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The Ministry of Making on Tour.

Indigo Roads; Northern Thailand

From Chiang Mai along the Mekong to Luang Prabang, in search of the secrets of sacred indigo.

After a fabulous time running our Xmas Craft Fair for Makers, at Peckham Pelican, some of us at the Ministry of Making Household decided to take some time out, for rest and recovery in sunny Thailand.

However, being a maker means that no holiday is ever really a holiday. It's just a chance to investigate new skills, find out what materials are available in your chosen holiday destination, and after a few compulsory days on the beach, we set out in search of the rich creative handmade things that are being made in this ancient and fascinating region. We discovered that there are many many tribal people living on the borders of Northern Thailand.

It was on a visit to a Tribal Village near Chiang Mai that we first started to see women sitting, beside their coffee and fruit juice stalls, making the most detailed and fine cross stitch textiles

But exciting and exquisite as these techniques were, it was the indigo batik that really got us going. The indigo dyed cloth even smelt strongly of plant material. We enquired many times to ask if the designs were made by tjanting or by stamp. Obviously there was a significant language barrier, but each time the woman shook her head "No. Not stamp. Each design is done by hand". We started to doubt our own knowledge, but looking closely again at the work.....

....we felt increasingly convinced that the patterns were too regular to NOT be stamped. The question was..."could we find anyone who could show us how these batik stamp textiles were made?"....... and where could we find a place to learn more about the subtle and complex techniques required to prepare an indigo dye vat?"

We often saw these wonderful repurposed garments for sale, and discovered that each new year, Hmong Tribal women prepare a new skirt from scratch, using the cross stitch tapestry techniques onto hemp, and wax batik, again onto hemp, and dyed with indigo. However, when we asked in the handicraft shops about where to learn or even just observe indigo dyeing, we drew shrugs and blank looks. Either our communication was getting lost in translation, or no-one wanted us to find out the dark secrets surrounding the indigo vat.......however, a chance encounter on facebook led us to the wonderland workshop of STUDIO NAENNA in Chaing Mai. We encountered a Patricia Cheeseman, a textile artist who was educated in Truro, Cornwall, but who has spent the majority of her life in Laos and Chiang Mai. She generously welcomed us to her studio, and at last, we gained insight into the mysteries of Indigo. Patricia also explained some of the symbolism behind the designs in Hmong Tribal textiles.

For instance, the snail is a symbol of family growth and interrelatedness. The centre of the coil of the snail's shell symbolizes dead ancestors. The outer spirals are the successive generations, and the double snail shell represents the union of two families and also symbolizes the spinning motion used in many spiritual chants. Shapes of designs, expressions of nature, and spiritual depictions all have specific meaning. Different Hmong groups may have different interpretations for designs that are considered the "real" ones. The overall pattern of the symbols, however, is common to all Hmong groups.

Patricia has spent her life dedicated to researching and archiving Thai and Laos textiles. She is a specialist in Shamanic textiles, and we had arrived just at the right time, as she was exhibiting some ancient tribal textiles used by Shamans in Laos, and she let us into some of the secrets behind the designs and usage of these ritual craft objects.

Patricia also introduced us to her 27 year old "Grandmother pot" of indigo. This pot has been giving colour for 27 years, and is wrapped in a cloth, and fed with barley, grains and sometimes a tot of whisky.

In our next post we'll let you know how we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from Patricia's fascinating studio, travelled for 3 days along the Mekong River, and came upon a wonderful Hmong tribe couple who answered the mystery of how the Hmong Tribal indigo batik designs are made...........

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