005th Meeting – April 1985
Implications of Trade in the
A talk by Katherine Bowie
N.B. If any minutes were taken of the meeting in 1985 then they have long since been lost. These two articles, authored by Katherine, cover all of the content of her talk, and more.
Myth of the Subsistence Economy: Textile Production in
Author(s): Katherine A. Bowie
Source: The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Nov., 1992), pp. 797-823
Published by: Association for Asian Studies (I only have this as a pdf. file – JAS1992.pdf which I have not been able to convert to a Word file)
Assessing the Early Observers: Cloth and the Fabric of Society in 19th-Century Northern Thai Kingdoms
Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Feb., 1993), pp. 138-158
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
of us would agree with Bruner that "our first responsibility is to
people's accounts of their experiences as they choose to present them"
(1983:9). However, those of us interested in historical anthropology
special challenge since we are rarely able to draw upon indigenous
everyday life. Even when we are able to use such texts, the problem of
ethnographic authority remains (Clifford 1988:8; Clifford and Marcus
Considerable work is being done in historical anthropology in
indigenous histories by using the early narratives of Western
However, such efforts have obvious problems of observer bias (see Cohn
1987:136-171; Said 1978; Savage 1984). Furthermore, as in the
discussed in this article, the outside observers have sometimes
opposing opinions. How are we, as anthropologists writing today, to
conflicting appraisals? Using the case of textiles in 19th-century
From Veblen (1912) and Simmel (1957) to Weiner and Schneider (1989), an appreciation of the varied manner in which textiles symbolize social distinctions has been longstanding. As Bourdieu has written of symbolic goods in general, textiles can be an integral part of the "infinitely varied art of marking distances" (1984:66; see also Barthes 1984; Sahlins 1976). Often the distinctions are extremely subtle. Writing of the use of fashion, Barthes notes the importance of details as "concentrated meaning" (1984:185). For Barthes, just a detail can change an object's meaning: "a little nothing that changes everything; those little nothings that can do everything" (1984:243). However, more than just symbolizing distinctions, textiles have also been shown to constitute and consolidate social differences through their often vital role in a society's political economy. In his pioneering article on tributary textiles in the Inca kingdom, Murra notes not only that "no political, military, social, or religious event was complete without textiles being volunteered or bestowed, burned, exchanged, or sacrificed," but also that cloth served as "a primary source of state revenues" (1962:722).
history, the Archival sources have
presented contradictory assessments of the social significance of
insights into the semiotics of consumption and an important methodology for historical anthropology.
Others have made a similar point (see Schneider 1987 for an excellent review of the cultural, economic, and political significance of cloth). As Weiner and Schneider summarize, architects of centralizing polities have awed spectators with sartorial splendor, strategically distributed beautiful fabrics amongst clients, and exported the textile output of royal and peasant workshops to earn foreign exchange" (1989:2).
Western observers of mainland
Only the king himself and the White Elephant were entitled to white umbrellas. The crown prince and high dignitaries of state were permitted gold umbrellas, twelve to fifteen feet high, in numbers according to rank. Innumerable regulations covered such things as the size, shape and metals of spittoons, of but- tons, of anklets. The cut and material of clothes, their length, and the pattern woven into the cloth, all had precise hierarchical attributes. A man's rank and occupation could always be told by his dress when he was alive, and by the style of his funeral when he was dead. [1972:104-105]
assessments of dress also occur in 19th-century descriptions of
northern Thai dress.
The anonymous author of one of the earliest surviving accounts remarked
lack of class distinction in women's clothing: "It is curious to notice
the uniformity and universality of the female dress. The higher classes
the style a little by inserting a very showy strip of wrought silk next
the bottom piece" (Bangkok Recorder 1866). Twenty years later, an
missionary working in northern
archival accounts about northern
depending upon the
archival source, contemporary scholars can reach opposing assessments
character of these earlier societies. Research on textiles in mainland
article is divided into two parts. In the first, I
examine the cultural significance of textile consumption in 19th
Textile consumption: the cultural material of class
Previous studies have shown that 19th-century northern Thai society was divided into three major social statuses: the aristocrats (jao), the freeholders (phrai), and the slaves (khiikhaa). The aristocracy was internally differentiated by economic and political power. The greatest power and prestige were concentrated in those lords who occupied the five top positions in each of the kingdoms, while lesser members of the aristocracy whose inheritances had dwindled were barely separable from the peasantry at large. Free villagers were all liable to perform corvée labor and pay tribute to the ruling lords, but they were internally differentiated according to economic class. The wealthiest villagers rivaled many members of the aristocracy; in fact, many had royal titles and intermarried with the lower levels of the aristocracy. Villagers spanned the economic continuum, from those with land and numerous animals down to those who were destitute or landless beggars. The difference between slaves and free villagers was also often a gray area. Elite slaves sometimes worked very closely with their lords and received more benefits than ordinary commoners. On the other hand, the conditions for ordinary slaves were generally worse than those for commoners since the former were at the mercy of the lords. (For more on 19th century northern Thai social structure, see Bowie 1988; Calavan 1974; Ganjanapan 1984.) Nonetheless, although portions of this social spectrum overlapped, there were significant differences in lifestyle from one end of the spectrum to the other.
