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To read my latest blog on indigo “mat yom” click here. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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The UK Batik Guild Trip to Java November 3rd – 16th 2013

Getting there Well that’s a story in itself as Malaysian airways and so it seems other airlines too decided to do some strange rescheduling. Some of us ended up spending an unexpected night or even two in Jakarta (although some sailed through it all by travelling via Singapore) and I spent rather more time than I had anticipated at Jogyakarta airport waiting for late arrivals, but by Sunday afternoon we were all happily safe and sound at the Duta Hotel on Jalan Prawirotoman in the heart of south Jogyakarta.

Sunday evening- introductions and a Javanese wedding

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After introductions all round and a welcome gin and tonic, some went off to get food and six of us ventured out into the warm wet night for a visit to a local wedding. It’s not in a hall or a grand house but just in the street with a tarpaulin cover over it. There’s a stage where the bride and groom and their parents shake hands with all the guests and where a woman belts out popular Indonesian songs. Having put some money into the collection box, we are all encouraged to go and have our photos taken with the bride’s party. We slowly shuffle past the huge queues waiting for the food to be served all the time taking photos avidly of the beautiful girls in their lovely lace jackets and batik sarongs and the men in their batik shirts, and emerge elated at the other side. A short visit to the wedding organisers shop-house to see jackets, turbans, and other bits and pieces available to hire for a wedding. Our becaks are waiting for us and back we go after a great experience.

Monday – screen prints, Malioboro street and the shadow puppet show

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My very good friend Susi, who I have known for about 15 years, is going to be my assistant and confidante and local guide and she is there first thing Monday morning to lead us on a neighbourhood walk around the local area. We start with the nearby market which is in full swing: jackfruit, mangoes, chillis, tofu and tempe (fermented soya bean cakes) all kinds of ginger, very long beans, small turquoise fish 2 per basket, the “jamu” lady making tonics and pick-me-ups, gula jawa (round cakes of dark brown cane sugar) tiny little speckled eggs, chickens feet and heads, ladles and sieves made out of coconut shells, rattan fans and baskets,

After that, we walk to a silk screen printing factory which I have never known was there. Seven very long tables, and two man working efficiently together on the screen can print one layer on all the fabric in an hour and a half. They apply the first dye and then the long lengths of fabric are hoisted aloft overhead to dry and then they move onto another screen which blocks off the design of the first one and apply black dye.  In another room, the sewing machinists tell us they can sew 300 women’s kaftans in a day. They cost just 50,000rps (less than £3) each and they are ideal to slip on after a shower in this hot and humid climate. 50,000 rps is also the average daily wage of the workers here. They get their lunch thrown in but it shows the huge difference between our societies where our minimum hourly rate is more than double that.

We next call into a shop where all sorts of batik mostly old and second hand, and some real antiques are sold. We look at  stamped batik in the typical browns (soga) and indigo colours of Central Java and some beautiful hand drawn cloths from Pekalongan a city on the north coast, where the traditional floral designs were influenced by Dutch settlers. These batiks were made in the 20s and 30s before Indonesia became independent in 1945. Susi shows us how a sarung should be worn and I decide to take the opportunity to give an impromptu talk on some of the most common types of batik motif to look out for. These are:

  • parang – which means “knife” the diagonal design
  • semen – the organic design with tendrils and lots of little hook infills which is the type of Javanese design which inspired William Morris when Javanese batik was first exhibited in Europe in the 19th century
  • kawung – the four petalled design.

By now dripping with sweat we are all ready to get back and dive into our lovely swimming pool, the waterfall running down over the rocks. A great morning. Thanks to Susi for her expert local knowledge and for taking us right off the tourist track!

Later, after a talk about the wayang kulit leather shadow puppets, we get into becaks for a city tour. Becaks are bicycle cabs for two people (or one if you’re a bit on the heavy side!) powered by the strong leg muscles of your becak driver. There are hundreds – if not thousands of becaks in Jogya and the drivers are always desperate for a fare. We  get going, sometimes stuck behind buses belching out black smoke and sometimes veering wildly into the path of dozens of oncoming motorbikes , but arriving safely at Jalan Malioboro the main street of Jogyakarta. This famous street is lined with stalls selling shoes, fans, keyrings, shorts, T shirts, lighters, toys, puppets, clothes and all the souvenirs you’ll ever need, and on the other side batik shops, department stores, more batik shops and souvenir shops.

