005th Meeting – April 1985

Social Implications of Trade in the Chiang Mai Valley in the 19th Century

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.


Unraveling the Myth of the Subsistence Economy: Textile Production in Nineteenth-Century Northern Thailand

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

Author(s): Katherine A. Bowie University of Wisconsin, Madison

Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Feb., 1993), pp. 138-158

Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association


As anthropologists, most of us would agree with Bruner that "our first responsibility is to respect people's accounts of their experiences as they choose to present them" (1983:9). However, those of us interested in historical anthropology face a special challenge since we are rarely able to draw upon indigenous accounts of everyday life. Even when we are able to use such texts, the problem of ethnographic authority remains (Clifford 1988:8; Clifford and Marcus 1986). Considerable work is being done in historical anthropology in reconstructing indigenous histories by using the early narratives of Western observers. However, such efforts have obvious problems of observer bias (see Cohn 1987:136-171; Said 1978; Savage 1984). Furthermore, as in the descriptions discussed in this article, the outside observers have sometimes recorded opposing opinions. How are we, as anthropologists writing today, to assess such conflicting appraisals? Using the case of textiles in 19th-century northern Thailand, I should like to suggest that by reconstructing the political economy of a society, we can evaluate contradictory historical descriptions.

From Veblen (1912[1899]) and Simmel (1957[1904]) 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).


"Throughout history, the Archival sources have presented contradictory assessments of the social significance of textiles in northern Thailand. Using oral histories and archival sources, this article clarifies the important role of textiles in differentiating classes in 19th century northern Thai society. Focusing on cotton and silk, it argues that an analysis of the social process of textile production helps reveal the cultural significance of these class differences. It concludes by suggesting that an analysis of a society's political economy provides useful

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).

Early Western observers of mainland Southeast Asia depicted indigenous dress in contradictory ways. A clear example survives in the differing accounts of Caesar Frederici and Ralph Fitch, who traveled to the Burmese kingdom of Pegu within a few years of each other. Frederici, an Italian merchant, minimized or trivialized the social distinctions in dress between elites and commoners: he wrote in 1581, "In Pegu the fashion of their apparel is all one as well the noble man as the simple: the only difference is in the fineness of cloth" (cited in Reid 1988:85). Michael Edwardes suggests that the English merchant Fitch reached the opposite conclusion during a journey there in 1587:1

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]

Contradictory assessments of dress also occur in 19th-century descriptions of northern Thai dress. The anonymous author of one of the earliest surviving accounts remarked on the lack of class distinction in women's clothing: "It is curious to notice the uniformity and universality of the female dress. The higher classes vary the style a little by inserting a very showy strip of wrought silk next above the bottom piece" (Bangkok Recorder 1866). Twenty years later, an American missionary working in northern Thailand wrote in almost identical wording: "Rich and poor all dress alike, except that the higher classes vary the universal style a little by inserting a very showy strip of wrought silk into the skirt near the bottom" (Cort 1886:348).

Although scattered archival accounts about northern Thailand suggest minimal differentiation in dress, there is also indirect evidence of sumptuary laws designed to ensure differentiation. Sumptuary laws were certainly in effect in neighboring Burma during the 19th century (Shway Yoe 1963[1882]:406-412). Crawfurd described a sumptuary code in adjacent 19th century Siam (central Thailand), adding, "the plebeian who infringes it is liable to summary punishment from the followers of any person of condition who may casually meet him" (1987[1828]:313).2 Most northern Thai men were thickly tattooed from the waist to below the knees and even almost to the ankles. A rare interview with a ruling northern Thai lord in 1866 intimated class consciousness: the lord, discussing the custom of tattooing, explained that "persons of his class" seldom followed this "singular custom" as they did not reckon themselves "among the class born to take the rough and tumble of life" (Bangkok Recorder 1866).3 Another account recorded that the rulers of the northern Thai kingdom of Lampang "discouraged the use of hats and belts; viz, it broke the distinction between prince and people" (Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget 1899a).4

Thus, depending upon the archival source, contemporary scholars can reach opposing assessments of the character of these earlier societies. Research on textiles in mainland Southeast Asia is just beginning (see Brown 1980; Cheesman 1988; Fraser-Lu 1988; Lefferts 1988, 1990; Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman 1987). Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman's Lanna Textiles: Yuan, Lue, Lao (1987) is the only full-length work on textiles in northern Thailand; as such it is an important preliminary study, especially useful for describing some of the items woven and the techniques used. In this article, I examine the broader social context of textile consumption and production, drawing upon two major kinds of sources, archival and oral. The archival sources include consular reports (primarily British), 19th century newspaper accounts, travelogues, and works by American missionaries. In addition I have interviewed hundreds of villagers over the age of 80 living throughout the Chiang Mai Valley of northern Thailand.5 I use archival sources primarily for insight into the consumption, production, and acquisition of textiles by the elite; I rely more heavily on oral histories for insights into the everyday life of villagers. Based upon an understanding of the social processes of textile production and consumption, I argue that the controversy generated by the contradictory opinions of certain 19th century observers of northern Thai society can be resolved in favor of those who asserted that there were dramatic differences of dress and class in the northern Thai semiotics of consumption.

