WEAVING A WAY OF LIFE In the Northeast, women find strength, merit and status through textile production.

Pichaya Svasti

The Northeast of Thailand, also known as Isan, has long been famed for its jasmine rice and handwoven silk. With their strong yet soft hands, Isan women not only make beautiful silk fabrics from delicate threads but also weave purpose and hope into their lives. "Weaving is a socialisation process for Isan women," textile expert Suriya Smutkupt said. "Weaving for Isan women is a way of life from birth till death. Isan girls are capable of weaving once their feet can touch the pedals of the looms."
Since 1980, northern-born Mr Suriya who once taught in the Northeast, has tried to answer an important question: "Why do rural Isan women weave?"
In other words, how important is weaving to rural Isan women socially and culturally?
To unlock this secret, Mr Suriya and two fellow researchers, Pattana Kitiarsa and Nanthiya Phuttha, conducted a study into the historic, economic and other dimensions of Northeastern textile production.

RELIGIOUS: A handwoven fabric featuresmaha vessandorn jataka, a tale based on a previous incarnation of the Lord Buddha.

The answers lie in their paper, "Ways of Isan Weavers: Development of Textile Production and the Changing Roles of Women in Contemporary Isan Villages" (1994). The study was conducted in Ban Kood Ta Klai, in the Khao Wong district of Kalasin, Ban Tae in the Uthumphon Phisai district of Si Sa Ket and Ban Thong Chai (formerly Ban Ja Poh) in the Pak Thong Chai district of Nakhon Ratchasima.
What the study found was that Isan women weave for three major reasons. First, weaving is part of their way of life, their village culture, the socialisation process and a rite of passage. Second, Isan women can use weaving as a means to play a bigger economic, social, political and religious role. This reflects the equality of the status of men and women, and the nature of their supporting and complementary roles. Third, Isan women's social and economic role has increased. Many women earn extra income for their families by weaving silk.
"Girls will begin by weaving simple cotton fabrics like pha khao ma," said Mr Suriya to explain weaving as a rite of passage. "When they become women, they will weave and present fabrics to their in-laws on their wedding day. When they become mothers, they will weave the best silk for use when their sons are ordained as monks. At later stages of life, when their eyesight is bad, they will weave fabrics for religious ceremonies and white fabrics for their own funerals," he said.
Mr Suriya started his field studies on Isan weaving in 1980 at Ban Tae, Si Sa Ket province. His first paper, "Traditional Weaving and Womanhood", discussed the idea that textiles and the weaving process are not just for the purpose of production. They are social and cultural procedures that are a complicated and important way to define life as well as women's social role.
Suriya Smutkupt and Pattana Kitiarsa's "Isan Textiles: An Anthropological Interpretation" (1989) and "Conservation of Local Textiles: Experiences from Isan's Anthropological Laboratories" (1991), as well as Pattana Kitiarsa's "Women in Phuthai Culture" (1988), clearly state that the major responsibility of Isan women is weaving.

TIME-HONOURED: Many Isan women still weave using traditional methods and patterns.

This duty is the fruit of the socialisation process and a rite of passage that evolves so women can achieve "womanhood" as expected by their communities.
"In Isan, many people live in small traditional huts. These are built on stilts with a roomy area underneath called tai thoon ban, where looms are usually placed," Mr Suriya said.
He said textiles and weaving are also a major means for women to play a bigger role and achieve higher status in their communities.
Earlier studies by his team explain that mutual support among men and women, a major role in economic and family affairs for women and relatively equal status of the sexes are common in Northeastern villages. In other words, men and women complement each other as members of the family and the community.
The research found there are three major things to indicate the status of Isan women is socially equal to men's.
First, in most Northeastern families, the youngest daughters will not leave the family home after they wed. They will stay with their parents and later inherit the house, farmland and cattle.
Second, after they marry, the man moves into his Isan wife's house and under the care of his in-laws, who provide guidance and counselling to the newlyweds for a successful and happy marriage.
Third, Isan boys and girls are taught their social roles by their parents and relatives, making for a network of mutual social support.

A Northeastern woman uses traditional silk production methods.

For example, girls learn how to weave from their mother and her relatives while boys learn the art of basketry, making fishing and hunting gear, farming tools and sometimes pottery from their father and his relatives. This reflects the working relationship and cooperation between Isan men and women.
"In the past, men would make looms for women," Mr Suriya said.
Despite a certain level of equality between men and women, Isan women in the past lagged behind the males in several aspects. Few had the opportunity to go to school. None could become ordained - the greatest merit-making activity in a Buddhist's life.
To Isan women, weaving is a means to make merit so as to have a better situation in the next life. Although women cannot be ordained, they can make great merit by weaving pha yao, sarongs, pha khao ma and yellow robes for their sons' ordination ceremonies.
In addition, it is tradition that mae yai or mae thuad (grandmothers) in Isan villages make cotton and silk threads, clothes and pillows for presentation to temples during the annual Buddhist ceremonies. Isan women also weave thoong phawes, or flags, for decorating temples during ceremonies for mahachart sermons, according to the paper.
"In the past, Isan women lacked learning opportunities but shared the same dream of weaving fabrics for wrapping religious scriptures. There is an old saying, 'Those wishing to go to heaven may unwrap lower garments in temples'," Mr Suriya said.

Mudmee silk is a staple of the Northeastern weaving industry.

This saying is not a dirty joke. In fact, unwrapping lower garments does not mean undressing in temples. It means making merit by presenting temples with brand new handwoven textiles for wrapping religious scriptures.
Apart from being part of the way of life and raising women's status, weaving activities also reflect women's changing role and social responsibility in accordance with economic need.
Mr Suriya pointed out that women are one of the foundations of development in the Northeast.

Yellow handwoven robes hang on a line.

Nowadays, women enjoy greater job opportunities. Many of them work for the Support Foundation - initiated by Her Majesty the Queen to promote local handicrafts in Thailand and train poor farmers to be artisans - and other employment promotion groups. Many others work in big cities or abroad but are still capable of weaving.
Many Northeastern women who leave their villages for jobs elsewhere when they are young will return to their hometowns to farm and weave after they are married.
As wives and mothers, they can share what they have learned in the outside world, including modern weaving and marketing techniques, Mr Suriya said.
"When it comes to textiles and women in the past and present, Isan women who either had to sell their bodies or worked as maids would return to a traditional way of weaving after retiring," Mr Suriya said.
Despite many social changes, a number of Northeastern women stay at home as their family's moral pillar.
Two or three in 10 women still weave. They have chosen to stay home and live simple yet happy lives. Although they wear modern outfits, they still weave in a traditional way.
"Weaving and textile production are still Isan women's work. Weaving is their source of pride and a way of life," Mr Suriya said.

Bangkok Post