We walk or rather shuffle along frequently stopping to find out the price of things, try a bit of gentle haggling, or wait for the others. Luckily with Pak Murdin at the front and Susi at the back like a sheepdog herding her sheep we all arrive back at the same point to meet up with our becak drivers again.

As darkness quickly falls and the call to prayer starts ringing out we head down to the bottom of Malioboro past the monument to the popular uprising of 1st March 1949 which finally persuaded the Dutch to do the honourable thing and grant Indonesia independence. Then we go through the archway to the Kraton and the  high white walls on either side to Alun Alun Lor the northern square with its two massive banyan trees in the middle.

On we go to Griya restaurant formerly the home of a brother of the Sultan, full of lovely antiques and two sets of gamelan instruments, and a great setting for our meal, which is very Javanese and very enjoyable. Next we are treated to a wonderful ride to the Alun Alun Kidul (south square) where there is a huge crowd of people and an amazing array of fully lit up strange and wondrous electric vehicles in the shape of swans, elephants, peacocks, and more. Tonight is the Muslim New Year and at midnight there will be a silent walk around the 4 kms of the white walls of the Kraton, and for now there are plenty of people out to enjoy themselves.

We finish up at Sono Budoyo – one of the buildings of the Kraton , the Royal Palace, for the nightly wayang kulit shadow puppet show. This is a shortened (two hour) episode from the Mahabarata. The puppeteer sits cross legged in the middle with his puppets ranging from smallest to largest on either side of him, their sticks planted firmly in a banana tree trunk. He taps with his foot and manipulates the puppets with somersaults, twirls, and there are skilful fights between Hanuman the white monkey and one of the black monkeys. You can sit and watch the puppeteer and the rather dozey gamelan players and the giggling and very glamorous women singers or you can go round to the back and watch the shadows and fully immerse yourself in the drama.

Those of us who can stick it right until the end are rewarded with the chance to play along with the gamelan players. One of them said he had been performing every night for 9 years! Back home through the dark but still teeming streets to our very welcome beds.  And that’s just the first day!

Tuesday, a cap batik masterclass at Batik Winotosastro

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We cross the very busy Jalan Parangtritis and a little way up Jalan Tirtodipuran to Batik Winotosastro and are warmly welcomed by Bu Hani and her staff. Everyone is smiley and helpful. First of all we take a look at some samples of beautiful scarves and she explains that this is what we are going to make! Then we watch the 3 young chaps who will be helping us doing the cap work. Caps are copper stamps which are used to apply wax to the cotton. They are often very beautiful and little works of art in themselves. Batik Winotosastro has hundreds of them ranged on dozens of shelves, and we have more or less free rein. Hani explains that she always asks the young men to help with the workshops because they are more flexible in their thinking and enjoy new ideas whereas the old guys just want to do the same as they have always done and don’t like to mess with the  traditional designs. 

We are soon confronted with bewildering choices to make – what colours do we want our scarves to be? What caps do we want to use? do we want a border? what will go on the ends? what about the infill? Its a lot to think about but slowly we get our heads around it.  Once we have been given instructions on how to apply the cap carefully, with just the right amount of wax, the heat and the pressure just right, our kind and patient helpers go over it again to make sure the wax resist is really good. This all takes a while and it is after 1pm before we have all finally finished this first waxing. Over lunch in a large cool room upstairs, we look at some of the pieces from Hani’s personal batik collection and at some of her family photos. She is the fifth generation of batik makers and she herself is in sole charge of the family batik factory now.

Soon we go back down to where the dyers have finished dyeing our pieces and are boiling out the first application of wax, washing them carefully and then passing them on to be ironed bone dry so that we can get on with applying the next lot of wax. This layer is to protect all the parts which we want white and it is applied with the canting. We sit on little stools around the “anglo” the wax melting pot and with the help of a young canting worker each (they working fast and precisely, us slower and more sloppily) we manage to get the second lot of wax on. By 4 o’clock everyone has just about finished and now our slendang just has to go into the final dye bath and the wax boiled off again.  We can come and collect them on Thursday. 