The Chiang Mai Valley was the site of the largest and most important of the northern Thai kingdoms. These kingdoms were located in the region today called northern Thailand but called "Western Laos" by 19th century missionaries and other foreign observers. The courts of the various principalities were located in the mountain valleys of Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae, Nan, and Chiang Rai, each today serving as a provincial capital. Although these kingdoms were independent, they had been tributary to the neighboring kingdom of Burma for several hundred years. During the 19th century, they were tributary to the central Thai court at Bangkok; thereafter they were incorporated into Thailand.

This article is divided into two parts. In the first, I examine the cultural significance of textile consumption in 19th century northern Thailand. I present some of the surviving descriptions of dress, ranging from the daily wear of commoners to the state robes of the ruling lords, and subsequently expand the discussion from dress to other applications of textiles, arguing that there were dramatic differences between peasants and lords in this broader sphere as well. In the second part of the article, I describe how this differentiation between elites and commoners was revealed in the social process of textile production. Focusing on the two most important textiles used; cotton and silk, I consider the overall importance of textiles in the political economy of these northern Thai kingdoms, noting the role of tribute and slave labor in the acquisition of textiles by the elite.

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:

But the dress of the Laosian women is very unlike that of the Siamese women. The main article of their dress is a very peculiar petticoat - made always of four pieces sewed together so that their seams pass around the body. The upper piece is white about 6 inches wide; the next below is red, 12 inches wide; the next 24 inches woven with stripes of white and black shaded, with motley colours, the stripes being an inch wide; the bottom piece is red and 14 inches wide. The ends of the garment thus made are sewed together, and when placed on the person is kept in its place just as the Siamese do their panoong [phaa nung], by using a white strip for a belt as a band of a sheaf of wheat is twisted and tucked under itself. The women very generally have a white, yellow, or pink sash which they tie around their chests. [Bangkok Recorder 1866]6

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[1884]: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[1884]: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[1884]: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:

[The king] entered and ascended the throne. He was a slight man arrayed in golden sandals and red- and-gold coat and pahnoong [phaa nung], a strip of cloth a yard wide and nearly 4 yards long.... The golden crown upon his pompadoured, gray head sparkled with precious stones. [Taylor 1888-1930:73]

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

Not only were the clothes worn by the aristocracy very ornate, generally woven of silk with gold and silver threads for design, but they were also very expensive. A few references afford a glimpse of their labor time and cost. Richardson wrote:

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.

Cloth and clothing played an important role in ritual prestations. For villagers, one of the most significant of these prestations was the offering of articles of clothing to parents, grandparents, and other elderly relatives on the fourth day (Day of the Year's Mouth, or wan paak pii) of the New Year's ceremonies held in mid-April. In addition, some cloth item, token or real, could be offered to a villager to whom one felt indebted. Davis provides a contemporary description of this longstanding northern village custom:

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

Clothing figured in lesser ways in other village rituals. Small scraps of red and white cloth served as part of spirit-offering trays; in these trays villagers included symbolic representations of a variety of household items such as mirrors, combs, and clothes for the spirit to use. Handspun cotton thread was used in blessing ceremonies (mat myy, syyb chataa, and the like).23In funerary rites clothing was traditionally put on the body of the deceased inside out. The deceased's good clothes were either distributed among immediate relatives or given to the temple for redistribution; the remainder were burnt with the body. Although northern villagers denied that a young bride necessarily acquired a wedding trousseau (in contrast to northeastern Thailand; see Lefferts 1990), a few villagers mentioned ornate facecloths (phaa chet) being given to the groom.24

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 had a variety of pillows, the prestige pillows were usually triangular and were used for daytime reclining. Their importance was highlighted in a British official's 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 foreign-made weapons, chandeliers, mirrors, lanterns, curtains, reclining pillows, and even imported carpets (Taylor 1888-1930:73; Younghusband 1888:63-64). In 1830 Richardson noted the presence of Indian and Chinese carpets (1829-36:63), and in 1885 Ernest Satow recorded that the ruling lord of Chiang Mai had European furniture and "a number of gaudy Brussels carpets" (1885-86:51).

