The Thai (not to be confused with people from Thailand ;)), probably started migrating southwards from the Southern Chinese Province Yunnan in the 12th century. Nowadays, the Thai live across China, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam (some also in the USA). With a population of ~1, 5million, the Thai make up one of the biggest ethnic groups in Vietnam where they mainly reside in the north-western region.
In Vietnam, there are two sub-groups recognized, namely the ´Ngành Đen´ (´Black Thai´) and the ´Ngành Trắng´ (´White Thai´) who differ in dialects, customs and clothing ;). The Thai belong to the Thái-Kađai ethno-linguistic family.
If not wearing their traditional clothes, the Thai can easily be mistaken with the Kinh from the outside. They are also recognized as smart business people and farmers with advanced wet rice cultivation techniques. On the other hand, the Thai hold on to their traditions and are renowned for their folk songs and their weaving skills.
The Thai are well known for their cotton farming and weaving skills as well as they specialise in the making of silk. The quite bulky weaving looms under the stilted homes of the Thai are a distinct feature of many villages. Girls start to learn spinning and weaving cotton and silk at a young age. Generally, those who are skilled (i.e. demonstrating diligence and patience) are considered to make a good wife and mother ;). The men specialise in blacksmithing, though the art of making disinguished bracelets and earrings is getting scarce.
In the Tree Hugger, you can find many different hand-woven fabrics or items made from hand-woven fabric made by the Thai. The items vary as much as they vary with the Thai who use fabric for making clothing, shawls, blankets, shoulder bags or ceremonial cloths. As some weaving techniques are very sophisticated, particular items may even not be made anymore and are only handed on to the next generation. Finishing a meter of fabric can take a long time, considering the cultivation of the cotton and the production of the silk, the spinning process, the setting up of the loom and, indeed, the hand-weaving.
Have you seen a loom that is being woven on already? You may have noticed a knife left on the warp yarns on the unfinished fabric/yarns that were not tied to the loom yet. This is to protect the fabric from a mischievous spirit who may try to make a mess from the yarn ;).
As the name already tells, this is probably the most basic weaving technique: a single weft thread goes over and under the warp thread and only the fixed heddles are used, whereby one lifts the 1st, 3rd, 5th thread a.s.o. and the other one lifts the opposite.
While it is a little complicated to explain, it mainly means, that in addition to the plainweave, an additional pattern will be created with another thread and heddle. In supplementary weaving, the pattern will usually remain symmetrical. Supplementary weaving can be continuous or discontinuous, whereby the former means that one thread is used all along one row. Discontinuous means that a thread is not used in the entire row. The thread is either woven into the weft with a shuttle or tied around each string by hand.
Thai fabric can sometimes easily be recognized, especially if the so-called tapestry technique was employed. Hereby, the weaver only uses her fingers to interlace the threads. Older fabrics or fabrics of a little higher value likely also feature silk threads. These can easily be mistaken with cotton, as it is raw silk fibre and not the widely-known thin silk used for commercial silk scarf weaving. If you slightly go over it with your hands, it is easy to feel the difference of the material.
The weaver has no set pattern before starting, creating the motif mostly by memory and adding coloured yarns by hand. Where two threads meet, these are twisted/interlocked around each other. Only the fixed heddles of the loom are used and weavers work from the back of the cloth. The weft is entirely the pattern thread, no ground weft is needed.
Woven on a traditional loom, designs can easily become very complex. Motifs and patterns are often inspired by the natural environment (represented e.g. by trees, flowers, clouds, water, lightning, birds and other animals) or by mythical creatures from legends and folktales. That certain motifs only exist with the Thai and a few other ethnic minorities also has to do with their Buddhist beliefs (Theravada).
In general, the designs are based on the weaver’s flourishing imagination or may have even evolved from interactions with shamans. Well-known motifs are e.g.:
Nagas: Though commonly not found on fabrics in Vietnam, the Thai still weave Naga motifs into their cloths. While Nagas can appear as humans or other animals, these are generally considered to be water serpents. Usually, Nagas guarantee protection from illness, hunger or bad spirits, but may also use their powers for a little evilness ;).
Hong Birds - half bird half elephant - are less found on Thai fabrics. The birds are believed to be of great beauty and may be used as a metaphor for women that are of a higher class. The elephants represent, amongst other, respect and strength.
Ancestor spirits: ancestor spirits most commonly have a human-like shape, but also resemble a frog or a gibbon, symbolizing rain and reproduction.
While largely based on realistic figures, motifs are also combined creatively, additionally turning into powerful ‘hybrid-animals’, e.g. lion feet are added to elephant legs, serpent bodies to elephant trunks, as well as these may be connected to each other in little stories. You may e.g. find Nagas inside Hong Birds bellies or ancestor spirits riding on the back of Hong Birds.
The Thai practice a mix of Theravada Buddhism and Animism and live matrilineal societies in which women enjoy high recognition. One of the most important Gods is the Mountain God who is worshipped to guarantee a good harvest, and care for the right amount of rain.
The Thai are socially organised in so-called ´ban muong´ (villages) or ´phia tao´ (social structure).
Folk dances, instruments and songs: In Vietnam, the Thai are widely known for their folk dances and songs. One of the better known dances in Vietnam, is the ´mua xoe´ whereby the dancers hold hands and perform different situations (e.g. weaving, welcoming, offering).
The widely-known ´Tinh´ is a string instrument, in the broadest sense maybe resembling a banjo. It is made from dried gourd, mulberry wood and twisted silk cords and mostly played during ceremonies and special events.
Food: Thai minority cuisine is, interestingly, based on the elements of Yin and Yang, facilitating the decision about what spices or fruits can well be mixed together. The Thai are known for many dishes, including roasted or dried buffalo, beef or chicken meat, green sticky rice, bamboo shoots, or ´cham cheo´, a spicy sauce made from different herbs.
Housing: The White Thai live in stilt houses with four-sided roofs. Because of their bigger size, the floor-standing looms are often placed underneath the typical stilt houses (for the White Thai).