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Fashioning Tradition: The Tai Lue Project

A dress made from fabric woven at Ban Sala. Image courtesy Alison Welch

Image courtesy Alison Welch

A dress made from fabric woven at Ban Sala.
The women at Ban Don Chai wearing garments made from their own woven fabric. Image courtesy Alison Welch

Image courtesy Alison Welch

The women at Ban Don Chai wearing garments made from their own woven fabric.
Garments from the Tai Lue Project, on display at the Searching for the New Luxury Conference, Arnhem 2018. Image courtesy Alison Welch

Image courtesy Alison Welch

Garments from the Tai Lue Project, on display at the Searching for the New Luxury Conference, Arnhem 2018.
A hand-woven cotton cloth from Ban Don Chai. Image courtesy Alison Welch

Image courtesy Alison Welch

A hand-woven cotton cloth from Ban Don Chai.
Bridge with drying yarns at Ban Hea. Image courtesy Alison Welch

Image courtesy Alison Welch

Bridge with drying yarns at Ban Hea.

20 July 2018
by Alison Welsh

Alison Welsh and Jasper Chadprajong-Smith, two designers from Manchester Metropolitan University, have been working with women weavers from craft villages in Northern Thailand on a three-year long Crafting Futures project, the Tai Lue project, which aims to explore the design potential of the exquisite hand-woven and hand-dyed fabrics made by the Silalang community.

A recent exhibition, as part of the State of Fashion initiative, gave Alison and Jasper the opportunity to share the initial outcomes of the project with an international audience of fashion thinkers, artists and designers.

State of Fashion is a four-yearly fashion event, based on research initiatives that are committed to re-thinking the future of fashion, to embrace ecologically sound principles and celebrate fashion’s human dimension.

Their 2018 Fashion Colloquium The State of Fashion: Searching for the New Luxury took place in Arnhem, the Netherlands, from the 31 May to 1 June, organised by ArtEZ University of the Arts. It set out to “explore, disrupt, redefine and transform the system”.

Fashion is everywhere, and has an important ecological role to play in all of our lives.

1 in 6 people in the world works in a fashion related job," the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. 

We all wear clothes, so we might as well enjoy the experience, but this comes at a cost, to both the environment and the individual. The fashion industry is vast and multi-faceted, and its activities range from a hand weaver in a small village in Thailand to the highly paid CEO of a large multinational fashion empire. Events like the State of Fashion 2018 are questioning how ethical practices and sustainability can be introduced at every level of the fashion industry.

Fashion is currently going through a quiet rebellion. Sustainability is no longer seen as an unreasonable request from a small number of purchasers, it has become mainstream. A complex, multi-level transformation is part of the re-thinking of the making process, and it is starting at grass roots level. There is need for trust, transparency, inclusivity, and integrity in order to reduce the environmental impact of the clothes we wear. At the heart of this re-thinking is a radical shift to produce garments which play their part in our well-being.

Large multinational companies now have clear ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ statements and social and environmental plans. They are leading the way, albeit with caution, and with one eye on profit margins and the other on sales figures. The fashion giants are starting to make a real difference, but action is equally important at a local level. Charities, NGO’s, educators and individuals all have a role to play, developing garments responsibly and with a minimal impact on the environment.

It is at this micro-level that the British Council is playing a key role in maintaining the future of hand-crafted textiles, through their Crafting Futures programme. This scheme is sustaining fashion craft by supporting the development of artisans across the globe through social/cultural development and learning.

Hand-made clothing is a sector dominated by women, who are rarely properly rewarded for their products or adequately recognised for their skills.

As part of Crafting Futures, the Tai Lue project is working with women weavers at a micro level in craft villages in Northern Thailand. The aim is that through this project the fashion industry, academics, and the general population will gain an insight into the skilled production and design potential of the Tai Lue women’s highly wearable hand-woven and hand dyed-fabrics.

Alison and Jasper exhibited and presented work from the Tai Lue project as part of the State of Fashion event.  They showed a collection of 20 garments made from hand-woven cotton textiles by women from three villages in Nan Province, an area of intense beauty. The valleys in which the women live and work are surrounded by forested mountains. Here they traditionally weave complex fabrics made from vegetable dyed yarns, on hand-built looms situated underneath their houses. The patterns produced are passed from one generation to the next, not written down or recorded, and are regarded as family heirlooms.

The Tai Lue project was presented at the conference as a case study of co-production, an example of collaboration between traditional craft-weavers and contemporary fashion designers, a pointer to the future of women’s crafts in Thailand and beyond.

Many of the weavers that Alison and Jasper met in Nan Province supply the fashion industry internationally, and these powerful business women have a global perspective, but the project has revealed that there is work to do in order for a suitable price to be negotiated for their products, to establish a sustainable living wage. The project has also raised the possibility that the women might wish to produce contemporary weaves alongside their heritage ranges. One significant challenge for the project is to find out if the next generation can be encouraged to follow in their mothers’ footsteps and take up hand weaving themselves. 

Craft makers can lead by example, and artisanal projects such as the Tai Lue project can provide case studies for the larger players to follow. Through the projects created by the British Council, and by exposure at events like State of Fashion individual artisans running micro businesses can be connected into a larger community of makers.

Crafting Futures brings people together both tangibly and spiritually. They form a community of expert makers, who have an eye on the future whilst celebrating and maintaining their heritage.

It is projects like this, which celebrate the maker, demystify who is actually weaving the cloth and give credit to the craftsperson, that change people’s perception of craft. Crafts can and do supply the fashion Industry, but the people who do the work have remained largely unseen and undervalued. The time has come to increase the visibility of the weaver, the embroiderer and the seamstress.

Garments made by hand have longevity, they can be used more often, worn for longer and are more likely to be kept and valued because there is a personal connection with the maker. They can be made chemical free, using safe materials, provide a vital source of income to a family and the profits can go directly to the makers. Importantly, the involvement of the organisations, designers and academics working at a grass roots level with artisans and crafts-people ensures that the voice of the local community and the individual maker is heard.

The women weavers working in these small communities in Northern Thailand have learnt their skills from their ancestors. They are highly proficient weavers and specialists in vegetable dyeing. Their work is perhaps more akin to an art form than to the fashion industry and the historic rituals and symbolism surrounding the production of their garments can seem a long way from the high street in Britain. Their relevance to the future of the fashion industry is nonetheless significant, and their practice must be supported and sustained. The extinction of a historic craft can be compared to the demise of an animal species, and there is a real danger of losing these precious skills, through globalisation and the ‘advancement’ of a homogenised way of life, the introduction of chemical dyes and imported cotton.

Projects like Crafting Futures seek to raise awareness of the cultural and aesthetic value of hand made products. Perhaps a wider recognition of the individual contribution made by the people who make these textiles and garments slowly, skilfully and with care and attention to every thread of yarn is on the horizon?