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 great trader and made frequent, almost yearly, trips down through Siam with a retinue, sometimes going as far as Bangkok. She had relatives in Chiengrai, and when she rode through the market in her state robes with gold trappings on her pony her coming was the event of the year. [Dodd 1923:201]

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:

At the close of the rainy season, the Kathin ceremonies take place, lasting one month. At the time of the Kathin ceremonies offerings are made of stacks of cowry shells, of stacks of areca, of stacks of flowers, of cushions, and of pillows. The Kathin offerings made each year amount to two million. Chanting, (the people) go off to perform the Kathin ceremonies at the monastery of the Aranyik, and when they return to the city the procession forms at the monastery of the Aranyik and stretches as far as the border of the plain. There everyone prostrates himself, while lutes and guitars, hymns and songs resound. Whoever wants to play, plays; whoever wants to laugh, laughs; whoever wants to sing, sings. This city of Sukhothai has four main gates - each year a great crowd presses against them in order to enter and see the king light candles and gesture with the fire. And this city of Sukhothai is filled with people to the bursting point! [Benda and Larkin 1967:42]

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[1884]: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 expected to visit annually every temple in the city which has been dedicated to him and make presents of yellow robes. According to the Directory of Siam, …the total cost of these offerings is probably not less than $10,000. [Dodd 1923:200]

In addition to making public prestations such as those at the Kathin ceremonies, the elite would have given considerable amounts of textile goods away during any other life-cycle or calendrical ceremonies they might hold. Thai ceremonials usually included a merit-making component in which gifts, including monastic robes and embroidered pillows, were given as offerings to the monks (see Davis 1984). Archival sources also note the use of textiles as gifts to visiting dignitaries: the gifts given to Satow, a British official, by the ruling chief of Lampang included velvet mattresses, pillows adorned with Chinese brocade, and silk skirts (Satow 1885- 86:206). Thus, not only did the peasants and the lords differ considerably in terms of dress and household possessions, but they also differed in the extent to which they donated textiles on ritual occasions.

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

Most clothing was made from cotton. However, contrary to what is commonly assumed, weaving was not a universal household industry; only certain villagers in certain villages wove (see Bowie 1988, 1992). The weaving of simple cotton cloth was spread quite widely throughout the Chiang Mai Valley, and certain districts were especially known for their concentrations of weavers. Those districts that had a reputation for cotton weaving in the past, especially the San Kamphaeng and Bo sang districts, have maintained their reputations down to the present. Furthermore, oral histories reveal weaving to have been a highly specialized activity, with different villagers involved in the different phases of production. By far the most commonly produced cloth was a plain white cotton, often later dyed with indigo. The villagers most likely to produce such cloth were the poorer ones, who wove both for their own household needs and for sale or hire. Such village weavers were more likely to find weaving an onerous obligation from which others were freed.

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."

Unlike the weaving of plain cotton, the weaving of complex cotton cloths such as supplementary wefts or multi-harness weaves with multiple color designs was concentrated in only a few specific villages (see Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman 1987 for details). These villages included Baan Ton Hen in San Patong District, Baan Aen in Hot District, a few villages in Chom Thong District, and various villages in Lamphun Province, particularly around the Basang area. Even today, Baan Ton Hen is famous for its fancy shoulder cloths and borders on bed sheets, while Baan Aen is famous for its tin jok skirt borders. Although I have not been able to pinpoint which village(s) in Chom Thong wove tin jok borders, women in that district wear a distinctive heirloom phaa sin on festival occasions, suggesting that Chom Thong too may have been a center for this kind of specialized weaving. Lamphun is famous for its multi-harness weaves. Some sense of how highly skilled the weavers of complex designs were can be found in Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman's comment that some of the weaving techniques, such as that used for tin jok skirt borders, required "up to a thousand shed sticks" (1987:24). Because so much skill was involved, the weaving of complex designs was not widespread, and so valuable was such cloth that it could be used as collateral on loans.30

The more complex the weave, the more likely that the weaver was affiliated in some manner with the aristocracy, as war captive, slave, or member of the court. Virtually each of the areas known for weaving is associated with an ethnic minority brought into the Chiang Mai Valley as war captives sometime during the 19th century. Baan Ton Hen is a Khyyn village; San Kamphaeng (particularly around the original district town of Baan Oon) is also known as a Khyyn area. The Khyyn are a population who originally lived in the Chiang Tung area: Chiang Mai led attacks on Chiang Tung in 1849, 1852-53, and 1854, and it seems people were brought back on these occasions (Wilson and Hanks 1985:29). Over half of the people living in the Lamphun region are said to have descended from war captives (Freeman 1910:100). Chom Thong town has a Lawa population, many of whom served as temple slaves. Unfortunately, I was unable to acquire any information about the ethnic background of villagers in Baan Aen since the entire village was forced to relocate when a hydroelectric dam was built.

