When the weaver becomes part of the loom


Proud Karen weaver with her work
Today we attended the Royal Project Fair that celebrates the King of Thailand’s support for sustainable agriculture as well as the hilltribe peoples’ cultures and self-sufficiency. There we found some beautiful phaa ngung gee e-ow. The best news is that it was being sold by the Karen weaver herself with assistance from 2 bilingual (Karen/Thai) young women.

We bought 2 of these pieces in red, constructed in a traditional way with 3 long, narrow pieces sewn together. Each strip was 15” wide and almost 2 yards long. Each finished piece makes a stunning textile that traditionally is wrapped around the hips or simply tailored into a tunic top. These beautiful cotton weavings can also be used as to create contemporary fashions or home décor: wall hangings, table coverings, cushion covers and other upholstery uses.

I’m not fond of going to language classes but I love talking with people at markets – especially with tribal peoples whose mother tongue is not the one we’re speaking – especially when we’re talking about weaving or food.

My “Word of the Day” was gee e-ow. The young woman who taught me gee e-ow apologized that she didn’t know the English translation. So I taught it to her. “Backstrap,” I said pointing to my lower back while saying the Thai word for that body part. Then I fell into another vocabulary void, so I mimed a strap going around my hips.

One of the pieces we bought
While I may not have known the word, I did know that Karen (aka Kariang) women are renowned for their skill at backstrap weaving. The Karen people are often described as a nomadic “hilltribe” people who have migrated from China. This is literally true but many Karen settled in valleys north of Chiang Mai long before it was part of the nation state called Thailand.

While backstrap looms have largely been replaced by stationary floor looms, some traditional cultures still create beautiful textiles with this deceptively simple technology in which the weaver becomes part of the loom.

The huipiles of Guatemala are perhaps the most widely recognized example of backstrap weaving. However, every year the women who excel at this art number fewer as these traditional cultural practices are lost.

Discussing good sizes for handwoven shawls
Today everyone was excited with our purchases, which also included several unbleached cotton scarves with a lovely texture. We told them about our business in Canada and they invited us to visit their village weaving group to learn more and, perhaps, to make a special order. This type of exchange often marks the beginning of a longer, fair trade relationship that is based on mutual benefit, learning and respect.

Until next time,