From peasants in cotton to lords in silk
According to archival sources, the dress of ordinary villagers was very simple. Men wore a kind of loincloth (phaa toi) and women wore a tubular long skirt (phaa sin; phaa means "cloth"). The earliest surviving description of northern Thai dress was provided by David Richardson, a British official who traveled to Chiang Mai in 1830:
The men wear the common blue quilted jacket and generally a piece of blue cotton cloth round their loins.... The women wear a sort of petticoat but put on in the same way (by tucking one part within another) as that of the Birmans without either pin or string, and a crepe or sattin jacket. The jacket is seldom put on but laid across the shoulder and the younger women particularly go with the bosom exposed. [1829-36]
Another early description, dating from 1866, offered somewhat more detail:
dress of the
Laosian women is very unlike that of the Siamese women. The main
their dress is a very peculiar petticoat - made always of four pieces
so that their seams pass around the body. The upper piece is white
inches wide; the next below is red, 12 inches wide; the next 24 inches
with stripes of white and black shaded, with motley colours, the
an inch wide; the bottom piece is red and 14 inches wide. The ends of
garment thus made are sewed together, and when placed on the person is
its place just as the Siamese do their panoong [phaa nung], by using a
strip for a belt as a band of a sheaf of wheat is twisted and tucked
itself. The women very generally have a white, yellow, or pink sash
tie around their chests. [
This account in particular was essentially confirmed by the writings of subsequent 19th century visitors to Chiang Mai. The differences in the accounts involved the number (whether three or four) and the colors of the strips. There was agreement that the top strip was generally white, although one source mentioned black and dark brown as well as white, and that the bottom border strip was usually red (Bangkok Recorder 1866; Bock 1986:321, 326; Cort 1886:348; Taylor 1888-1930:291); however, the British traveler Carl Bock said dark brown was used on the bottom as well (1986:326). For the largest central section, the colors given included white, black, yellow, blue, and red, with one source suggesting that the predominant color in northern Thailand was yellow (Taylor 1888-1930:291) and two sources noting that the predominant colors were red and yellow (Hildebrand 1875; Lowndes 1871 ).7
In addition to wearing a long skirt, northern Thai women generally carried a kind of scarf called a phaa sabaay, a "narrow cloth which could be worn over the breasts, over one shoulder or around the head" (Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman 1987:12). They thought nothing of being bare-breasted. As one British colonial official in 1875 noted ironically, the scarf "in the sun is carried on her head, at other times on her arm, over her shoulders, round her neck, and hanging down behind - anywhere in fact, but where, in any other country, it would be" (Hildebrand 1875:17). The scarf was generally described as pink in color (Bangkok Recorder 1866; Hildebrand 1875; Lowndes 1871), although white and yellow were also mentioned (Bangkok Recorder 1866). Although Richardson (1829-36) suggested that women wore some kind of jacket in 1830, most other historical sources indicated that jackets became popular among commoners later on, perhaps because of changes in fashion or perhaps because more village women could afford them.8
Northern Thai men were described as being generally dressed like Siamese men (Bangkok Recorder 1866). About their loins they wore a phaa toi, a length of cloth some two to two and a half yards long and two to three feet wide (Bock 1986:323). This cloth was placed around the back and brought to the front, where the surplus cloth was twisted in a cord, brought down between the legs, and tucked into the waist in the back. The men were also generally bare-chested, and they carried a kind of plaid scarf called a phaa khaamaa, which could be used variously as a turban, facecloth, belt, or loincloth. Narrower phaa toi covered only the loins, leaving the men's tattoos visible; wider phaa toi were worn long, covering the man down to the knees. Shirts or jackets appear to have become more popular later on, as did the long blue pants (daew chador) now commonly worn by village men.9
Oral histories provide additional insight into the range of dress among commoners. Many villagers commented that in the old days they had far fewer clothes to wear and that the few clothes they did have were worn thin from use and very much patched. In fact, one villager remarked that in those days their clothes were so patched that the host fabric had long been worn away and all that remained were the "guest patches" (jao khaek).10 Cloth was scarce and expensive for poor villagers. Village women told me that in the old days many of them were too poor to afford a full-length phaa sin and so they wore instead a sin kot, or "stunted skirt," which came only to the knees.11 Some villagers were forced to beg for old clothes to wear, theft was not unknown. One villager told of thieves stealing freshly woven cloth straight from the loom; another told of thieves stealing her grandfather's clothes basket (hiip phaa). Slaves, servants, and tenants wore the old discards (khiisakjao; literally, "refuse" or "garbage") of their masters. As one servant remarked of his master, "When he got new ones, he gave the old ones to me to wear. They were very valuable because clothes were so expensive then" (Patel 1990:138).12
Wealthier villagers had newer and more numerous outfits than poorer villagers. Some of the village elite imitated the styles of the aristocracy or were themselves lower-ranking members of the aristocracy. On festive occasions they were more likely than other villagers to have new and fancy clothing. The wealthiest villagers owned a length or two of silk, which the men wore as a phaa toi and the women as a phaa sin and phaa sabaay. Wealthy village women were more likely to wear fancy skirt borders; called tin jok, these borders were made of either cotton or silk. The village elite were also more likely to wear gold and other kinds of jewelry. Although one can surmise that on ordinary days members of the aristocracy wore cotton rather than silk clothing, they nonetheless generally wore fancier and better-quality clothing than ordinary villagers. Nineteenth-century paintings show aristocratic women wearing phaa sin with horizontal stripes like the commoners' but with gold threads and decorative tin jok borders; the skirts of commoners usually had plain, solid color borders.13 Aristocratic men are portrayed in long phaa toi and jackets; village men usually wore only short phaa toi. Both men and women of the aristocracy are often represented with more simply dressed attendants holding umbrellas over them. The ruling lords had much more ornate clothing not only for everyday but also for special occasions. One American missionary described the dress worn by the ruling lord of Lampang at his audience as follows:
ascended the throne. He was a slight man arrayed in golden sandals and
and-gold coat and pahnoong [phaa nung], a strip of cloth a yard wide
4 yards long.... The golden crown upon his pompadoured, gray head
precious stones. [
William Clifton Dodd, another missionary, depicted the state robes of the ruling lord of Chiang Tung as being "entirely of cloth of gold," adding, "his pagoda-like coronet or tiara is also covered with gold" (1923:201). Dodd also detailed the court dress of one of the Chiang Tung princesses:
The skirt with the many colored stripes and the dark green border is used in the ordinary court dress. To this is added a second border of large flowers solidly embroidered in gold thread, each flower four or five inches in diameter and costing a rupee a flower. In the body of the skirt also is there wove much gold thread, and the border of green velvet is bordered on either edge with sequins in silver tinsel put on in points. The same sequins trim the two or three inches of underskirt showing, which usually trails on the ground. With gold embroidered slippers, gold bracelets and many gold ornaments in the hair set with spangles, you want to get a Kun [Khyyn] princess out in the sunshine to see her sparkle. [1923:200]14
were the clothes worn by the aristocracy very
ornate, generally woven of silk with gold and silver threads for
they were also very expensive. A few references afford a glimpse of
time and cost.
