Woven art for life

Asian textiles expert Paothong Thongchua shares his love for antique royal and Tai fabrics through a new exhibition

Colourful like flowers, exquisite like art pieces and glittering like stars _ these are more than 150 antique textiles from palaces, local and ethnic communities in Thailand and other Asian countries. The Centuries-Old Tai Textiles Exhibition in Ayutthaya is the fruit of Asian textiles and culture expert Paothong Thongchua's passion for antique fabrics.

King Rama V’s ceremonial gown.

"The displayed objects are antique textiles collected by me for about 38 years. They belong to either Tai cultures or the Royal Siamese Court. The collection includes the apparel of Siamese monarchs and foreign rulers," Paothong noted.

To be held at the Support Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand (Sacict) in Ayutthaya until the end of this month, the exhibition showcases antique textiles of many groups of people using Tai language in various countries. These textiles are at least 100 years old; some date back more than 200 years.

The exhibition as a whole comprises three major but smaller shows _ one on Her Majesty the Queen's tasks concerning textiles, one on the evolution of apparel in the early Rattanakosin period and eight types of royally-initiated traditional costumes, and one on antique textiles.

Asian textiles expert Paothong Thongchua.

According to Sacict director Pimphan Charnsilp, the exhibition has three major themes _ royal court textiles, fabrics of various ethic groups and cultures, and antique fabrics from foreign lands.

The first group includes King Rama V's ceremonial gown, a Shan ruler's ceremonial gown and a minister's uniform from the reign of King Rama IV. Other outstanding pieces are pha lai yang, pha lai nok yang, pha yok ngern thong (gold and silver thread-adorned fabrics), pha khem khab, pha attalat and pha sompak poom, a kind of silk fabric granted by kings to bureaucrats for indicating their positions.

The second part features textiles belonging to ethic groups and nationalities such as Tai Yuan, Tai Lue, Tai Phuan/Lao Phuan, Tai Yai (Shan), Lao Krang, Tai Song Dam, Phu Tai, northern and southern Isan. The third section presents textiles from Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, China and Bhutan.

Along with one of King Rama V's ceremonial gowns, highlights include Phaman Kammalor (a curtain used with the old Sri Suphannahongs royal barge) and Luntaya Acheik tube skirts from Myanmar.

King Rama V's long-sleeved and buttonless ceremonial gown was made of a transparent fabric from Europe. The whole length of the garment and its sleeves are finely hand-embroidered with gold and silver strips and beads in the images of flowers. The rims of its sleeves were embroidered in a special style called samrod khob. The tradition for royals and bureaucrats to wear ceremonial gowns to important royal ceremonies is believed to have been inspired by traditions in Persia and India. Different styles indicate different titles and positions.

Phaman Kammalor was made of ordinarily woven fabrics with lai song motifs, applied with four or five tiers of sa paper and decorated with gold lacquer, metal strips and small, thin mirrors. In the past, such curtains were used on the four corners of three important royal barges _ Sri Suphannahongs, Anantanagaraj and Anekchartbhuchong _ and a throne called banlang kanya was placed in the middle of the vessel.

Phaman Kammalor , a curtain used with the old Sri Suphannahongs royal barge.

''The exhibition even features a curtain of the Sri Suphannahongs royal barge, woven with the thong phae lawd technique which almost vanishes. Only the lifting technique and cut-and-paste technique are used in making such curtains at present,'' Paothong said.

Also on view are a few Luntaya Acheik tube skirts which are about 130-150 years old. These were worn on the lower part of women's body by Burmese royals and elite. They were made of silk and flat gold strips and woven with the koh and luang (tapestry weaving) technique. In Myanmar, ''luntaya'' means ''100 shuttles'', referring to the small metal or wooden shuttles that are required to construct the double-interlocking tapestry weave structure. Acheik refers to the wave-like motifs. Popular motifs include seven horizontal curved pink lines referring to Mount Meru _ the centre of the universe _ flowers referring to Himaphan Forest and the silver lines of water waves meaning the Sitandara Sea. According to Paothong, all the fabrics on display are valuable in terms of history and literature and can be used as examples for those interested in weaving, studying ancient motifs and designing new patterns.

''The unique qualities that the fabrics of Tai people share are the use of hand-weaving techniques with hand-weaving tools [khi thor mue], not weaving looms, the use of natural threads from plants and animals only and the use of natural colours,'' Paothong said.

He believes it is strange that people living in different countries knew the same techniques _ how to use indigo (khram) to create the blue, sticklac (khrang) for red and ebony (maklua) for black. These are main colours for natural paint dyeing.

Worn as chongkraben by men in the past, pha poom belonged to Tai Cambodian and Tai Lao cultures. This piece was woven in Surin province with the ikat technique.

The centre hopes the exhibition provides younger generations with knowledge about the value of antique woven fabrics and the diligence and intellect of their Thai ancestors.

Paothong said: ''Knowledge which can be gained from this exhibition includes various weaving techniques. Some of these techniques no longer exist in Thailand. Some of them are rare to find elsewhere except in textbooks. This is a good opportunity for people to come see and learn about rare textiles.''

For example, the yok mook technique (increasing vertical threads for weaving) is scarcely used in Thailand now, but was widely used about 150-200 years ago. In addition, pha lai yang and pha lai nok yang demonstrate the batik technique (beeswax painting) which was very popular in the royal court of India but is rare to find now.

In Thailand, the double-interlocking tapestry weaving technique (koh and luang) is found in Nan province only and called lai nam lai. In tapestry weaving, weft yarns are typically discontinuous. Artisans interlace each coloured weft back and forth in its own small pattern area. It is a plain weft-faced weave with threads of different colours worked over a warp to form the design. In Myanmar, this difficult technique is used on each fabric called Luntaya Acheik.

Paothong concluded that textiles help bring back the past for people to learn and understand. The way modern-day people dress, live and eat changed from the past so much that they cannot imagine the way people lived centuries ago. They can see the past from the way people in the past dressed _ in sarongs, chongkraben and pants _ which depended on different climates, geographies, occupations and ways of life.

Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara, Her Majesty the Queen's deputy private secretary, said after presiding over the opening of the exhibition: ''No matter where fabrics are from, they reflect diverse cultures, peoples, contacts and trade. These things should be kept as historical records for young generations to learn about our country's long-time existence with various races, cultures and ways of life. There will be nothing left if the new generations do not preserve them.''