#6: Pa Da Cotton Textile Museum

Dec. 12, 2009

En route to visit Mai in Ban Tan in the North of Thailand, we stop at the Pa Da Cotton Textile Museum in Baan Rai Pai Ngarm, 70 km south of Chiang Mai. We turn off the highway into a straight gravel lane that's lined on either side with towering bamboo. Ahead, in the sunlight that filters through the dense clumps, slivers of dry leaves drift towards earth like a strange fall of snowflakes inside a green cathedral. I stop the bike so that Ellen can dismount and go ahead on foot with her camera at the ready.

Several hundred meters farther on there's a beautiful teak building shaded by large trees and surrounded by mature flowering shrubs. Like many traditionally styled wooden houses in the North, it sits on sturdy posts -- tree trunks really -- about 3 meters tall. This provides room below for a wide range of activities that are protected from the glaring sun of hot season and the heavy downpours of rainy season. Here the space is used as a weaving studio.

Above is the museum, which we visited last year. It's filled with traditional handlooms and other weaving and dyeing equipment, as well as photographs from earlier times. The museum celebrates and preserves the essential traditions of local cotton textile production, including the cultivation of native species of cotton and the use of natural dyes (tree barks, roots, leaves and berries). The museum is also a tribute to its founder, Mrs. Saeng-da Bunsiddhi.

Mrs. Saeng-da was born in 1919. Like most Thai and Lao weavers, she learned the traditional skills of dyeing and weaving from her grandmother. She learned additional techniques from the ethnic minorities who live in the area, an area rich in cotton textile traditions. Like most women of the time, she wove fabrics for her family's use -- including the khaki fabric needed for her husband's uniforms during World War II.

After the war, she began collecting weaving equipment and started growing native cotton plants. Together with other local women, she started the Housewives’ Union to increase income and employment opportunities, to preserve traditional dyeing and weaving techniques and to promote handicraft production. Initially, the women wove outside harvest season (as is often still the case) but the spinning, dyeing and weaving eventually grew to employ 40 of Mrs. Saeng-da's neighbours. Decades later, on the day we visited, we saw only 4 women at spinning wheels and 2 at looms.

We greet Mrs. Saeng-da's elderly daughter, who now runs the centre. As she leads us to the textile shop that sits behind the museum, she shows no sign of remembering us: this is not unexpected, given the number of foreigners who might visit during a year but it is unusual, as most Thais do remember us even if they’ve only met us once.

We place an order for 72 placemats in the same colours and pattern that we purchased last year. The colours -- intense indigo blues, rich greens and deep purples – are stronger than we usually find and the nubbly texture of the handspun cotton adds to their charm. The combination was popular last year and we expect it will be this year too.

We are lucky enough to pick up a few scarves in the same colour palette. All these pieces -- like the museum and weaving centre -- are unique to Baan Rai Pai Ngarm. They are also testaments to the hard work of Mrs. Saeng-da, who in the 1980's was declared a National Folkcraft Artist in Thailand. We're happy to recognize and help preserve these traditional practices through our purchases.

Alleson (Pii Plaa)

[Ellen's note: Thanks to Bhothong Keowsuddhi, Director of the Northern Industrial Promotion Centre, for background information, presented in a brochure distributed at the centre.]