The chiefs and people of wealth wear crape or satin jackets with gold or silver lace on the front; ... the cloth or petticoat of some of the higher ranks is richly embroidered, one of which is occupation for 4 or 5 months. [1829-36:40]
Another reference, some 50 years later, provides us with some insight into the cost of clothing worn by the aristocracy. Lieutenant G. J. Younghusband, writing of an 1887 journey, recorded that a silk lungi (phaa nung) sold for 18 rupees (1888:58). Recall also that the description of the princess's skirt indicated each flower pattern cost a rupee (Dodd 1923:200). Bock gave some notion of the comparative cost of a silk skirt:
When the "body" is made of silk, this border is made of the same material, often beautifully interwoven with gold and silver threads. These rich borders sometimes cost as much as 60 rupees apiece, while the whole garment, when made entirely of cotton, strong and durable as it is, does not cost more than from 1 1/2-2 rupees. [1986(1884):326]
That cotton lengths cost about a rupee each is further supported by the 1890 trade report of C. E. W. Stringer (1891).15
To give an idea of the purchasing power of a rupee at this time, some indications of wage rates are suggestive. Although very few statistics on northern Thai wage labor rates survive, I was able to find three references in the archival sources.16 According to the British trade report of 1894, porters were paid 12 to 15 rupees per month, assuming they carried an average load of 15 to 20 viss; about 54 to 73 pounds (Archer 1895). Some figures on the wages paid to laborers in the teak industry also survive. According to W. J. Archer, the British vice consul, Khamu workers who could once be hired for 40 to 60 rupees a year (and their food) could in 1894 no longer "be had under Rs. 70 to Rs. 90 a year" (1895). Writing five years later, Acting Consul J. Stewart Black gave somewhat lower wage figures, while also lamenting the increasing costs. He noted that Khamu workers were paid 30 to 50 rupees per annum, in addition to their food, which cost about 5 rupees per month, or an additional 60 rupees per year. Black wrote that in 1899 some teak laborers were being paid as much as 120 rupees (food included) and went on to castigate the native villagers for their indolence, commenting that "not even the attraction of what is to him [sic] a small fortune will induce them to undergo for any length of time the hard labour and isolation of forest work" (1 900).17 Thus, forest workers in the teak industry were earning anywhere from 90 to 120 rupees per year (including the value of their food), or about 7 to 10 rupees per month. Such wages paid to forest workers were considered a "small fortune." Although the wages paid to porters were higher, it should be noted that portering such heavy loads required tremendous stamina and could be done by only the strongest villagers. Furthermore, such employment was seasonal.
According to oral histories, the wages paid to agricultural workers were less. Many villagers cited rates of one win (approximately one-seventh of a rupee) per day for agricultural labor at the turn of the 20th century.18 Archival sources suggest that wages for teak workers averaged one-quarter to one-third of a rupee per day and those for porters averaged half a rupee per day. Villagers also recalled that in the early 20th century one rupee could buy a full set of clothing, including a homespun shirt and pair of pants or skirt.
Clearly, the aristocracy's most luxurious clothes were not likely to serve as daily casual wear. Nonetheless they marked a significant distinction in purchasing power and social status between the elite and ordinary villagers. A tin jok skirt border that cost 60 rupees represented at least four months' wages for the best-paid porter and over a year's wages for agricultural workers. Everyday peasant dress already represented anywhere from two to seven days' wages and thus constituted a considerable expense for the ordinary wage laborer.
The ruling lords of the northern Thai kingdom also had distinctive regalia, including umbrellas and spittoons. Whether a formal sumptuary code existed is, as I mentioned earlier, unclear. However, even without the evidence of sumptuary laws, I believe that there is considerable indication of significant class differentiation through dress.19 With the exception of state robes and regalia of rank, differences in dress may well have formed a continuum of wealth rather than a clear-cut differentiation based on status. Poorer members of the aristocracy, less able to afford the most elaborate of clothes, would have blended with those below them. Conversely, wealthier members of the rural elite, especially those who had intermarried with the lower ranks of the aristocracy, would have dressed more ornately. Nonetheless, overall, when one considers the cost of elite dress in light of the economic situation of poor villagers who were begging, stealing, or patching their simple clothing, a dramatic distinction emerges.
