WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ARTISANAL?

Indigo Grandma in rice field in Sakon Nakhon

In 2015, arriving in a rural village in Isan with the help of Google Maps and phone calls with a lady we had yet to meet, we had no idea that this meeting would change our lives. It was our second roadtrip to Sakon Nakhon and we knew that indigo dye not just a color there, it is an artisanal way of life. It was this fateful meeting with Khun Mae Sa-ard and the ladies at Baan Dong Siew that would be the start of a relationship akin to that of an extended family. Like all families, there are ups and downs, sometimes we don't see eye-to-eye, sometimes we drift apart to be brought back together again. Ultimately though, there is love, exchange and mutual respect for each other and what we create together. 

Going to the village and working with the weaving and dyeing group always felt like being invited to the extended home of the women weavers and dyers. Often the weaving group, i.e. the co-op which the ladies belonged would be in the center of the village and it would be where the women would come together to share their woven textiles, to chat, to weave and dye. At the beginning, when we were still getting to know each other we would dye and wash with them, learning and understanding the process. Today, after several years, we've developed a language and various shades of colors together, when we say sky indigo, they know what we mean, there is a shade of peach that we love from Pradu that Khun Yai Hae can pick out in an instant. Khun Mae Sa-ard and Khun Yai Hae (they are in our film Finding Oasis) have taught us a lot, yet we know that it is also the new generation that inspires them. It always surprised and pleased us very much that Khun Mae Sa-ard was so open to our experiments, not judging us, nor protective of the indigo, knowing that it is of the land and community. She also admitted that the "crew" she loves most are the crew of young people that share with her fresh ideas and she hopes that some take on the crafts. To the Indigo Grandmas, these craft skills are passed on to them by their mothers, not by choice but by necessity, in the past, in a rural village, they wove what they wore, grew and harvested what they ate. Today, it is very different, there is trade, regional and international, there is a demand for hand-weaving and hand-dyeing thus it has grown far beyond a cottage industry, and the ladies, our Indigo Grandmas are able to makereal income to support their families from it.

What we have discovered along the way that inspires us deeply is how it is not about survival, but also about exploration of the craft, of evolving the patterns, creating new colors from old methods for the next generations. Today we work with several weaving and dyeing groups and they are all different. For us, working with the Indigo Grandmas and first generation artisans like Mann, is such a blessing, we relish in the human contact and exchange. It comes down to sharing stories and making things together, the relationships, thus the craft growing over time. And that what is irreplaceable is the time spent in making by hand, somehow this process perhaps able to transmit a feeling, an experience that cannot be replicated by machine, though the machines can no doubt record and document the processes and the experiences, even replicating the look and feel, but what we know is that there are no substitutions for the artisans themselves. 

Khun Mae Sa-ard said to us, 

"The way that you, young people see books, and formulas, you can compute but for us, old ladies, we can look at a the fabric and we can see the pattern, we know intuitively were to tie the yarn to make a flower, an animal. We know how to weave it so it tells you exactly what we see in our minds. It's what our mothers taught us."

The artisan - they are grandmothers, mothers, aunties, young ladies and young men too - but for us they are family, and they are at the core of what we do and what we want to share. We embarked upon this journey but it is not ours alone, we often think about how the artisans ad the artisanal community is so local but at the same time so international at once. We know that there is much more to this journey, from the experiences yet to happen and what we will create together, by hand in time. 

Fast forward to 2020, when we documented our journey in our visual essay Finding Oasis. We've come a long way since those early days . . .

three indigo grandmas looking at ikat indigo fabric

Still from Finding Oasis, cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom  

Mae Sa-ard, Mae Thong-pan, and Khun Yai Hae examining the Bowman Jumpsuit. We learnt from them that day that the pattern on the jumpsuit is called "ton son", or pine trees. The repetitive vertical pattern are the trunks and triangles the actual green of the pine trees  all lined up in a forest. They were surprised and amazed to see the one-piece Jumpsuit, the four meters of fabric used for the jumpsuit would typically be used for an official's suit jacket and trousers or skirt. No single jumpsuit is the same. No single Ikat is the same and each pattern tells a story. 

"PRATHANA" / HOPE IKAT

Ikat weaving is an ancient art, though still prevalent in SE Asia, it can be found in artisanal communities all over the world. The method of tying the yarn on a  frame then dyeing it to create a resist pattern, which then is woven is used to paint pictures and telll stories, whether it be drawn from mythology and folklore or simply the landscape which they see. There is another kind of pattern too, an expression of an idea, not abstractions of what they see but what they feel. Khun Mae Sa-ard shared with us a pattern she named "Prathana" which in Thai means to wish for, to desire, to hope. To her, this pattern represents exactly that, "Prathana" or hope, within the weft and warp of the thread, the multitude of possibilities in the shades of blue, the fine lines that separate the shapes. "Prathana" won an award in 2019 at the University of Sakon Nakhon.

TODAY, IN 2021, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ARTISANAL? 

What we are moving towards is an artisanal future, together with the Indigo Grandmas and our ever-growing community. Making things together, with our hands, shifting, changing and evolving, keeping the knowledge alive. 

- Chomwan and Philip

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