It was an absolutely amazing day which gave us all a real insight into the work and skill that goes into “just” cap batik.

We really need that swim and our welcome tea and cake when we get back to the Duta Hotel. The dusk comes down quickly, the bats starts flying and muezzin starts up his song from the local mosque, and there we are in the pool. Bliss!

Wednesday, to Solo for Danar Hadi’s and Trewinddu

The Chinese Batik room

The Chinese Batik room at Danar Hadi

We are up an hour earlier today to get on our little blue and red bus for the two hour trip to Solo with our  Balinese driver Indra who skilfully avoids kamikaze motorbike riders and cars under taking and over taking. There’s never ending ribbon development all the way but with plenty of vibrant green rice fields in between and once in the city of  Solo, we go straight up the huge main street to the Danar Hadi batik museum, shop and factory.

It is indeed a fabulous museum with a very knowledgeable guide who shows us round all 11 rooms containing the most beautiful  batik from all over Java: Kraton batiks with their ultra conservative and ancient traditional motifs full of significance and worn until independence only by the Sultan, his family and Court officials: “merchant” batiks made by commercial workshops with their adaptations of tradition: Chinese batik made by or for Chinese settlers who have lived in Java since well before the Dutch, Portuguese and British arrived in the 16th century: Batik Belanda – Dutch batik depicting flower bouquets, birds, butterflies and even fairy tales and battle scenes made by Dutch and Indische women (half Dutch half Indonesian) in the 18th and 19th century. We also see some of my favourite designs “Tiga Negeri” (three countries) which was batik commissioned by Solonese merchants and sent to Lasem on the north coast for the red “mengkudu” dye, Pekalongan or Jogya for the indigo blue and back to Solo for the soga brown dyes.  I love the fact that they tried so hard to attain the wonderful strong and vivid red that they “head hunted” dyers from Lasem, but still couldn’t do get it. There was obviously something in the soil or the water of Lasem which made so special so it was worth the cloth travelling there specifically to be dyed.

From the beautiful, elegant and air-conditioned surroundings of the museum we pass into the hot, steamy factory with the acrid smell of wax and here around 80 men and 100 women work either at the cap tables or at their bamboo stands making batik. Talk about a sweat shop! We all feel the stark contrast and pass comment that Pak Santoso the owner could spend just a little of his enormous wealth (made from selling batik) on the conditions of the workers who make it for him. It wouldn’t cost a lot to put in ventilation, windows or more fans. The contrast with Hani’s lovely workshop at Winotosastro is extreme.

After lunch (desert was an acquired taste – steamed cassava with cheese and cream) we went to Pasar Trewinddu to have a look at the Antiques market and to try and buy some second hand copper stamps.

On our way to the train station, we drive through Laweyan – Solo’s traditional batik district where the lamp-posts are shaped like cantings and the streets are named after batik designs. The tall white outer walls of the batik manufacturer family homes and workshops in the narrow lanes provide a glimpse of a rich and fascinating past.  We catch the train back to Jogya , a very pleasant journey of just an hour and a quarter through vivid green rice fields, thatched rice barns and little shelters for the bird scarers to sit and shelter from the sun. Tantalising glimpses of Mount Merapi rising hugely through the clouds make us all reach for our cameras.

Thursday, the Kraton, a downpour and the Ramayana Ballet

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Today we are going to the Sultan’s Palace, the “Kraton” through lovely shady streets quiet after the noise of traffic outside, of Dutch style bungalows with  trees and plants everywhere.

We enter through the gates into the grounds of the Royal Palace and a lady guide shows us around  whizzing through her speeches as if she wants to get us processed so that she can go back for another tour. One of the Court’s gamelan sets  is being played by mainly women players and three ladies are singing in that peculiarly Javanese discordant high pitched style which is definitely an “acquired taste” (which I have totally acquired)

We see portraits of the past 10 Sultans and their family trees with leaves for the girls, fruit for the boys and tiny unopened buds for the dead children. One Sultan had 78 children so he has a big tree!