Beyond dress: household and ritual usage
Textiles were used not only for dress but also for a variety of household items and on various ritual occasions. Such uses of textiles also revealed considerable differences according to wealth. Although the poorest villagers often did without, ordinary villagers used textiles for making mattress and pillow covers, blankets, bed sheets, and mosquito nets. In general the mattress and pillow covers were plain indigo or black with red stripes or trim. Bed sheets were plain white or white with a red stripe or checked pattern; fancier sheets had embroidery and in some cases more complex weaves. Mosquito nets were woven on special large looms, and many informants complained about how heavy homespun cotton mosquito nets were to wash.
clothing played an important role in ritual
prestations. For villagers, one of the most significant of these
was the offering of articles of clothing to parents, grandparents, and
elderly relatives on the fourth day (Day of the Year's Mouth, or wan
of the New Year's ceremonies held in mid-April. In addition, some cloth
token or real, could be offered to a villager to whom one felt
While the old people sit in their homes waiting for the younger generations to seek them out, younger people, both male and female, children and adults, walk from house to house carrying bags of flowers and bottles of fragrant lustral water.... People come to pay respect either singly or, more often, in groups. When they enter the elder's house, they place flowers, tapers, and joss-sticks (always an even number) into the plate or tray. A coin or gift of cloth, such as a handkerchief or loincloth, may be added if the donor feels he or she is indebted to the elder for some past favour, such as the teaching of a magic spell, the gift of an amulet, or the prescription of a herbal cure. [1984:133; emphasis added]
Another very significant village ritual in which cloth played an important role was the ordination ceremony of Buddhist monks. At the time of ordination, the novitiate was paraded about the village in aristocratic clothing (usually borrowed from a wealthy villager who owned a silk phaa toi) to symbolize the Gautama Buddha's birth into a royal family. During the initiation ceremony, he was given the yellow monastic robes. These robes may have been purchased, but in many cases they were made locally. When the robes were homemade, the close relatives, especially the novitiate's mother, generally wove the cloth. Then friends and neighbors gathered at the village temple to cut and sew the pieces together.20 Once sewn, the cloth was dyed, the yellow coming from a natural bark and later from turmeric (khamin).21The initiate was often given beautiful embroidered pillows in addition to the monastic robes.22
lesser ways in other village rituals. Small scraps of red and white
served as part of spirit-offering trays; in these trays villagers
symbolic representations of a variety of household items such as
combs, and clothes for the spirit to use. Handspun cotton thread was
blessing ceremonies (mat myy, syyb chataa, and the like).23In
funerary rites clothing was traditionally put on the body of the
inside out. The deceased's good clothes were either distributed among
relatives or given to the temple for redistribution; the remainder were
with the body. Although northern villagers denied that a young bride
necessarily acquired a wedding trousseau (in contrast to northeastern
Cloth also figured importantly in the lives and rites of the elite. In addition to owning more and fancier clothes, the elite had more and better household items. Instead of just having enough mattresses, pillows, and other bedding items for the family, wealthier families had additional bedding sets for guests. Furthermore, the guest bedding was considered an object of display and so was more likely to have embroidered ends and complex, time-consuming weaves. Even today wealthy village families usually have wood cabinets with glass doors along the wall of the main room of their home to showcase guest bedding sets.
The possession of ornate pillows was another
particularly significant attribute of elite households. Although Thais
variety of pillows, the prestige pillows were usually triangular and
for daytime reclining. Their importance was highlighted in a British
passing remark that such pillows were "to be seen in every house of any
pretensions" (Lowndes 1871).25 Furnishing their palaces, the
northern Thai princes displayed numerous luxury items such as
weapons, chandeliers, mirrors, lanterns, curtains, reclining pillows,
imported carpets (Taylor 1888-1930:73; Younghusband 1888:63-64). In
The full extent of the differences between commoners and aristocracy was most visible when members of the ruling elite traveled in state or participated in public ceremonies. Royal barges had large cloth canopies: the royal barge of the central Thai king, according to one observer, featured "a canopy of cloth of gold where the King sits on a golden throne wearing a gold embroidered coat and golden shoes" (Dodd 1923:289). The royal entourage often consisted of scores of boats, the rowers all clad in matching uniforms. The elite also traveled by horse or elephant, the animals gaily festooned with decorative textiles. On state occasions, the highest ranks of the nobility used gold and silver decorative caparisons. Mary Cort noted that the gold elephant trappings were "worth thousands," whereas the silver trappings were "worth hundreds" of rupees (Cort 1886:349).