Unlike villagers, who had to weave, trade for, or buy their clothing, the ruling lords were able to extract raw cotton, woven cloth, and dyestuffs as tribute. Their ability to levy tribute on broad sectors of the population provided the aristocracy with a quantity of cotton cloth no single producer could hope to match. Interestingly, the majority of villagers who sent cotton or cloth as tribute appear to have been hilltribe populations, such as the Karen and the Mussur (today more commonly called the Lahu). One of the Karen villages that Captain Thomas Lowndes 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). Richardson also noted tribute of cloth paid by the Karen during his travels in 1830 (1829-36:37, 45). Captain McLeod found that the KaKuis had to make presents of mats and cloths to the lords (1836:57). McGilvary commented that much of the raw cotton being purchased by the Yunnanese traders came from the Mussur; although he did not specifically mention tribute, it is likely that the Mussur too would have been expected to offer tribute to the ruling lords in the form of raw cotton or finished cloth. While the aristocracy were able to make apparently generous donations on ritual occasions, much of what they gave was in fact the contribution of others.

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 traders and some demand for cotton cloth in Burma (Bowie 1992; Hill 1982; Reid 1988:91). British vice consul Archer mentioned in his trade report of 1894 that "women's cloths of coarse cotton, woven by the Laos [were] sought after in Burma as being very durable," although he added that the export was not very considerable (1895). Such cloth, together with silk goods, could also have been offered as tribute to other kingdoms. However they used it, lords - because they could exact tribute and slave labor - found it much easier to acquire cloth than did commoners, who had to weave fabric themselves or find some other means of acquiring it.

The weaving of silk: In addition to the broad spectrum of villagers involved in weaving, women in the court also wove. However, members of the court appear to have woven luxury items, primarily of silk. As Richardson wrote as early as 1830, "The daughters and slaves of men of rank are employed in weaving and in embroydering the cloths used by the women and ends for pillows and a triangular sort of cushion used to lean against peculiar to the Shans" ("Shans" refers here to the northern Thai [1829-36:37]). In the course of collecting oral histories, Patel met a trader who bought "valuable sarongs woven with gold and silver threads" from the lords of the Lampang kingdom; Patel suggests that these sarongs were probably woven by the princesses themselves or by weavers in their service (1990:125, 143). Citing the Burmese example, she suggests that rich women "wove gold threads into their fabrics to prove that they did not have to weave out of economic necessity" (1990:143). Silk was included among the luxury items being woven in noble households. In 1884 Bock offered an eyewitness account of the wife of the second-ranked king of Chiang Mai:

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.

In addition 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 Chiang 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, with "slaves being employed on some more profitable occupation" (1875). As early as 1830, Richardson commented on the aristocracy's active involvement in trade, saying, "The chiefs are all traders" (1829-36:36). Younghusband introduced the interesting issue of gender exploitation with regard to profits from silk weaving:

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]

Some idea of the potential scale of royal weaving was given by D. J. Edwardes, who wrote that the ruling lord of Chiang Mai had 300 slaves weaving cloth for him (1875). It appears that these Chiang Mai silks were marketed in Burma. In his summary of the Chiang Mai kingdom, Lowndes commented: "Weaving and embroidery are the principal handicrafts, the silk putsoes [phaa nung] are much sought after by the Burmans, as they wear three times as long as those of Burmese manufacture" (1871). He made a similar point about the silk woven in Hot, noting that it was "said to be very strong and durable" and adding, "A thitgoung [headman] showed me a putso that he had had in wear for 7 years, and it was by no means worn out" (1871).

Royal courts throughout Southeast Asia appear to have played a role in the production of luxury textiles. H. G. Kennedy, who visited Cambodia in 1866, wrote:

Silk forms perhaps the most important branch of commerce: a fine quality of the raw material is already exported in considerable quantities.... Cambodia however enjoys a still greater reputation for the beauty and excellence of the langoutis and other silken fabrics which are largely manufactured in the vicinity of the capital. [1866]

Our insight 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 mainland Southeast Asia. As Fraser-Lu writes:

Thailand, the greatest producer of silk in Southeast Asia, has historically traded in silk with its Kampuchean and Burmese neighbors. The Kampuchean and Lao peoples have also traditionally raised silkworms for domestic use. Burma has not produced a great deal of silk … The Burmese textile producing area of Shwedaung, near Prome, has traditionally relied on the Yabein, an animist slash-and-burn people living on the nearby hillsides, to grow the silkworm for coarse silk yarns used to produce everyday clothing, while another animist tribe, the Riang (sometimes called Yang), have traditionally grown silk for the Buddhist Shans of Burma. The best quality silk has always been imported overland from China. [Fraser- Lu 1988:26; see also Shway Yoe 1963(1882):269-273]

