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Change and revival in traditional textile production:

Mai Chau, Viet Nam

Suzi Garner

click on image to go to enlargement - all text & images Suzi Garner

Nestled in the mountainous regions of northrn Vietnam, south west of Hanoi in Hoa Binh Province, is a valley inhabited by a community of one of Vietnam’s 52-plus minority groups, the White Thai. Mai Chau valley, as it is called, has for a thousand years or more been an ideal spot for subsistence rice farming (figure 1), fishing, gardening, and the development of a unique version of White Thai culture, even within the larger Thai culture of this Vietnamese minority. Protected from the floods and extremities of seasons that other regions experience, the Thai of Mai Chau are able to harvest two seasons of rice a year. Its relative isolation from the outside has meant exposure to some influences but the ability to maintain identity as a distinct culture within a larger world. Over the centuries of tumultuous change that Vietnam has undergone, (especially within the last century), they have yet maintained their language (at least spoken), means of livelihood, and the perpetuation of cultural practices.  However, in the last decade or so, Mai Chau valley and its people have been experiencing a transition in lifestyle unlike any other that has come before in its history: tourism.

The valley and the culture of the White Thai people are, by the standards of the recently popular backpacking and adventure travel industry, ideal. The landscape is magnificent, with patch worked rice fields surrounded by perpetually green mountains shrouded in clouds and mist at their peaks. The hamlets of the White Thai sit amongst bamboos and appear as islands in the midst of the rice fields. Each house has been made mostly by hand (collectively, by the members of each hamlet working together) of wood, bamboo, and palm thatch, standing on stilts. (Though more and more in the last decade houses have begun to be built using corrugated iron and other factory made materials). The dirt or gravel roads are always dotted with children playing and livestock. The air often has smokiness to it from the cooking fires. top

The Thai culture also includes complex methods of textile production traditionally used form clothing, ritual, and trading. The natural and cultural environment has inspired a huge repertoire of songs and dances executed by men and women at festivals and different celebrations of significant life events.

All of this has proved to be lucrative when space has been made and life reorganized to accommodate and profit from the incoming travelers. Conveniences such as refrigerators, running water, western style toilets, expanded roads to accommodate tour buses and generators for power outages have all become features of the villages since the arrival of the first tourists.  top

Having guests stay at one’s house has been directly profitable for some but not all have been able to accommodate guests and market their homes for such use. Much more far reaching has been the trade of textiles as souvenirs (figure 2). In Lac (Ban Lac), the village most heavily visited by tourists within the valley, every woman has now become involved in some part of this process. Each house one passes walking down the streets has dozens of scarves, handbags, shirts, pants, and purses displayed for sale (figure 3).

The performance of traditional music and dancing has also become a part of the tourist package. Four dance groups are now hired out by different guesthouses to perform their “cultural arts presentations” for guests. At peak seasons each troupe may perform their two hour-long performances two or even three times in one night. At such times, usually fall and spring, the population of Lac and other villages swells to four or five times its normal size with foreigners and now an increasing number of Vietnamese tourists from the city as well.  top

As one can imagine, the effects of this have been felt since the beginning and are constantly changing. Social relationships have been dramatically affected within the valley by the incoming wealth and the unevenness of its distribution. Also, the perpetuation of cultural practices through tourist trade has changed different aspects of the traditional arts. This article is mainly focused on outlining these changes, mostly invisible to tourists, through the words of one White Thai woman living in Lac village.

Kha Thi Thu, known to her friends as 'Thu', grew up in the neighboring hamlet of Pom Coong, and married into a family living in Lac at the age of 18. At 30 (31, if you go by her Vietnamese age), she has grown up and come of age during the most recent dramatic changes in the valley’s history. As a young girl, she experienced near starvation during the post-war agricultural collectivization and subsequent famines. Now she is a prominent figure within her community, working as a weaver (figure 3 and figure 4)and selling her handcrafts. She is also a member of one of the most popular dance troupes, and is the local census taker for the government. She participates in provincial festivals dancing and selling handcrafts. Recently she was one of three representatives from her province of Hoa Binh who attended the First National Green Productivity Convention in Hanoi. She is an intelligent entrepreneur and one of the most well connected members of her community both internally and externally with people in Hanoi.  top

Through several interview she has reflected upon the history and process of textile production, dancing, and the changes in social interactions within the village due to the tourist industry.

S - How old were you when you first started to learn how to weave?

