Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Weaving a Royal Yarn

Roderick Eime visits the villages in Thailand where Her Majesty Queen Regent Sirikit has helped to preserve the ancient art of traditional Thai silk weaving

Deep in the Isaan jungles, away from the bustle of nearby Surin, is the tiny village of Ban Tha Sawang. It’s one of several villages around the region that specialises in the ancient and royal art of silk weaving, and holds special favour with the royal court.

Inside a shelter, a dozen young Thai girls are chatting and giggling, busily engaged in intricate weaving with fine gold and silver threads. More industry is taking place in adjoining rooms, where small looms and busy fingers weave the fine thread into glorious detail. The girls' nimble fingers delicately thread shiny Chan Soma silk thread strands together to make brocade with that signature sheen of true Thai silk that changes colour depending on how the light strikes it.

Royal silk, or Pha Yok Thong, is reserved for monarchs and heads-of-state and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s Promotion of the Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (SUPPORT) Foundation is striving to preserve its unique traditional weaving process. Thanks to the Queen’s personal funds, Ban Tha Sawang’s villagers have the facilities to produce the world-renowned silk. As well as establishing colleges and workshops throughout the country, the royal family helps to maintain the ancient craft by and ordering and wearing materials for themselves and visiting dignitaries. Queen Sirikit is a grand champion of Pha Yok Thong often wearing the fabric to state functions. And at the 2003 APEC conference, world leaders were presented with shirts and shawls fashioned especially from their special fabric for the occasion by the resident royal artisan and teacher, Ajarn Weeratham, and his team of 100 Ban Tha Sawang villagers from their special fabric. Ajarn also presented an incredibly intricate piece to the Queen as thanks for her birthday and an identical replica hangs in the village’s studio.

The enormous neighbouring building houses the huge hand-built loom. This complicated machine is made precisely to a traditional design dating back centuries. It’s an unwieldy device that requires four simultaneous operators working non-stop to produce perhaps two centimetres of fine silken yarn per day. The more complex designs, Ajarn says, require some 50 days to produce a single metre of cloth. That equates to 1600 hours of combined labour time. The cost: 40,000 baht (US$1500) per metre. Royal endeavours for a royal material, and one that shows no sign of decreasing in popularity.