Some sense of the possible psychological impact of these beautiful cloth trappings for human and animal alike was provided by Dodd's account of the return of Chiang Tung's ruling lord from his annual bath in hot sulphur springs. Dodd noted that the procession always took place on a big bazaar day when the marketplace was thronged with people. Yet when the lord passed by, wearing his state robes "entirely of cloth of gold" and riding "a very richly caparisoned elephant," there was "absolute silence" (Dodd 1923:201). A similar sense was conveyed in another description, that of the trips made by a princess, the wife of a ruling chief:
She was a
and made frequent, almost yearly, trips down through
So dramatic were these royal processions that they impressed their Western observers no less than the local populations. As the Reverend Jonathan Wilson wrote of the cremation procession of the second-ranked king of Chiang Mai:
The first king and higher princes led the van of the procession. In the foremost part of it was the king's elephant, decked with gold trappings. In the funeral procession came also the favorite horse of the late second king, richly caparisoned in silver ornaments, and saddle covered with silver-cloth. Just after the horse came the second king's elephant wearing silver trappings ... To see the huge animals move slowly along, their polished pieces of silver and gold flashing in the sunlight, reminds one that he is in the East. There is nothing just like it in the Western world. [cited in Cort 1886:349]
Of the annual rituals in which members of the aristocracy participated, one of the most important was the Kathin ceremony, which took place in October, after the close of the Buddhist Lent.26 During this ceremony, a new set of robes and often pillows or other items were presented to the monks and novices. As De Young writes, "This was a very elaborate ceremony at the court and among the urban aristocracy, but comparably elaborate rites were never held in the villages" (1966:138).27 Celebration of the Kathin is of ancient provenance in northern Thailand, the oldest surviving mention of it being in the famous 13th century Sukhothai inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng. Even in this inscription it is clear that the Kathin ceremonies focused on the aristocracy:
close of the
rainy season, the Kathin ceremonies take place, lasting one month. At
of the Kathin ceremonies offerings are made of stacks of cowry shells,
stacks of areca, of stacks of flowers, of cushions, and of pillows. The
offerings made each year amount to two million. Chanting, (the people)
to perform the Kathin ceremonies at the monastery of the Aranyik, and
return to the city the procession forms at the monastery of the Aranyik
stretches as far as the border of the plain. There everyone prostrates
while lutes and guitars, hymns and songs resound. Whoever wants to
whoever wants to laugh, laughs; whoever wants to sing, sings. This city
Several 19th-century observers mentioned members of the ruling families being engaged in the preparation of monastic robes and pillows, most likely to be given to the monks during the Kathin ceremony. Bock wrote, "Much of the women's time again, whether rich or poor, is taken up in making clothing for the priests" (1986:322). McGilvary said of an 1877 visit to one of the royal households:
In the large reception hall I found the Princess, virtually alone. She was embroidering some fancy pillow ends for the priests - a work in which she was an expert. Her maidens, some distance off, were sewing priests' robes. [1912:180]
In special cases, it seems, monks' robes could be made of silk rather than simple cotton (Cort 1886:147).28 Some idea of the potential value of the monastic robes can be seen in a comment made about the king of central Thailand:
The King is
visit annually every temple in the city which has been dedicated to him
make presents of yellow robes. According to the Directory of
to making public prestations such as those at
the Kathin ceremonies, the elite would have given considerable amounts
textile goods away during any other life-cycle or calendrical
might hold. Thai ceremonials usually included a merit-making component
gifts, including monastic robes and embroidered pillows, were given as
to the monks (see
Textile production: the fabrication of social class
In this article thus far I have depicted significant differences between the elite's and the peasants' uses of textiles. I have described a range of dress: from the stolen and the hand-me-down, from the threadbare and the patched, from the simple cottons of commoners to the state robes of the ruling lords. I have also outlined some of the different uses of textiles in village households as opposed to the court. Here, I should like to show how the differentiation was manifested not simply in the consumption of textiles but also in their production.
Weaving was a skill that crossed the social spectrum from poor to rich, from peasants to lords. Indeed, when I asked villagers whether rich or poor were more likely to weave, they gave mixed responses. Some responded rapidly, "Poor people, of course. Rich people were too comfortable and too lazy to sit there for hours on end, spinning and weaving. Besides, they could afford to buy their clothes ready-made." Yet other villagers responded equally rapidly:
Rich people. Poor people were too poor to be able to spend time sitting around weaving. They had to work from morning to night trying to get food to feed their families. They couldn't afford to wait for days and weeks until the cloth was finished and could be sold. Besides, they couldn't afford the looms, and harnesses, and all the accessories you had to have to weave. The rich had the money to buy thread and the time to weave. One had to have a cool heart to weave; poverty made one hot-hearted.29
As will become clear, both accounts are true; the differences lie in the type of fabric being woven.
The production of cotton
clothing was made
from cotton. However, contrary to what is commonly assumed, weaving was
universal household industry; only certain villagers in certain
From the simplest and plainest of homespun white cloth to the most elaborate designs using imported fibers, the value of the fabric gradually increased. Striped or plaid cloth involved more work and skill, in both weaving and dyeing, than plain cloth and was consequently valued more highly. Cloth woven with imported threads, most often used for women's phaa sins, was more expensive than the domestic handspun cotton. The wealthier the village weaver, the more likely she was to weave the more time-consuming decorative items such as colored skirts or striped sheets. The more elaborate the design, the more likely the weaver was weaving for pleasure with a "cool heart."
plain cotton, the weaving of complex cotton cloths such as
or multi-harness weaves with multiple color designs was concentrated in
few specific villages (see Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman 1987 for
These villages included Baan Ton Hen in San Patong District, Baan Aen
District, a few villages in Chom Thong District, and various villages
weave, the more likely that the weaver was affiliated in some manner
aristocracy, as war captive, slave, or member of the court. Virtually
the areas known for weaving is associated with an ethnic minority
had to weave, trade for, or buy their clothing, the ruling lords were
extract raw cotton, woven cloth, and dyestuffs as tribute. Their
levy tribute on broad sectors of the population provided the
aristocracy with a
quantity of cotton cloth no single producer could hope to match.
the majority of villagers who sent cotton or cloth as tribute appear to
been hilltribe populations, such as the Karen and the Mussur (today
commonly called the Lahu). One of the Karen villages that Captain
visited in 1871 had just taken its year's taxes to Chiang Mai: "it
consisted of Rupees 2, 2 blankets, and 40 viss of cotton" (1871).
