New wall hanging collection "Mountain echoes"
I'm working in Sansai today. It's here - where the city of Chiang Mai gives way to rice fields, teak forests and the mountains beyond - that we have our textile design studio.
I'm working with Sudah, a young Karen woman from those mountains that I can see in the distance. Right now her elbows are resting on the table between us; together we've been working for several weeks on nearly a dozen new wall hangings, but the sketch I've placed before her is unlike the work we've done up to now. I show Sudah a photo on my mobile phone: dendrobium lindleyi. She recognizes the long, golden racemes immediately and flashes a smile.
"They're blooming on the ridges back home right now," she says. Like in the mountains of Sop Moei, this wild orchid bursts into bloom every summer, creating archways dripping in gold. It's a showstopper.
"Can you weave this flower on your loom?" I ask.
Sudah frowns. She's a skilled weaver, and a perfectionist to boot. For the past few years she has woven all of our "Naga" wall hangings. This is the pattern currently on her loom. The pattern is distinctively Lao, inspired by and adapted from an antique Lao sarong. But it is a pattern created to produce just one thing - a traditional Lao design. What I'm asking Sudah is if she can manipulate this pattern in such a way that it produces images it was never intended to do. Like bring forth a cascade of golden flowers.
I don't get a reply, but at least it's not a no.
Sudah studying a pattern, dendrobium lindleyi and finished wall hanging
Although the pandemic of the past two and a half years has been cruel to our business, it has nevertheless yielded one unexpected luxury - the gift of time. Time to gather leftover yarns from weavers in different villages, for sorting here in Sansai. Time to do maintenance work on the looms. And time, especially, for unhurried collaboration with our artisans on new textile ventures.
I walk across the room to a low metal chest, and pull out the drawers. Inside lie eight wall hangings, rolled up. I select two of them, return to the table and unroll them. These are wall hangings that we have done recently, but have never shown. They're part of this new collection, which I'm calling "Mountain echoes". I think it's best for us to review what we've already done, before embarking on a new design.
I unroll one of the hangings, which I call "Karen Red". There are four wall hangings in this series - all of them inspired by the images found in Karen homes and the natural environment. Here we've taken our cue from the traditional textiles usually found in Karen homes - blankets, garments, bags and also spices, such as chili, which the Karen grow on their farms. For these hangings, Sudah and I have worked on re-interpreting the ikat designs found in Karen skirts, and we've featured the dominant colour in Karen clothing and blankets; a particular earthy red which comes from the pounded root of a local tree.
Wall hangings inspired by the images found in traditional Karen homes
We unroll the second hanging which belongs to our "Echo" series. It's immediately apparent that this wall hanging is more complicated than the first. Here, two patterns mirror each other. While preparing the yarns and sketches for this wall hanging, I imagined myself in the mountains; it's early morning, and I'm standing on the steep slope of a rice field, ringed by forest. From the shelter of a nearby hut I hear the call of a Karen horn ring out, to be answered a few seconds later from the slopes of another rice field, on the opposite side of the valley. The horn calls bounce back and forth; other horns join in, some from rice farms higher up, others further down in the valley, where the early morning fog lies like a blanket. Sudah and I have tried to capture this by weaving patterns which echo each other, and we've used a palette of grays and rose to evoke the gray of valley mist, tinted pink by the morning sunshine.
The "Echo" series of wall hangings
I roll up the wall hanging and replace it with the sketch of the orchid that I want Sudah to weave. I've selected all the colours; I've prepared all the bobbins - the yarn samples are all taped to the sections of the sketch. But I am not a weaver. Within the limitations of this Lao pattern it's in Sudah's hands to determine how my plans can be woven.
I won't be able to help her tomorrow, because I have a trip to see other weavers back in Sop Moei. But before I leave I suggest to Sudah that we move over to her loom, to see if, together, we can work out the beginning points for the many colour inlays in this wall hanging. We've never done anything this complicated before.
I'm not much help here. There are over six hundred strands of cotton in this warp, and one of these is the starting point for each colour inlay. I can only roughly indicate to Sudah where the colour groupings will be; Sudah will need to do some sample work for pin-point accuracy.
I wave my drawing. "How long do you think it will take to weave this?" I ask.
"A week - perhaps?" replies Sudah.
I nod. It's pretty much the time I'll need for my up-coming trip to see the weavers in Sop Moei. Meanwhile I'll leave this project in Sudah's capable hands. It will be interesting to see what she comes up with.
"Mountain orchid", a wall hanging from the "Mountain echoes" collection
The new wall hanging collection "Mountain echoes" is now available in our web-shop and Chiang Mai shop.