Even within Thailand, silkworms are cultivated only in certain regions. As Ingram points out, the central region of Thailand "is by nature not as well suited to produce silk and cotton as are the North and Northeast. The yearly floods make it difficult to cultivate cotton and mulberry trees, while in the dry season it is too dry" (1971:114). In the 19th century, the primary region for silkworm cultivation was northeastern Thailand and western Cambodia. Captain H. M. Jones noted:

The culture of silk in Siam.... is confined to the numerous Laos settlements throughout the country, especially in Korat [in northeastern Thailand] and in the Cambodian provinces around Battambong.... The Cambodian silk product is sent chiefly to Saigon. The cheap Korat silk is said to be the only kind that can be exported profitably; it goes to Singapore, whence it finds its way to Bombay to be mixed with finer qualities. [1890; see also Kennedy 1866; Knox 1860]

Wild silkworms were collected in northern Thailand, and some silkworms were cultivated in the town of Hot during the 19th century. However, the bulk of the raw silk used in the northern Thai courts was imported. As Bock explained:

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]

In San Kamphaeng, where silk production has continued to the present day, raw silk was imported from Luang Prabang, Laos, and later from Mandalay, Burma. Raw silk was also routinely imported by the Haw traders coming from Yunnan, China (Hill 1982; see also Bowie 1992).

The geographical distribution of raw materials had social implications. Since sufficient quantities of cotton grew in upland regions of northern Thailand to be readily exported, cotton was more accessible to ordinary villagers and could, in turn, be extracted by the ruling lords through tribute. Since silkworms were not abundant in northern Thailand, raw silk had to be imported. Silk's scarcity heightened its price and its prestige value, serving to concentrate silk weaving in the hands of the court. Aristocratic control of silk production was further aided by the fact that the silk fiber is very fine and hence is far more difficult and time-consuming to weave than cotton.

A comparison of cotton and silk production, then, reveals important contrasts. While cotton was exported, silk was imported into northern Thailand. While cotton was generally woven by freeholding villagers, silk seems to have been woven by slaves and members of the aristocracy. While villagers, except those who begged or stole their clothing, had to obtain textiles through direct economic means, aristocrats were able to augment their own production through the political means of tribute and slave labor. Furthermore, because poverty was widespread and not all villagers grew or wove cotton themselves, many villagers faced hardships in acquiring clothing of any kind for their families.

Understanding the process of textile production helps contemporary readers gain insight into the cultural meaning of cloth to 19th century northern Thai. Once we understand the chronic poverty of most villagers and the difficulty with which villagers obtained even the simplest of cotton cloth, the significance of cloth in daily life and in village rituals becomes clearer. Simultaneously, we can begin to enter the cultural world of 19th century villagers to learn the social meaning of the difference between clothes made of cotton and those made of silk.

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:

Combining oral histories with archival sources, this article has examined textile consumption and production in 19th century northern Thailand. If we have an understanding of the social process of textile production, the "concentrated meaning" (Barthes 1984:185) of northern Thailand textiles becomes more apprehensible. Such apparently minor details of fashion as the use of a silk skirt border - or, as one early observer phrases it, "a showy strip of wrought silk" - can no longer be interpreted as meaning that "rich and poor all dress[ed] alike" (Cort 1886:346). Important differences in dress, household possessions, and ritual prestations separated the aristocracy from the peasantry. These differences signified profound differences in the relationship of each to the political economy. Thus, the semiotics of consumption in northern Thai society is illuminated by an understanding of its political economy. This article on the consumption and production of textiles in 19th century northern Thailand has been at once a description of the social context of textiles and an exercise in historical anthropology. The evaluation and appropriate application of archival sources present a challenge to every historical anthropologist, since these sources are replete with omissions and distortions. However, by interweaving oral histories with archival sources, we can recapture much of the fabric of the past. Oral histories enhance the archival sources by contributing some sense of the lived experiences of the unrecorded majority. This article has shown how developing a better understanding of a society's political economy can provide an independent means to assess the opinions of outside observers of indigenous societies.




Acknowledgments. This article emerges from my dissertation fieldwork on 19th century political economy, conducted from 1984 to 1986 under the auspices of the National Research Council of Thailand with a grant from the Social Science Research Council. Subsequent fieldwork specifically on textile production was conducted during the summer of 1989 with a grant from the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I would like to thank Cornelia Kammerer, Jean De Bernardi, Nicola Tannenbaum, Patricia Cheesman, Songsak Prangwatthanakun, Kristine Hastreiter, Kate Bjork, Hugh Wilson, and the American Ethnologist reviewers for their various contributions toward the research and writing of this article.

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[1828]:313).