Everywhere in the Kraton grounds, there are beautifully dressed palace guards in the Jogya style brown and white batik sarongs, hand woven lurik jackets, batik turbans and the kris knife stuck into their waistbands at the back. Occasionally there are ladies wearing batik “kemben” breast cloths and sarongs. Luckily we are also able to see the Palace guards “cleaning” the wayang kulit collection (leather shadow puppets) although this seems to consist of laying them out on the ground and then sitting having a chat and a fag with their mates.

Next we stop off to visit a wayang kulit making workshop and the master explains how buffalo hide is prepared by stretching and polishing it and then carved by tapping out shapes with 31 differently shaped chisels and flattened with a sea shell before it is painted and the buffalo horn handles are added.

He shows us the beautiful leaf shaped “Gunungan” which is used at the beginning and end of a scene in the story and the meanings of all the symbols on it. The two Guardians of good and evil the snake winding up through the tree of life, the tiger for intelligence, the bull for power, the birds and butterflies, the monkeys signifying the family and social life and at the top the lotus flower. Who would have guessed there was so much in it? Well of course, anyone who knows anything about Javanese culture I suppose.

We hoped to go on to Taman Sari – the Water Castle, but first we are in need of a stop for a drink and a snack – and its lucky that we do because no sooner are we installed in a lovely little café than the rain starts chucking it down. It’s absolutely torrential and its clear that we’re not going anywhere while that carries on – but luckily the Water Castle Cafe has good food and a very friendly family so we don’t mind. When it clears up enough to venture into the small tiny back streets we jump through puddles to visit a few small independent batik workshops. One  makes huge batik panels which are used to make designer dresses and another who makes pieces made into bright shirts

We visit Susi’s dad and the house where Susi  lived as a child and where her husband Kelik lived next door – childhood sweethearts.

By the time we’ve finally all satisfied ourselves on the various things we need to buy, its too late to go into the Water Castle but we make our way back to the becaks through a pure white underground tunnel – part of the secret way that the Court could walk from the Palace to the Pleasure Park without going through the streets.

Later that evening we get back into becaks for the short trip to Purawisata  for the Ramayana Ballet performance, which has been performed every night for the past 29 years! The outdoor stage is beautiful and we have great seats in the amphitheatre. The two women singers and the gamelan players take their seats and slowly it begins, although not before the performance is blessed by a priest with incense and flowers.

The story is beautifully sung, played, acted and danced – tiny steps, swishing sashes and amazingly delicate and flexible hand movements from the women, incredible acrobatics and fire skills from Hanoman the white monkey, great bow and arrow work as well as grace from Rama and Lakshmana, macho posturing and fierceness from Rahwarna and Kumbakarna, great shoulder-work skills from Cakil with his jutting teeth, and great antics from the monkeys (including three little kids dressed as part of the monkey family)  All in all a wonderful night and the cherry on the cake is getting up on stage for a photo with the main players – you don’t get that at Covent Garden.

Friday – Giriloyo village ladies and the Royal Tombs

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 Today our first stop is to a wood batik workshop  where the sanded wooden bowls, plates, boxes, masks, keyrings, mirrors, fridge magnets and what have you are batiked in just the same way as cloth. They are waxed, dyed and then boiled out and varnished. The end product is superb and everyone finds something they like in the rather dark and dingy warehouse.

Onwards out into the green padi fields to the Bima Sakti womens batik co-op in Giriloyo, a village famous for it very fine batik tulis. We are soon sitting on tiny low stools round tiny waxpots. It’s extremely hot and sweaty and we apply very hot and sticky dark brown wax onto designs which have been traced out onto cotton squares. Everything has to be waxed very well and doubled on the back before the cloth can be dyed. It goes first goes into detergent, then acid salts and then the dye, its washed again and goes through the whole process again (all done in a series of plastic baby baths) before finally ending up in a big cauldron for the wax to be boiled out

We sit down to lunch and then get tempted by some of the beautiful hand drawn cloths which have been made by these village ladies including some sampler cloths which include the names of the designs. We sign the guest book and looking back through it see several names we recognise – this place may be out of the way but its a mecca for batik lovers from around the world.

