Modern Southeast Asian Textiles

The global reach of market forces into upland mainland Southeast Asia in the early 1990s resulted in the export of massive numbers of technologically important and aesthetically beautiful indigenous textiles. Most of these left the region without proper provenance or notes as to the uses to which they could be put. Moreover, this export robbed future weavers of pattern cloths of models for future designs and techniques.

However, even as commercialization and globalization have conspired to obliterate the indigenous, home-based production of mainland Southeast Asian textiles, countervailing forces have arisen to preserve and record it. Research by Western weavers and by scholars in mainland Southeast Asian textiles is relatively recent, beginning in earnest in the late 1980s. This effort has resulted in detailed studies of textile contexts, meanings, and uses. Importantly, accomplished foreign weavers have become interested in detailed studies of the intricacies of mainland Southeast Asian production technology. Because textile production is a process, these studies must include numerous still photographs or, even better, detailed, focused video. Fortunately, this work is underway and important studies are now appearing.

Finally, efforts are underway to conserve some of these traditions. Her Majesty, Queen Sirikit of Thailand, through her royally sponsored Support Foundation (the French acronym for Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques), has, for many years, supported local craftspeople who are expert in modes of production and design. For her pioneering and continuing efforts, Queen Sirikit won an ATA (Aid to Artisans) 2004 Award for Preservation of Craft. In Laos, the Lao Women's Union and private entrepreneur Carol Cassidy are engaged in preserving and expanding the repertoire of Lao weaving and bringing it international recognition. Similarly, in the early 1990s in devastated Cambodia, UNESCO began a massive effort not only to reestablish textile production, but also to reinstitute the cultivation of mulberry trees and silk yarn production to support it. In the early 2000s, some of the glory of Khmer silk weaving is returning. All of these efforts depend on working with local people, usually women, who remember what they accomplished so easily many years earlier, letting them know that their knowledge is of value and encouraging them to share it with others. Most of all, these and other efforts return income to villagers who have begun to see themselves as only poor and without meaningful resources.

See also Textiles, South Asian; Textiles, Southeast Asian Islands.


Bowie, Katherine A. "Labor Organization and Textile Trade in Northern Thailand in the Nineteenth Century." In Textiles in Trade, Proceedings of The Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium. Washington, D.C., 14-16 September 1990, pp. 204-215. Analysis of royal control of pre-mod-ern textile production. Cohen, Eric. The Commercialized Crafts of Thailand: Hill Tribes and Lowland Villages, Collected Articles. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. Extensive selection of articles on Hmong textile adaptations to globalization and commercialization.

Conway, Susan. Silken Threads and Lacquer Thrones: Lanna Court Textiles. Bangkok: River Press, 2002. Comprehensive discussion of northern Thai royal textile traditions. Gittinger, Mattiebelle, and Leedom Lefferts. Textiles and the Tai Experience in Southeast Asia. Washington, D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1992. Gittinger's chapter 1, "An Examination of Tai Textile Forms," provides a statement concerning the evolution of many mainstream Southeast Asian textiles; her chapter 4, "Textiles in the Service of Kings," provides an excellent summary of royal relations with external textile producers. Lefferts's chapter 2, "Contexts and Meanings in Tai Textiles," focuses on the sym bolic significance of women's control of textile production and gifting.

Green, Gill. "Angkor: Textiles at the Khmer Court, Origins and Innovations." Arts of Asia 30, no. 4 (2000): 82-92.

Howard, Michael C., and Kim Be Howard. Textiles of the Daic Peoples of Vietnam; Textiles of the Central Highlands of Vietnam; and Textiles of the Highland Peoples of Northern Vietnam: Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien, and Tibeto Burman. Bangkok: White Lotus. Numbers 2, 3, and 4 in the series Studies in the Material Cultures of Southeast Asia. Comprehensive surveys of little-understood areas.

Lefferts, Leedom. "The Ritual Importance of the Mundane: White Cloth among the Tai of Southeast Asia." Expedition 38, no. 1 (1996): 37-50.

McClintock, Deborah. The Ladies of Laos. Greenville, Del.: Privately issued. CD-ROM; excellent investigation with slides and video of total textile production process.

Leedom Lefferts

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