3 The passage continued:

But ... other classes of the males follow the fashion because they glory in being men and not women - men who can fight like the devils that are pictured on their abdomens and thighs, and run like deer when occasion calls, through jungles and swamps with but little to cover their tattooed nudity. [Bangkok Recorder 1866]

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.

5 During dissertation fieldwork in 1984-86, I interviewed more than 500 villagers over the age of 80 living in about 400 villages throughout the Chiang Mai Valley. I repeatedly asked villagers for their recollections of life when they were young as well as for their memories of what their parents and grandparents had said about life in their days (see Bowie 1988). This article emerges from accidental observations made during my dissertation research. During the summer of 1989 I interviewed another 100 villagers, specifically asking about textiles.

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]

Taylor provided an additional description of 19th century northern Thai dress while offering tantalizing hints of regional and ethnic variation: I did not note any racial difference between these Eastern Laos and the Northern Laos of Siam. The women wore a jacket and skirt as do the Northern Laos; but the costumes differed in these ways: the narrow stripes in the Eastern Laos skirt ran up and down, and the predominating color was a dark red. Whereas the narrow stripes in the Northern Laos skirt ran around the body, and the predominating color was yellow. And the broad band of trimming at the top and bottom of the Eastern skirt was silver woven in designs, but the bands on the Northern Laos skirt were white at the top and dark red at the bottom. [1888-1930:291]

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[1884] :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).

9 The indigo-dyed cotton daew chador and indigo shirts now identified as stereotypical of the Thai peasantry appear to have been of recent vintage, dating from about the turn of the century. Ironically, the blue farmer shirts (sya moh hoom) now worn by university students and Thai officials to demonstrate Thai nationalist pride seem to have been popularized by Chinese merchants. The daew chador has more in common with Chinese-style loose-fitting pants than with the traditional phaa toi. Additional support for the view that jackets became more common as the century progressed are provided in a few passing comments. In 1868 Henry Alabaster detailed his recollections of people's dress ten years earlier, noting: "I remember that ten years ago at any of the great festivals which 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 specifically about northern Thailand, commented, "The wearing of singlets and coats of European pattern by the men and cotton jackets by the women is becoming more common" (1891).

10 That cloth was highly valued elsewhere in Southeast Asia is also reflected in the following Burmese proverb: "If you are on the way to an ahlu [merit-making ceremony], do not wear your jacket; carry it and put it on when you arrive; it lasts longer that way" (Nash 1965:232).

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).

13 Nineteenth-century paintings have been preserved at Wat Phumin in Nan and Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai.

14 Because during times 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 Chiang Tung in the discussion of northern Thailand. Kun or Khynn is the name of the ethnic group living in the region around Chiang Tung (Keng Tung), many of whom were brought to Chiang Mai as war captives and resettled there.

15 Stringer wrote that Manchester chowls, "of which four different sizes are sold, fetch from Rs. 20 to Rs. 24 per corge of 20 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 T. Carlisle's 1899 trade report, chowl was "the Indian name for the Siamese 'phalai' or 'paley,' that is the 'phaanung' or lower portion of the Siamese costume printed and furnished with a glaze" (1900). In other words, it was a length of printed cloth some three to four meters long. A possibly higher figure for the price per length was given by Alabaster, who suggested that if the British could manufacture sarongs to sell retail at about 4 to 6 shillings apiece, they might find a market in Thailand (1868). Since the rupee was valued at 13 pence in 1895, this would suggest a cost of 3.7 to 5.6 rupees per length. However, I have no figures with which to calculate the shilling/rupee exchange rate for 1868.

16 James Ingram has done a remarkable job of gathering wage labor rates for central Thailand (1964).

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).

18 Until the early part of the 20th century, the Burmese rupee (called the taep in northern Thai) was the dominant currency in northern Thailand. The Siamese (central Thai) baht only became the standard currency thereafter. The baht equaled 100 satang. The exchange rate between the Siamese baht and the Burmese rupee fluctuated but was about 80 to 90 satang per rupee (according to interviews and Archer 1895). Since a win equaled 12 satang, it was approximately equivalent to one-seventh of a rupee.

19 The significance of 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, it also suggests an elite whose status is being undermined. It has been argued that in England, where a variety of such laws were passed, they represented not the strength of the aristocracy but its weakness vis-à-vis the growing fiscal strength of the bourgeoisie. Sumptuary laws have even been interpreted as the protectionist tactics of a local bourgeoisie protecting domestic production against foreign imports (see Hooper 1915). They have also been interpreted as paternalistic efforts by concerned governments to protect their citizens from profligacy (Phillips and Staley 1961).

