which are needed to break down the indigo pigment. 

You have to make sure you scour your yarn or fabric. Soak them in water, and squeeze them dry. You then put the damp yarn / fabric into the vat and gently rub under the surface in order to make sure the dye is distributed evenly and there are no patches. After a few minutes, you can remove the yarn / fabric. The excess dye is squeezed out (back in the dye) and you open up your material to oxidise. As soon as it is exposed to the oxygen in the air you can see it change from green into blue. For a light blue you should repeat this 3 times. It is important to remember that many short dips give a stronger binding of colour to the material rather than fewer, long dips. In order to achieve a really dark blue you have to repeat this around 15 times. After you achieve the colour you want, you rinse your material until you make sure the water runs clear. You should soak the material overnight in water and rinse again the next day to release any residual alkalis. Then dry the material and it’s ready for use. Indigo made in this way is dye fast. Any blue colour that may leach out is already oxidised and will not discolour other items in the wash. With time the colour will soften, but that is the beauty of natural indigo. 

When I did indigo dyeing with Patricia she showed me a few tie-dye shibori techniques. I was given two pieces of fabric and had to choose two techniques to use. I chose one called Bomaki or ‘pole wrapping’ and the other one is called Mokume which is a stitching method

I loved my time at Studio Naenna, I learnt so much and I felt like part of the studio while I was there. I would definitely go back to learn more about natural dyeing or weaving. All the staff is wonderful and I really recommend you do a workshop there if you are in Thailand and interested in textiles!

Highland People Discovery Museum Visit: 

My FAVOURITE museum in Chiang Mai! This museum celebrates the tribal heritage of the region surrounding the city. It features a dedicated exhibit for each hill tribe, providing information about their history and lifestyle. There are beautiful costumes, textiles, musical instruments and artefacts as well as informative videos. 

There are six major hill tribes in Thailand - Karen, Hmong, Akha, Mien, Lisu and Lahu with a combined population of about one million people. These groups which are also known as highland tribes/people live in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Most of the groups have migrated into Thailand in the last 200 years from China, Tibet, Myanmar and Laos. 

The largest hill-tribe group is the Karen hill-tribe (population 550,000). Most of them live west of Chiang Mai, settling in valleys. Their houses consist of one room which serves as both the kitchen and bedroom. There is usually an outside area to relax and weave. Besides rice, they grow vegetables, chillies, cotton and tobacco. Men are also excellent mahouts (elephant keeper/trainer).  Religion among the Karen varies, however the great majority of Karen in all areas are animists or Buddhists. 

The Karen women weave their own clothes. Karen women use back-strap looms. Unmarried women wear loose V-neck shift dresses often decorated with grass seeds at the seams. Married women wear blouses and skirts in bold blue and red. 

One of the most famous sub-groups of the Karen are the Padaung/Kayan group, which are also called ‘long-neck’ because of the columns of heavy brass rings they wear around their necks (in the older times to protect themselves from tigers)

The Hmong hill-tribe (population 200,000) are found widely in Northern Thailand but also in China, Vietnam and Laos. In social organisation, the family stands as the most important basic unit of all affairs. They usually live in high altitudes, growing rice and corn. They are criticised for heavily engaging in opium production, more than other hill-tribes in Thailand. The religion of the Hmong is a combination of animism and shamanism.

There are different subgroups, the Blue Hmong (also known as Black or Striped), the White Hmong and the Flower Hmong (mostly in Laos and Vietnam). Blue Hmong women wear short indigo coloured skirts which have pleats all the way round. The patterns on the skirt are drawn with beeswax (Batik method). They also wear long-sleeved jackets with embroidered panels on the front. White Hmong women wear white skirts for special occasions and indigo-dyed baggy trousers for everyday use. What is really special about Hmong clothing is that it is made from hemp. Hemp is naturally grown, harvested, spun, woven, dyed, sewn and embroidered by the Hmong women. Hmong people are also famous for their chunky silver jewellery

The Lahu hill-tribe (population 100,000) originated in the Tibetan Highlands. They can be found along the Burmese border in the North. Lahu villages consist of bamboo huts with stilts on steep hillsides. The women are distinguished by black and red jackets, and the men by bright green baggy pants. Their clothes have a lot of embroidery, embellishment and appliqué. 

Akha hill-tribe (population 87,000). Every Akha village is entered through ceremonial gates decorated with carvings to indicate to the spirit world that only humans shall pass. These are called Lok-kah, and it is believed that ‘by entering you leave the dangerous world of forest spirits and enter the human realm of the village’. They are strictly animists with special concentration upon ancestor worship and spirit offering. 

Women wear elaborate headgear consisting of conical wedge of white beads interspersed with silver coins, topped with plumes of red tafetta and framed by dangling silver balls. Their clothes usually consist of embroidery and appliqué.

The Mien hill-tribe or Yao (population 48,000) originated in China. The Mien live on the high mountains and are animists, who practice various rituals. They place importance on ancestor reverence and make sacrifices to them. Sacrifices of pigs and chickens are made to the spirits of their ancestors. They believe that women and men are equally important and they also believe in supernatural powers.

Mien women wear long black jackets with bright scarlet lapels and heavily embroidered loose trousers and turbans. Their pants are intricately embroidered with various patterns. Mien like to use cotton which is dyed black or indigo. Mien children wear specially-made hats, which are differentiated by the sex. Boys’ hats have small red pom-poms on the top. Girls’ hats have a large pompom on the top and smaller red pompoms above each ear. 

The Lisu hill-tribe (population 30,000) originated in easter Tibet, are now found in Chiang Mai. They are divided into three subgroups: the White or Pai Lisu, the Flowery Lisu or Hua Lisu and the Black  or He Lisu. In Thailand, you can only find the Flowery and Black Lisu. Like most hill people, Lisu are heavily engaged with cultivation. They grow rice, corn and vegetables. 

The women wear a blue or green knee- length tunic, with a wide black belt and blue or green trousers. Men wear green, pink or yellow baggy trousers and a blue jacket. They are well known for their appliqué technique and colour combinations. They also use silver to decorate their clothes.  

There are also some other smaller ethnic groups that live in Laos and Thailand such as the Khamu, Lua, H’tin and Mlabri. 

The Khamu are farmers, they grow rice, corn, peanuts and chilli. They believe in house spirits and they do rituals regularly. They can be distinguished by their skirts, their base is red with embroidery and weaving patterns in other colours. They also wear black jackets that are embroidered and embellished with silver coins and beads. Their hats are also embellished with coins as well as colourful strings and/or red fabric. 

The Lua or Lawa are only found in Thailand. They are believed to be the first settlers in North Thailand. They are animists who like the Thai combine their traditional beliefs with those of Buddhism. The women wear long red and black skirts which are usually embellished with red beads. They cover their heads with white pieces of fabric. They also wear yellow and orange necklaces. The men usually have pink hats and bags. 

The H’tin can be found in the northern Lao - Thai border area. They live close to rivers and grow rice and corn. They believe in animism and are also very skilled basket weavers. Both men and women cover their heads with white sarongs. The women wear skirts with red and black stripes and black blouses which have embroidery in the middle

I spent around three hours in this museum and could have easily stayed for more time, however I had a plane to catch so I had to leave. It’s a really nice museum, it provides you with a lot of information about the different tribes - their beliefs, customs, everyday life and of course textiles. I really suggest visiting. 

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