T - About 13 years old. My mother taught me. First, you start [weaving] ones that are easy, and after that, a little bit harder, and by the time I was 16 I knew how to weave very well.

S - And when did you begin to weave fabric for tourists?

T - Oh tourists…lets see…I began, when I began I made indigo [dye] and wove fabric for my family. From about 14, 15 years old. When we began to have a lot of tourists I was about, between 22-25 years old. From 25 years old on I was weaving a lot more, because we had a lot of tourists.

S - How was the weaving done in the old days?

T - In the old days, in order to have thread, you had to work for very long, because you had to plant the cotton on the mountain. After that, you must wait about 3 months for the cotton plants to flower, and then harvest the flowers to spin thread. It took a long time, but the thread was very good. You can wear it for many years and it won’t wear out. But if we did all that for thread now there would never be enough for the tourists, or for selling in Hanoi…about 5 years ago, in ’97, we began to buy thread in Hanoi…because, its cheaper, and we had to start weaving a lot more. The other way takes too long.  top

[The change from hand-spun and hand-dyed thread used in weavings to factory produced thread has really changed the look and quality of the fabric. Not only are the colors obviously synthetic, being overly bright, but the thread is much thinner and breaks easily. This change has been accompanied by a decrease in the weaving of traditional clothes, to the point where the younger generations of women never wear the traditional skirt, shirt, and long bust wrap, except when dressing in it as the ‘costume’ of their culture. The production of hand-spun thread has almost completely ceased and the factory-made thread from Hanoi is not suitable for making either traditional or western style clothing for practical use as it wears out very quickly.]

S - To make an average scarf takes about how long?

T - Oh, that depends on the person who weaves. I can weave about five typical scarves a day (figure 4). About two hours for each, not long. But preparing the loom takes very long. It takes about 1 week to do, but then you can weave for a very long time without doing it again. If you weave a lot very fast, you can weave up to 300 meters in a month. But that’s really a lot. But if you’re weaving a harder pattern, it can take a lot longer. You can weave maybe 1.5 meters in one week.  top

S - Do you think the women weave more now than they used to?

T - Oh yes, much more.

S - Nowadays, weaving and selling textiles amounts to approximately how much of your total income?

T - Oh, it depends on the family and the woman, how much she weaves and sells. For me, my family, it’s about 50 percent of our income. Maybe up to 75 percent. A lot more than many, because I sell a lot here and to people in Hanoi.  top

S - And do you think it’s a good thing, weaving so much?

T - Its good if you have a lot of tourists to buy it!

S - And do you like talking with the tourists?

T - Yes, very much. But sometimes we don’t understand each other. Its hard to talk when you’re trying to sell something.

S - Do you think there are people who don’t like the tourists?

T - Oh, maybe in Pom Coong (they get less tourists but all the noise) but not in Lac. In Lac they like to make a lot of money. People also like to talk to them, to know about the world.  top

As one can see reading Thu’s words, textile production has become a vital source of income in Mai Chau. However, most tourists who visit have never seen a scarf or piece of fabric for sale that has been traditionally produced from start to finish.

A few months after this interview was done, I met in Hanoi an American importer traveling through Asia buying traditionally produced handcrafts to sell through his web business and store. I mentioned the current situation in Mai Chau, and he expressed interest in the revival of traditional textiles. It was arranged for Thu to produce a small quantity of completely hand made scarves as an experiment.  top

As the process began, Thu found herself often consulting her mother and other elders in the community for exact instructions on dying. “When it was done before”, she said, “I was much younger and I did not do all the work alone. So I can't remember everything”. She was shown which trees to scrape the bark from, how long to boil and soak, and how to get predictable results.

Thu decided to purchase hand spun cotton from a neighboring village, as the process was long and the importer was interested in getting results long before a crop of cotton plants would have begun to produce. So, using this thread, she cut the bark from an old tree located in a small copse right in the center of the village (see figure 5). This bark was then boiled in water and soaked for two days. The longer it is soaked, the stronger the dye, but as Thu told me, if you wait three days, the dye goes bad and starts to smell. Then, the bark is removed from the dye vat (as can be seen in the bottom corner of figure 6). The thread is lowered into the bath, squeezed until completely wet, and then soaked for 6 hours. Once removed, the thread is washed thoroughly, and when dry becomes a pink-mauve color. In a scarf made with this thread, the color and size of it has a less even, more organic look (figure 7).  top

Using different plants, including Indigo, the Thais can produce threads varying in shades of red, pink, brown, blue, or any mixture of the above colors, (i.e. red then indigo will give a purple color). In this first round of weaving, Thu used the mauve color to warp up the loom, thus all the scarves made include this color (figure 8). But the possibilities are many, and Thu is excited about the prospects of producing something traditional yet seemingly “new” and “unique” to sell to tourists. “If I can get the process to look nice, then more people will want to buy them”, she says. I confirmed this saying that indeed nowadays the Western taste seems to be for “organically” produced handicrafts (although the definition of organic is debatable).