20 Lefferts suggests that there was a 24-hour time limit for the weaving, sewing, and dyeing of monks' robes (1990). Although I encountered no villagers who recalled such a tradition in the north, Nash does record a marathon weaving (although no mention is made of dyeing) event in a cotton-growing village in Burma. The ceremony begins by recapitulating the activities that go into making a monk's robes, namely, "a mock planting of cotton, harrowing, tree growing, plucking, and ginning of cotton." Nash continues: The girls work in good coordination and without any visible supervision. They rotate jobs about every fifteen minutes since they want peak performance.... The girls work all night and finish the cloth, and the following day it will be sent to the monastery. [1965:135-136]

21 Far more remains to be said about the raw materials needed for dyeing. For more on this and other dyes, see Prangwatthanakun and Cheesman (1987) and Fraser-Lu (1988). See Schneider (1976) for a fascinating discussion of the importance of dyes in the political economy of Europe.

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.

24 Textile production seems to have been a more important and more widespread part of the village household economy in northeastern than in northern Thailand. Consequently, I believe, cloth goods figured more prominently in wedding celebrations in the northeast.

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).

References cited

Alabaster, Henry

1868 Trade Report of Siam of 1867. Foreign Office Series No. 69, Vol. 46, 18 January. MS, Public Records Office, London.

Archer, W. J.

1895 Trade Report of Chiang Mai (1894). Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 28 June.

Bangkok Recorder

1866 The Manners and Customs of the Cheang Mai Laos. Bangkok Recorder, 30 August.

Barthes, Roland

1984 The Fashion System. M. Ward and R. Howard, trans. Berkeley: University of California Press. Benda, Harry J., and John A. Larkin, eds.

1967 The World of Southeast Asia: Selected Historical Readings. New York: Harper and Row.

Black, J. Stewart

1900 Trade Report of Chiang Mai (1899). Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 22 October.

Bock, Carl

1986[1884] Temples and Elephants: Travels in Siam in 1881-1882. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre

1984 A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. R. Nice, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bowie, Katherine A.

1988 Peasant Perspectives on the Political Economy of the Northern Thai Kingdom of Chiang Mai in the Nineteenth Century: Implications for the Understanding of Peasant Political Expression. Ph.D. dissertation. Anthropology Department, University of Chicago.

1992 Unraveling the Myth of the Subsistence Economy: The Case of Textile Production in Nineteenth Century Northern Thailand. Journal of Asian Studies 15(4):797-823.

Bristowe, W. S.

1976 Louis and the King of Siam. London: Chatto and Windus.

Brown, lan

1980 Government Initiative and Peasant Response in the Siamese Silk Industry, 1901-1913. Journal of the Siam Society 68(2):34-47.

Bruner, Edward M., ed.

1983 Text, Play, and Story: The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society. Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society. Washington, DC: American Ethnological Society.

Calavan, Sharon Kay

1974 Aristocrats and Commoners in Rural Northern Thailand. Ph.D. dissertation. Anthropology Department, University of Illinois.

Carlisle, T.

1900 Trade Report of Siam (1899). Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 16 October.  

Cheesman, Patricia 1988 Lao Textiles: Ancient Symbols - Living Art. Bangkok: White Lotus Company.

Clifford, James

1988 The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds.

1986 Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohn, Bernard S.

1987 An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Cort, Mary Lovina

1886 Siam: The Heart of Farther India. New York: Anson D. F. Randolph.

Crawfurd, John

1987[1828] Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China. D. K. Wyatt, introd. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Davis, Richard B.

1984 Muang Metaphysics: A Study of Northern Thai Myth and Ritual. Bangkok: Pandora.

De Young, John E.

1966 Village Life in Modern Thailand. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dodd, William Clifton

1923 The Tai Race: Elder Brother of the Chinese. Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press.

Edwardes, D. J.

1875 [Journey to Chiang Mai]. Foreign Office Series No. 69, Vol. 62, 17 June. MS, Public Records Office, London.

Edwardes, Michael

1972 Ralph Fitch, Elizabethan in the Indies. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Feltus, George Haws

1924 Samuel Reynolds House of Siam: Pioneer Medical Missionary 1847-1876. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Fleeson, Katherine Neville

1899 Laos Folklore of Farther India. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Fraser-Lu, Sylvia

1988 Handwoven Textiles of Southeast Asia. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Freeman, John H.

1910 An Oriental Land of the Free. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Ganjanapan, Anan

1984 The Partial Commercialization of Rice Production in Northern Thailand (1900-1981). Ph.D. dissertation. Anthropology Department, Cornell University.

Hildebrand, A. H.

1875 Report on Special Mission to Chiengmai. Foreign Office Series No. 69, Vol. 65, 15 February. MS, Public Records Office, London.

Hill, Ann Maxwell

1982 Familiar Strangers: The Yunnanese Chinese in Northern Thailand. Ph.D. dissertation. Anthropology Department, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Hooper, Wilfred

1915 The Tudor Sumptuary Laws. English Historical Review 30:433-449.

Ingram, James C.