Thus, the aristocracy appear to have been able to extract raw cotton, simple cotton cloth, and complex cotton weaves through political means. Tribute afforded them both raw cotton and cotton cloth, and the labor of war captives seems to have provided them with complex weaves such as tin jok skirt borders. Although silk was considered a more valuable fabric, cotton cloth nonetheless had a variety of uses in royal households. The tin jok borders, even those made of cotton, would have marked their wearers as wealthier than ordinary villagers, who only wore plain skirt borders. Possession of textiles ranging from mattresses to elephant headpieces made from complex woven cotton would have similarly served to add to the prestige of their owners. Such cloth could be used as rewards for favored underlings or as gifts for visitors. In addition, cotton cloth made possible the public display of largess involved in merit-making ceremonies, since monks' robes were typically made from cotton.
It is also
possible that royalty were involved in the cotton
trade. There was considerable demand for raw cotton by Yunnanese
some demand for cotton cloth in
of silk: In
addition to the broad spectrum of villagers
involved in weaving, women in the court also wove. However, members of
court appear to have woven luxury items, primarily of silk. As
She lived in a large, roomy, teak-built house, and was always busy making silken garments, while one of her slaves worked at the loom spinning silk thread. The Chow Operat [second king], as rumor has it, is very rich, having a good deal of cash, besides some 60 elephants; but even a wealthy princess is not exempt from the necessity of making the silken garments which are the symbol of her rank, any more than the poorer women can do without weaving their cotton clothes. Many of the "upper classes" are also skilled in embroidering the cushions or pillows which take the place of chairs. Much of the women's time again, whether rich or poor, is taken up in making clothing for the priests. [1986(1884):322; emphasis added]
Archival sources also indicate that royal slaves were involved in silk weaving. The British official A. H. Hildebrand noted, "There is a good deal of trade capable of being done also in silk garments and silk fancy work, at which the slaves and others are great adepts" (1875). It is not clear whether these slaves lived solely at the court or also in slave settlements established to produce cloth for the court. Silk weaving is known to have been done in only two areas outside the court itself: the towns of San Kamphaeng and Hot (and their immediate environs). While silk weaving continues to this day in San Kamphaeng, in Hot only traces survive in archival sources and in the memories of the town's oldest residents. No information survives to explain why Hot, a town some 70 kilometers from Chiang Mai, would have been a center of silk production and weaving, or why the industry died out. (Villagers said it was because the cocoons scared easily and so had died.) However, in San Kamphaeng a senior member of one of the prestigious silk-weaving families recounted the local version of the history of silk weaving in his area. According to his account, lords victorious in war would capture various kinds of artisans and resettle them in their own kingdoms. Thus, silversmiths were settled near the south end of Chiang Mai town, lacquer ware artists in another location, and weavers in San Kamphaeng. This account indeed suggests that the silk weavers in San Kamphaeng may have been royal slaves weaving at the behest of the court.
to being woven to meet internal court demands,
silk was woven for export and probably served as an important source of
revenue. Hildebrand wrote that among the chief sources of income of
Mai's ruling lord was "the sale of wearing apparel, etc., made by his
several hundred slaves" (1875:16).31 He also commented that
freeholders were corvéed to perform various tasks for the lord,
"slaves being employed on some more profitable occupation" (1875). As
early as 1830,
A ready made wife can be bought for Rs. 50. This is an excellent investment, for his wife, if properly managed, will repay her husband double that amount in a year by the work of her hands. Indeed, the Lord Chief Justice's head concubine, an old lady, can in five days weave a silk lungi [phaa sin] valued locally at Rs. 18. [1888:58]
potential scale of royal weaving was given by D. J. Edwardes, who wrote
the ruling lord of Chiang Mai had 300 slaves weaving cloth for him
appears that these Chiang Mai silks were marketed in
most important branch of commerce: a fine quality of the raw material
already exported in considerable quantities....
into the social significance of silk increases
once we understand the difficulties involved in obtaining raw silk. The
silkworm was found or cultivated in only a few specific areas of
producer of silk in Southeast Asia, has historically traded in silk
Kampuchean and Burmese neighbors. The Kampuchean and Lao peoples have
traditionally raised silkworms for domestic use. Burma has not produced
deal of silk … The Burmese textile producing area of Shwedaung,
near Prome, has
traditionally relied on the Yabein, an animist slash-and-burn people
the nearby hillsides, to grow the silkworm for coarse silk yarns used
produce everyday clothing, while another animist tribe, the Riang
called Yang), have traditionally grown silk for the Buddhist Shans of
The best quality silk has always been imported overland from
of silk in
silkworms were collected in northern
The cocoons of the wild silkworm are collected, and employed in the manufacture of native silk fabrics. The quality is coarse, and the supply insufficient for the home demand, considerable quantities of silk being bought from the Yunnan traders in exchange for the Lao cotton, of which far more than enough for local consumption is grown. [1986(1884):324]
silk production has continued to the present day, raw silk was imported
distribution of raw materials had social implications. Since sufficient
quantities of cotton grew in upland regions of northern
comparison of cotton
and silk production, then, reveals important contrasts. While cotton
exported, silk was imported into northern
process of textile production helps contemporary readers gain insight
cultural meaning of cloth to 19th century northern
Understanding the productive process also helps us appreciate the manner in which textiles were interwoven with royal authority. Because of their coercive power, the lords were able to exact cloth as tribute from freeholders and labor from slaves. Their political position reinforced their economic position, since the textiles - and other goods - they acquired through tribute and slave labor were apparently marketed for revenue. The revenue and surplus textiles they acquired through the labor of others, in turn, reinforced their political position. By sponsoring large, conspicuous merit-making ceremonies in which they gave robes and pillows to monks, the lords enhanced their prestige and, ironically, created an image of generosity. The fine silks in which the lords dressed themselves symbolized not only their distinction from the poor but also their own relationship to the political economy of the kingdom.
