Since coming to Thailand, I’ve fallen in love with all of the Handicrafts of the “Hill Tribes” in Thailand. Each Hill Tribe has their own patterns and colors which you begin to recognize as you move through the markets. Since I’m also a huge fan of anything made by hand, I jumped at the chance to attend a workshop demonstrating how the Lisu Hill Tribe do the weaving for their bags. It was organized by Lisu Patchwork and also provided insight into the Lisu culture.
It began with a bang as we toasted with their traditional corn whiskey. The toast was translated to ‘on your bum’ but perhaps that was lost in translation. Our wonderful host, Mimi, had brought two women from her village to give a demonstration of the weaving for their traditional bag.
As the women setup, Mimi explained design elements of the completed bag which added a wonderful depth of meaning to the common object. The traditional bag was used by men and women in their daily life and even after death in “another world”. The mirrored elements on the sides of the bags were the:
- “wings” – the strings that ran down the side of the bag, which could be used to fly to heaven
- “ears” – the intricate embroidery patches
- “leaves” – thick strips of fabric located beneath the “ears”
- “tail” – thin threads below the “leaves”
The most details were given about the “ears”. Bags with “ears” were for the living, while those without were considered ugly and used by the deceased. Earless bags were customarily given to the dead filled with necessities for use in “another world”, like a knife, money, rice, betel nut, cigarettes and a slingshot. So the ears were important! She explained that the delicate embroidery of the “ears” were harder to do for the older women so their son might have to find a young woman to barter with to make him “ears” for his bag, typically trading a popular soap. In this age though, “ears” can be made on a sewing machine although the bag is still woven by hand, taking about 4 days to complete(!).
The weaving demonstrated was for the shoulder strap and began with four sticks set in the ground forming a thin quadrilateral. The women systematically wrapped the yarn around the sticks, switching the loop on one stick every other string, while weaving a thicker thread through the lines on another stick (which seemed straightforward initially).
Traditional colors were demonstrated so a base of white thread began the pattern followed by strings of various colors which would be skillfully broken by hand and the new color quickly knotted to complete a color change. As the women would change the color, they would consider their Tribes traditional colors (and also ensure it didn’t look like colors from the other tribes.) Today, orange is a more common color for the pattern. It is considered a modern color and the same variety of colors are not used in the bag. The limited color makes it easier to complete setup and has fewer materials so the bag is quicker and cheaper to make. The workshop attendees all seemed to agree that the traditional bag was more attractive though.
We watched as the older woman skillfully switched out the threads and wove the pattern from her short stool bending over the ground. Once she’d completed her color pattern-work, she allowed us to try with the white thread, which we found was not as easy as she made it look. Most of us gave it a try and with a lot of hand gestures and encouragement from her, we managed a few lines of thread. Once we were satisfied with our attempt, she proceeded to undo all the white strands we’d added. 🙂
With the design set, the threads were removed from the ground and taken into the hut for them to begin to be weaved together. The hut had a long bamboo railing that could be removed and the threads looped around. A small piece of bamboo held the other end of the threads which was hooked into a wide belt that circled her waist. The belt and a pillow at her feet, to maintained the resistance, created the “free” loom for her to weave. She then applied a bit of magic (technical term when I have no way to describe additional steps) and the threads soon became skillfully woven together. Again we were offered to try this step but only one rose to the challenge.
Our workshop included a lunch of traditional dishes like a spicy radish salad, cooked mountain spinach, mountain rice (which grows with little water), and then a Thai vegetable stir-fry, which were all delicious. The dishes were seasoned sparingly, as dishes are just seasoned with fresh peppers (not black pepper) and salt. Mimi said Lisu also loved MSG in their cooking (calling many addicted) but they’d left out that ingredient for us.
During lunch she shared a Lisu story of a dog brining them rice when they had none. She said that was why the Lisu did not eat dog (it is considered bad luck) and when there is new rice, the first bite is given to the dog.
With lunch complete, we moved upstairs to the costume museum showcasing an impressive collection of Lisu costumes from the 70s. Another wall held a mix of the other Hill Tribe costumes. Where other Hill Tribes might weave their clothes, the Lisu only use weaving for their bags. Instead quilting is more common for decoration and other items created. An element in their quilting is called “dog teeth” but I’d neglected to ask if that was also connected to the reverence provided to the dog.
I did happily find a gift shop though and purchased some earrings of the “ears” that I’d learned so much about and of course, one of the bags as our wonderful demonstrator had made it. Mimi spoke of her work to return the focus of handicrafts to her village (that was more focused on agriculture). She saw the opportunity for the elders in the village, who knew the weaving skills but were not as fit to work on the farm, to create an income for themselves and also come together. In their village, most work and meals are not taken together. She saw that weaving would give them the opportunity to create and connect.
The workshop was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon and I’m looking forward to other events with the fantastic host Mimi, steeped in culture. Check out Lisu Hut or Lisu Patchwork on Facebook to learn more about their activities in Chiang Mai.
Other images from the workshop –
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