After the making of these scarves, about 20 other women in the area have expressed interest in getting involved. This is favorable because it cuts down on the cost and labor of the process, with women then sharing the work of raising the plants and dying as a group.  top

The process is more labor intensive, so the scarves will be sold for more money. However, considering a normal scarf now is commonly sold for between one and three dollars, (depending on the adeptness of the bargainer), doubling or tripling that price for higher quality products would still be considered a good deal by most tourists.

Though a buyer for export hasn’t been found yet, Thu is confident that her contacts in the city will be interested in trying to sell these scarves along with the normal, factory produced thread ones. Thus, the implications of this revival could be far reaching, not only in Mai Chau. If the traditionally produced style proves popular with customers, it could then renew, on a market-wide scale, this ancient process and at the same time provide additional income.

to Jpeg 38K mc1 Women transplant rice seedlings in early July, the Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam.

figure 1

 

to Jpeg 32K mc2 Kha Thi Thu spools factory-produced thread for use in weaving, while her sister-in-law embroiders a purse to sell to tourists. The Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam.

figure 2

 

to Jpeg 45K mc3 Textiles on display for sale, on the bottom left, factory-made scarves and on the top left and bottom right, hand-made Thai fabrics using factory-made thread. Top right are Hmong pillowcases. The Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam.

figure 3

 

to Jpeg 31K mc4 Thu weaves fabric on the loom beneath her house which she shares with all the women in her family. The Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam.

figure 4

 

to Jpeg 57K mc5 The tree from which bark is removed in order to create a red or mauve/pink dye bath. The Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam.

figure 5

 

to Jpg 35k mc6 Thu lowers the natural cotton thread into the prepared dyebath. The Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam

figure 6

 

to Jpeg 44K mc7 The finished woven fabric has more of an unevenness to the weave and colors which is due to its hand-made nature. The Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam.

figure 7

 

to Jpeg 36K mc8 36K The completed set of scarves made in the first round of dying and weaving. The mauve/pink thread was used for the warp, thus all the scarves have this tint to them. The Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh Province, northern Viet Nam.

figure 8

 

 

click on image to go to enlargement - all text & images Suzi Garner

Suzi Garner is an artist and photojournalist who, for the 5 years prior to this article being published, has been keenly interested in Vietnamese and ethnic minority cultures of Vietnam. Her work centers around the effects of tourism on the ethnic minority cultures and the use of natural materials for traditional medicines, textiles production and in everyday life. She also likes to collect folklore and 'religious' or 'superstitious' ideas of the White Thai peoples in Vietnam. The article above was submitted to www.tribaltextiles.info in December 2003. (The photos in figures 1. - 4. were taken during a period of May - August 2000 and figures 5. - 8. were taken between March - April 2003). Contact Suzi especially if you plan to visit Mai Chau and want to be put in touch with her White Thai friends.

Stop press - March 2006: Suzi has just been in touch with the news that Thu was recently chosen as one of the delegates to represent Vietnam at the ASEAN Peoples Cultural Exchange Program in the Phillippines, for her weaving and dancing talents! As Suzi says 'Isn't it great that a minority form Mai Chau gets to represent her coutnry?' to which I would add '...and to be respected for her cultural skills'.

Stop press - April 2007: Suzi has been in touch to say: "I thought you might like to know, beginning now and for the next year and a half I will be doing a project with the community in Mai Chau to do the textile revival on a much larger scale. We will work with the Vietnam Women's Museum and as the women go through the process of remembering and recreating something new, they will be documenting it as well with cameras given by the museum. In the end there will be an exhibition, both in Mai Chau and at the Museum, including very old Thai textiles from Mai Chau, right up to the new. Interest is high and now that the government has supported them to plant mulberry and raise worms, the project will be completely 'local', in that all materials will be 100% organic. Everyone is very excited about it."


for a photogallery of Ban Lac village in 1995 see Southern White Thai weaving village

for background reading see references and Vietnam bibliography


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this page last updated 17 July, 2011