Conclusion: the social context of northern Thai textiles:
with archival sources, this article has examined textile consumption
production in 19th century northern
article emerges from my dissertation fieldwork on 19th
political economy, conducted from 1984 to 1986 under the auspices of
National Research Council of Thailand with a grant from the Social
Research Council. Subsequent fieldwork specifically on textile
conducted during the summer of 1989 with a grant from the
1 Edwardes' summary raises questions about Anthony Reid's conclusion that in Southeast Asia, "the difference in dress between rich and poor, servant and master, king and commoner, was less marked than in pre-industrial Europe, where each man's station and even vocation could be read in the prescribed style of dress" (1988:85).
2 The distinctions of dress appear to have been quite subtle at times. Crawfurd wrote, "The better classes permit the ends of the dress to hang loosely in front, but the lower orders tuck them under the body, securing them behind" (1987:313).
3 The passage continued:
other classes of the males follow the fashion
because they glory in being men and not women - men who can fight like
devils that are pictured on their abdomens and thighs, and run like
occasion calls, through jungles and swamps with but little to cover
tattooed nudity. [
Although the older men in northern Thai villages sport tattoos, the practice has fallen out of vogue among the current generation of northerners. For more on the symbolism of tattoos, see Nicola Tannenbaum (1987).
4 In the course of my interviewing I also encountered villagers who made mention of sumptuary rules with regard to housing and clothing, but they were unable to recall any of the specifics. The quotation cited suggests not only that sumptuary laws existed but also that they varied by ruler and kingdom.
fieldwork in 1984-86, I interviewed more than 500 villagers over the
age of 80
living in about 400 villages throughout the
6 Considerable confusion is caused by the various linguistic borrowings of the 19th century English language sources, which alternately use Indian, Burmese, and central Thai words to describe northern Thai clothing. Thus, terms such as phaa nung, lungi, and putso are used in ambiguous ways. In general, these terms refer to the lengths of cloth worn by both men and women on the lower half of the body. The lengths may be sewn into a tube (as in the phaa sin) or twisted into a thick cord worn between the legs (as in the phaa toi). To add to the confusion, the usage of these terms has changed over time. During the 19th century, phaa nung referred to the length of cloth worn on the lower part of the body by central Thai men and women alike, corresponding most closely to the phaa toi worn by northern Thai men. Over time the meaning has changed to refer to the tubular cloth, or phaa sin, worn during the 19th century by northern Thai women and now worn by women throughout the country.
7 As many of the sources I have drawn upon are somewhat obscure, I am including the full descriptions here. There is a remarkable overlap in the content and wording of the anonymous newspaper report of 1866 (Bangkok Recorder 1866) and Mary Cort's description 20 years later. According to Cort: The dress of the Laosian women is very unlike that of the Siamese: it is more complete and modest. It consists of a skirt made of varying widths sewed together so that the seams pass round the body. The upper strip is white, the next red, the next woven of white and black stripes and shaded with motley colors. This is the widest piece and goes about the knees. The bottom strip is red and about 14 inches wide. The skirt is long, reaching to the ankles, and is kept in place by using the upper white strip for a belt as a band of a sheaf of wheat is twisted and tucked under itself. [1886:348] According to Lowndes, women wore a red and yellow horizontally striped petticoat along with a pink scarf (1871). According to Bock, women's dress was composed of 3 distinct pieces, generally of different colours and materials, sewn together. The main portion of the garment, or that part which covers the body from about the breast to the knees, is made, for ordinary wear, of cotton, and for gala purposes, of silk. It measures from 20-22 inches in breadth from top to bottom. It is always of a striped pattern, the usual colours being yellow, blue and red; the stripes, though made lengthwise in the materials, being worn horizontally round the body. Above this, just reaching to the breast, is a narrow strip of black, dark-brown, or white cotton stuff, while below hangs a cotton border, about a foot deep, in dark red or dark brown. [1986(1884):326]
8 Bock, writing in 1884, observed, "A few Lao women are beginning to wear tight-fitting jackets, cut to the shape of the figure, with equally tight sleeves, something after the style of the 'ladies' jerseys' recently so fashionable in Paris and London, and involving no small amount of labour to get on and off" (1986 :327). Writing at about the same time, Cort made a similar observation: "Some are beginning to wear jackets or waists, but the usual style is for the women to have a brightly colored cotton or silk scarf tied around their chests just under the arms" (1886:348).
daew chador and indigo shirts now identified as stereotypical of the
peasantry appear to have been of recent vintage, dating from about the
the century. Ironically, the blue farmer shirts (sya moh hoom) now worn
university students and Thai officials to demonstrate Thai nationalist
seem to have been popularized by Chinese merchants. The daew chador has
common with Chinese-style loose-fitting pants than with the traditional
toi. Additional support for the view that jackets became more common as
century progressed are provided in a few passing comments. In 1868
Alabaster detailed his recollections of people's dress ten years
noting: "I remember that ten years ago at any of the great festivals
attracted there 40 or 50,000 spectators, almost all wore but one
garment - or a
sarong and scarf. Now almost every one adds thereto a cotton or silk
jacket" (1868). Stringer, writing in his trade report of 1890
cloth was highly
valued elsewhere in
11 "A comment on the poverty of temple slaves in Burma supplies further evidence that the sheer amount of cloth in one's clothing was an indication of economic status: "They are poor these slaves, the men wear no brilliant putsoes and the women wear no vest beneath their jacket" (Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget 1899b).