1964 Thailand's Rice Trade and the Allocation of Resources. In The Economic Development of Southeast Asia: Studies in Economic History and Political Economy. C. D. Cowan, ed. pp. 102-126. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.

1971 Economic Change in Thailand, 1850-1970. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jones, H. M.

1890 Trade Report of Siam. Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 18 October: 16.

Kennedy, H. G.

1866 [Report of Expedition into Southern Laos and Camboja]. Foreign Office Series No. 69, Vol. 40, 31 May. MS, Public Records Office, London.

Knox, Thomas George

1860 Trade Report of Siam. Foreign Office Series No. 69, Vol. 21, 21 January. MS, Public Records Office, London.

Lefferts, H. Leedom, Jr.

1988 The Kings as Gods: Textiles in the Thai State. In Textiles as Primary Sources. Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18. J. E. Vollmer, comp. pp. 78-85. St. Paul: Textile Society of America.

1990 Textile Exchange in T'ai Societies. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Thai Studies. Vol. 1. pp. 363-371. Kunming, China: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Lowndes, Thomas

1871 Journal kept by Captain Lowndes, Superintendent of Police, British Burma, whilst on a Mission to the Zimme Court, 27 March to 30 May 1871. Foreign Office Series No. 69, Vol. 55, 20 June. MS, Public Records Office, London.

McCarthy, James

1900 Surveying and Exploring in Siam. London: John Murray.

McGilvary, Daniel

1912 A Half Century among the Siamese and the Lao. New York: Fleming H. Revell. McLeod, Captain

1836 [Journal of Captain McLeod]. MS, Manuscript Division, British Museum, London.

Murra, John V.

1962 Cloth and Its Function in the Inca State. American Anthropologist 64:710-728.

Nash, Manning

1965 The Golden Road to Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Patel, M. V.

1990 Silver Challenge Cups and a Bronze Frog Drum: Colonialism and the Development of Teak Capitalism in Northern Thailand. M.A. thesis. Anthropology Department, Macquarie University.

Phillips, Joanna W., and Helen K. Staley

1961 Sumptuary Legislation in Four Centuries. Journal of Home Economics 53 (8 October):673-677.

Prangwatthanakun, Songsak, and Patricia Cheesman

1987 Lanna Textiles: Yuan, Lue, Lao. Bangkok: Center for the Promotion of Arts and Culture, Chiang Mai University.

Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget

1899a From Northern Siam. Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 11 September: 11.

1899b Pagoda Slaves. Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 30 October.

Reid, Anthony

1988 Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Richardson, David

1829-36 [Journal of Dr. Richardson]. MS, Manuscript Division, British Museum, London.  

Sahlins, Marshall

1976 Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Said, Edward

1978 Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Satow, Ernest

1885-86 [Journal of Sir Ernest Satow]. Public Record Office Series No. PR030/33 (21/1). MS, Public Records Office, London.

Savage, Victor R. 1984 Western Impressions of Nature and Landscape in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Schneider, Jane

1976 Peacocks and Penguins: The Political Economy of European Cloth and Colors. American Ethnologist 5:413-447.

1987 The Anthropology of Cloth. Annual Review of Anthropology 16:409-448.

Shimbhanao, Surasingh

1982-84 Lokhathat chaw laanaa syksaa cak soh kep nok (The Worldview of Lanna People Based upon Soh Kep Nok Songs). Sangkhomsaat 6(2):11-36.

Shway Yoe [James George Scott]

1963[1882] The Burman: His Life and Notions. New York: W. W. Norton.

Simmel, Georg

1957[1904] Fashion. American Journal of Sociology 62(6):541-558.

Stringer, C. E. W.

1891 Trade Report of Chiang Mai (1890). Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 16 May.

1892 Trade Report of Chiang Mai (1891). Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 24 June.

Tannenbaum, Nicola

1987 Tattoos: Invulnerability and Power in Shan Cosmology. American Ethnologist 14:693-711.

Taylor, Hugh

1888-1930 Autobiography of Hugh Taylor. MS, Phayab College Library, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Veblen, Thorstein

1912[1899] The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: B. W. Huebsch.

Weiner, Annette B., and Jane Schneider, eds.

1989 Cloth and Human Experience. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Wilson, Constance M., and Lucien M. Hanks

1985 The Burma-Thailand Frontier over Sixteen Decades: Three Descriptive Documents. Monographs in International Studies Southeast Asia Series, No. 70. Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies.

Younghusband, G. J.

1888 Eighteen Hundred Miles on a Burmese Tat. London: W. H. Allen.


Submitted 23 April 1991 revised version submitted 8 August 1991 accepted 5 September 1991 158 American ethnologist