Twentieth Century Textiles

Industrially produced textiles, initially from the looms of England and France, but, later production, from pre-World War II Shanghai, South Asian, and American factories, coupled with the intrusion of European tailored clothes, wrought major changes in rural Southeast Asian textile production and urban and rural consumption.

Domestic production of white cloth declined dramatically. Rather than remaining a major consumer of a woman's production, white cloth became a residual meant for donation and personal use. In addition to funerals, a major use was in monk's robes. Cheap, factory-made white cloth, smooth (in contrast with rough home-spun and home-woven pieces), cut, sewn, and dyed the appropriate saffron color, seems to have quickly re placed much of the demand for white cloth produced by rural women. At the same time, white cloth tribute ceased, replaced by government levies for cash to run expanding bureaucracies. Finally, the first chemical indigo dyes produced in Euro-American factories, rapidly followed by the development of other artificial colors, replaced locally produced natural dyes. Brilliant chemical dyes proved a boon to Southeast Asian weavers and consumers who wanted sharp colors that contrasted with the dull dyes they had endured for generations.

While there is no secure data, it seems that the period leading up to and through World War II and the following one to two decades resulted in the production of an extraordinary range of indigenous village textiles of complicated designs and patterns, a creative explosion by many accomplished women. These textiles, many used but even more saved for future use, flooded the textile markets of Southeast Asia following the end of the cold war and the opening of transportation and consumption across the whole broad sweep of northern mainland Southeast Asia and southern China. It is fair to say that these textiles represented a culmination of Southeast Asian women's artistic and technological prowess. This was especially the case in the cloth women wove for their own garments, both skirts and sashes. Beautiful tie-dyed patterns dominated in some areas, while in others complicated brocades produced by a loom with a multistrand vertical pattern heddle became common. Finally, in some areas, complicated tapestry weaves and double-warp cloth with supplementary weft became standard.

Euro-American and Japanese connoisseurs became aware of Southeast Asian textiles through the dispersal of Southeast Asian refugees fleeing the American-In-dochinese War. These groups included highlanders, some of whom, such as the Hmong (Miao, Meo), were relatively recent migrants into Southeast Asia from China; others, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Khaaw (Black and White Thai) and ethnic Lao of Laos, had been wet-rice cultivators resident in their areas for several generations. All were displaced by war and arrived in refugee camps and countries of final settlement with their traditions, homemade textiles, and demands to reinstitute their culture. The evolution of indigenously produced textiles into articles of consumption by neighbors becoming aware of these refugees, such as the "story quilts" of the Hmong and other changes to their design repertory, has been documented by Cohen. Other weaving traditions, such as that of Lao women in the U.S. and France, have also survived. Several mainland Southeast Asian textile producers have been awarded personal recognition, as, for instance, through the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship program.

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