12 The value of cloth is also suggested in a northern Thai rhyme describing the payment that three women received in return for sexual favors: "Miss Kum asked for silver, Miss Huan asked for cloth, Miss Noja asked for an elephant. Hurry up and finish Doctor" (Bristowe 1976:127, cited in Patel 1990:127). Cotton's value as a commodity is seen too in the fact that there were traveling minstrels who literally "sang for their cotton." A favorite form of village entertainment in the past was soh, witty and often bawdy repartee between a male and a female singer, with musical accompaniment. One especially popular form of soh was the soh kep nok, or "singing repartee to collect birds." In villages with surplus raw cotton, this soh would be performed as soh laek fai (singing in exchange for cotton). Each village household wishing a performance would build a tree as a stage prop, with cotton representing the birds in the tree. At a certain point in the plot, the male singer would then "shoot down" all the cotton birds and put them in his bag. Having collected all the cotton balls, the performers would then move to the next house where they had been invited to perform, again receiving cotton as payment. (For more on the soh kep nok performance itself, see Shim- bhanao 1982-84).
paintings have been preserved at Wat Phumin in
of peace Chiang Tung and Chiang Mai were closely linked by trade as
well as by
cultural and linguistic similarities, I include these descriptions of
Tung in the discussion of northern
Manchester chowls, "of which
four different sizes are sold, fetch from Rs. 20 to Rs. 24 per corge of
pieces, and the Bombay goods, also sold in four sizes, fetch from Rs.
17 to Rs.
20 per corge" (1891). Chowl is another word for phaa nung. According to
Carlisle's 1899 trade report, chowl was "the Indian name for the
'phalai' or 'paley,' that is the 'phaanung' or lower portion of the
costume printed and furnished with a glaze" (1900). In other words, it
a length of printed cloth some three to four meters long. A possibly
figure for the price per length was given by Alabaster, who suggested
the British could manufacture sarongs to sell retail at about 4 to 6
apiece, they might find a market in
Ingram has done
a remarkable job of gathering wage labor rates for central
17 1t is interesting that while remarking on the indolence of the natives, Black commented that it was "not uncommon to find Khamoos working for foresters who had failed to pay their wages for 5-6 years" (1900).
the early part
of the 20th century, the Burmese rupee (called the taep in
Thai) was the dominant currency in northern
sumptuary laws is ambiguous. On the one hand, the presence of such laws
suggests an elite strong enough to have them passed; on the other hand,
suggests an elite whose status is being undermined. It has been argued
that there was a 24-hour time limit for the weaving, sewing, and dyeing
monks' robes (1990). Although I encountered no villagers who recalled
tradition in the north, Nash does record a marathon weaving (although
mention is made of dyeing) event in a cotton-growing village in
21 Far more
be said about the raw materials needed for dyeing. For more on this and
dyes, see Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman (1987) and Fraser-Lu (1988).
Schneider (1976) for a fascinating discussion of the importance of dyes
political economy of
22 A few of the traditional ordination pillows have survived. I saw one that was among a villager's last remaining unsold treasures; it had been made by his mother for his initiation. A triangular pillow made of black satin cloth, it had gold thread embroidered into a flower design at the points of the triangle.
23 Cloth that has been worn as a woman's phaa sin can be very powerful symbolically. Soldiers often wore pieces from their mothers' phaa sins to protect them in battle, with the idea that their mothers had done the most to give them life and would do the most to protect them. This symbolism becomes even more intriguing when considered in light of the famous myth of Queen Chamathevi. She wove pieces of a phaa sin into a hat for a suitor to ensure that his arrows would fall short of their mark and he would thus fail in his quest for her hand in marriage. The stratagem worked.
seems to have been a more important and more widespread part of the
household economy in northeastern than in northern
25 The importance of pillows in aristocratic homes was graphically portrayed by McLeod in an account of a royal audience:
The position in which I was seated not being the most comfortable, which his son observing, whispered to his father when pillows were ordered to be brought in for me. None of the officers are permitted to use these in the Tsobua's [ruling lord's] presence. [1836:57]
26 The Pali word kathina means a piece of cloth that in former times was donated to a temple for making robes; alternatively, it means the wooden frame on which the cloth was traditionally sewn into robes (Davis 1984:200).
27 Even today kathin ceremonies are "most often sponsored by government agencies, private companies, and wealthy families" (Davis 1984:200).
28 The central Thai king, King Mongkut, wore robes of yellow silk while he was a monk (Feltus 1924:53).
29 I enjoyed the very equivocal, but passionate, response of yet another informant. She said:
Rich people didn't know how to spin or weave. They bought their clothes ready-made or hired other people to weave their cloth for them. Rich people were too lazy to weave for themselves. But some rich people were stingy; they wove their own clothes instead of hiring poor people.
30 lronically, Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman suggest that in the past "every woman owned at least one tin chok for special occasions" (1987:12). Because these borders required so much skill to weave and were so expensive to buy, I am quite skeptical of this claim. I think that only the wealthiest of villagers, or villagers who were themselves expert weavers, would have owned a tin jok.
31 Hildebrand did not specify how the slaves of the second chief were employed; however, we know from Bock's account that one of the second chief's wives had her slaves spin silk. Hildebrand wrote, "The second chief's source of income is not so calculable; he derives a good deal from the labor of his slaves, of whom, with his wives and children, he never has less than 600 under his roof, and the number outside would probably double this amount" (1875).
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