When I read this post on Whip up it brought back memories of discovering the amazing textile handicrafts that come from this region of South East Asia. I realise I kind of take this knowledge for granted. I first started learning about the handicraft cottage industry of the various hill tribes and marginalised peoples when I visited Northern Thailand as long as 17 years ago. I have been back many times since, and each trip deepens my understanding and appreciation of the work I see there.
As a tourist it can be hard to get past the buying and selling thing - everyone wants you to buy and your dollars are worth so much, it is hard to make a real connection with crafters. Women from various ethnic groups congregate at markets and spread their wares on blankets on the ground, more organised and commercialised enterprises are showcased at stalls and sometimes even shops. Even when they have passed through the hands of one or more middle men, the crafts are still rediculously cheap for western foreigners.
It is easy to see supeficial things about these women and feel very distanced - their poverty, the juxtaposition between their traditional dress and their more modern trapings (like mobile phones), the way they keep their children with them late into the night as they go from place to place trying to sell their wares. In Northern Thailand too there is a big industry in visiting 'traditional villages' an experience which can be as voyeuristic and commercial as a visit to a zoo.
There is also a large number of hill tribes, some better known than others. The Hmong, Mien, Karen, Kayah, Shan, Lisu, Lahu and Akha also each have their own stories and origins in Tibet, Burma, Laos, and Thailand. What they share is a history of non-beloging and persecution - moving between different parts of different countries as conditions change. Many are fleeing war and religious persecution and have been doing so for many generations.
The other thing they share is a strong and resiliant tradition of crafting. Part of this is because their crafts are incorporated into the everyday and are useful, from elaborate clothing to quilts, bags, head dresses and furnishings. Tribes are instantly recognisable by their style of dress and handiwork for sale is also easily typed by maker. You can imagine these might be important if your entire ethnic group is semi nomadic and need to create their identities using things other than geography.
When we were living in Chiang Mai last year I was lucky enough to visit a few villages on the Burmese border and see some crafters at work. I am sure there was a bit of commercial aspiration to our meeting, but I felt things went quite differently when Amy pulled out one of the toys I had made her. The women I was sitting and talking to were very interested in the toy, checking out my stitching and materials, keen to understand a different crafter's work. Instead of rich Western tourist and money chasing sellers we were suddenly mums together, crafting to make our domestic world a little more fun, a little more beautiful.
At another villiage I saw a gandmother at work on a traditional skirt for her grand-daughter. The work was so detailed and ornate, it was absolutely divine. She was quite happy for me to stand in her backyard along with the chooks and dogs and pigs and watch her work, and was keen to tell me (via a translator) how she had been working on it for 6 months already. She was justifiably proud of her work. It was a really wonderful moment for me.
My appreciation for this work now extends beyond the aesthetic - although I do love the look of these pieces. I now delight in the feeling of being connected to their history, of supporting people to make a livelihood from their craft, of helping to keep if not a traditional lifestyle alive then ceratinly keeping traditional skills from dying out.