The fabric of society

Textile museum's inaugural exhibition celebrates HM the Queen's contribution to the well-being of Thais

Her Majesty the Queen was allergic to dust, her deputy private secretary Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara recalled. Yet, the Queen would gradually roll out and closely inspect sheet after sheet of dust-tinged woven fabrics brought to her by the late Thanpuying Suprapada Kasemsant, Thanpuying Charungjit and the special team who were sent to scout the rural areas in the northeast of Thailand in search of the cultural heritage hidden in the threads of this home-made commodity.

The historic building of Ratsadakorn-bhibhathana, which was constructed during the reign of King Rama V, is now used to house a massive collection of ancient textiles and the royal dresses of Her Majesty the Queen.

That's the genesis of the Foundation of the Promotion or Supplementary Occupation and Related Techniques, or the Support Foundation as it is better known.

"Before 1972 - the year Her Majesty sent Thanpuying Suprapada and myself to visit villages in the northeast - young rural people no longer wove fabrics. They all started to wear jeans and T-shirts. Before that, you didn't even have a silk shop. When you wanted to buy silk, you went to the rice shop since it was where weavers offered fabrics in exchange for rice," said Thanpuying Charungjit.

We all know the rest of the story. The glory of Thai silk and its multiple patterns and techniques have been revived and commercialised, with HM the Queen as the true pioneer in silk usage and her Support Foundation as the key dynamic in both grooming new weavers and craftspeople, as well as being the centre for all silk and craft-related trade.

That, however, isn't the end of the journey. Like all those weaving patterns and techniques that would have once almost been lost had HM the Queen not lent her helping hand in resurrecting them, the cultural legacy encapsulated in these threads of silk would simply disappear - or, as Thanpuying Charungjit fears, are locked up in some private collection and oblivious to the rest of the world - unless there's a place where they can be stored and preserved in their best condition. That's the genesis for the latest project under the Support Foundation - the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles.

Located just inside the compound of the Grand Palace in Ratsadakorn-bhibhathana Building, the museum is an endeavour to assure the preservation of Thailand's textile arts for future generations. Its nine-year creation is a story in itself, with everything starting from scratch and just when those scratches began to take shape, the progress was eclipsed by the death of renowned historian Acharn Smitthi Siribhadra, who had laid the foundation for the entire operational and creative structures of the museum.

"Before I came back to work at the museum again after completing my degree, everything I'd done was internship. Without Acharn Smitthi, I had to find a way to count 1,2,3,4 again," said Piyavara Teekara, the head officer of the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles.

"We have to learn everything on the job, and do several things at the same time. While we were researching for the exhibition, we had to train conservation staff and everyone working here is still in the process of learning."

Nine years in the making and Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles is finally ready for public opening with an inaugural exhibition that celebrates the hard work of HM the Queen represented through each and every thread of exquisite royal ensembles created by both Thai and international designers that Her Majesty has worn on various different occasions.

Staged across four galleries, the exhibition is divided into three sections. Gallery 1 houses the showcase "Artistry in Silk: The Royal Style of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit", which features more than a dozen of Her Majesty's designer ensembles all made from hand-woven textiles produced by members of Support. Gallery 2 demonstrates Her Majesty's ingenuity through her work in creating the Thai national costumes in "Fashioning Tradition: Queen Sirikit Creates a National Dress for Thailand". The final two galleries are dedicated to accentuate the whole point of Her Majesty's beautiful dresses, which is to create a sustainable career and self-dependent livelihood for Thai people as epitomised in the Support Foundation - "For Love of the Country: Her Majesty Queen Sirikit Creates the Support".

"We exhibit first the national costumes and point out Her Majesty's visits to the people, which isn't just merely visiting. Her Majesty has established a way for people to have better quality of life, have a supplementary occupation and extra income. Both Their Majesties had intention to help farmers and Thai people have good quality of life from good health, education and also a career. Weaving is something people in the rural area had been doing for so long, albeit only for their own household use and some bartered, exchanging fabrics for rice. She has paved a way for them to make a living from what they are used to doing," added Thanpuying Charungjit.

Looking at the majestic display that incorporates state-of-the-art facilities to preserve and exhibit the precious items - both Her Majesty's dresses and a few rare ancient woven fabrics - it's not difficult to understand the effort put into its lengthy making. The exhibition display cases are all climate-controlled while the illuminance in each gallery doesn't exceed 50lux, which is proved to be the best condition to preserve textiles.

In Gallery 1, a tablet is installed alongside each dress to provide information on the ensemble, the commissioned designer, the techniques and fabrics used as well as the occasion during which the dress was worn. Multimedia presentations are incorporated in the other two sections, including video footage and slides showing Their Majesties' overseas visits, which culminated in the birth of the Thai national costume. In the last section on the Support Foundation visitors can listen to interview excerpts from everyone in the special team sent by HM the Queen to the rural area to find and purchase hand-woven textiles, watch a video that shows the silkworm breeding cycle, and see a notebook featuring fabric samples and notes, Her Majesty's desk, types of silk threads and patterns as well as the embroidery work and local crafts HM the Queen has been supporting through the Support Foundation.

"The exhibition gives you the knowledge of what Her Majesty has been doing during her visits to the upcountry in the past decades. The exhibition is an example of how Their Majesties have been working hard in helping people all their lives, which people of the younger generations may not be familiar with anymore. It's not about the beautiful dresses, it's about the hard work and the long endeavour that span decades, in order to improve the quality of life of people in Thailand," concluded Thanpuying Charungjit.

In Gallery 1, visitors can see sublime creations, most by French couturier and founder of Balmain, Pierre Balmain, and his successor Erik Mortensen, who along with the Parisian legendary embroidery studio Maison Lesage demonstrate how hand-woven Thai textiles can be transformed into beautiful dresses for all occasions.

Gallery 2 traces the history of Thai national costume as seen through several traditional Thai dressesHMthe Queen wore during overseas visits as well as the reception of various royal guests. Also on display are old images of court dresses from the past, which once served as the reference point forHMtheQueen and her team of experts and specialists in creating what we know now as the eight styles of Thai national costume.

The final section of the exhibition revolves around the true significance of all the beautiful dresses: Her Majesty’s endeavour in improving the quality of life of Thai people. The exhibits in Gallery 3 and 4 give visitors a glimpse of the origin of the Support Foundation, Her Majesty’s tireless involvement and commitment, as well as information on some textile patterns and embroidery techniques the Support Foundation has been preserving.

About the author

Writer: Samila Wenin and Photos by Yingyong Un-Anongrak