Our indigo blue squares  are dry so we all pile back into the bus and drive on a little further to Imogiri.  Luckily someone opens a gate (for an appropriate tip) to avoid having to climb a huge flight of stone steps and we find ourselves at the top of a very high mountain where the tombs of the former Sultans of Jogyakarta and their families are. They are only opened once a week, but before we can enter, we must be dressed in appropriate style. So we are shepherded into a very small room where three ladies dress us in tight “kain panjang” and “kemben” breast cloths – breathe in, tug and pin! What a sight we are with our bare shoulders and tight skirts. We totter with difficulty up more stone steps and at the top wait our turn to enter the tiny dark room of the tomb of the late Sultan Humenkubuwono IX. Here we can sprinkle flowers onto the tomb, touch or kiss a sacred stone, say a prayer and slowly back out again. It’s hotter than a sauna in there. About a dozen people are waiting patiently to ask the priest who sits by his everlasting holy fire to convey prayers for them. The atmosphere is solemn and spiritual, which has the effect of making us somewhat giggly.

We drive back through fields of ripe rice until we get back to Duta at 4pm bang on time for a very welcome cup of tea, a swim and the latest teatime snack!

So far, so good. Everyone is enjoying themselves. The weather is hot and sticky but there’s not much we can do about that. It’s just what Java’s like.

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Bena and Bajawa, Central Flores

Here we are in Central Flores  – this entailed a huge and very hairy detour necessary to get round the articulated lorry which has got stuck in the road and gouged out the hillside – and we are in the realm of a new lot of people all together. They are called Ngada, they have a totally different language and perhaps because they were not so accessible to missionaries, they seem to have kept far more of their animist traditions. Maybe because they were not so influenced by traders with their European and Indian trade cloths, their ikat is very different too. The most popular design is of small white horses and triangles and other geometric shapes on a very dark deep navy or black indigo background. In Flores (just as in Sumba where the horse motif is also very important) the horse symbol is an obvious signifier of wealth.

The climate is cool and much more pleasant than the sweltering coast – we even need a blanket at night which makes a very nice change. Most people live in small villages – a collection of houses with tin roofs. But there are still around 30 traditional villages – mostly accessible only by motorbike on tiny dirt tracks through the dense forest. We got to the village of Bena which welcomes tourists for a donation to the head man (our guide, Hero the cheeky devil gave him a bottle of his mother in law’s arak whisky)

We walked to the village through a veritable forest gardener’s dream. Planted within the space of about half a mile we saw coffee, cocoa, and palm fruit (for arak and sugar) cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemon grass and chillies. Then there was the fruit, bananas (yellow and red) papaya, jack fruit, durian, pineapples, mango, avocado, candle nut, peanuts and soy beans and others which Hero didn’t know the English for but are good for medicine or other uses. In this perfect climate, high above the heat of the coast, with plenty of year round rainfall, everything needed for a good life – to eat, to drink, to make houses from, for medicine and for textile production is here.

16. The first sight of the traditonal village of Bena. The houses are grouped around a rectangular communal area with spirit houses and shrines. (640x480)The village itself came as a shock – its a definite double take to come upon this alien architecture amongst the trees. The first sight of a traditional Ngada village is almost surreal. Two rows of tall roofed houses are topped with either a male or female symbol, tall standing stones and female and male totems for each of the nine clans. In the central area there are carved poles with thatched umbrellas (the male phallic totem) and miniature huts on stilts (the female womb totem) Of course the first thing I notice is that all the houses have a weaving platform out front.

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Most of the inhabitants are either very old or very young. Many younger people just get fed up with working hard and then having nothing left to spend on themselves.

The villagers get their income from tourism and selling forest produce, but traditions dictate that almost all the income earned gets spent on elaborate ceremonies. These ceremonies eat up huge amounts of money in buying buffalo, pigs and elaborate textiles. There is no room here for the youngster who wants to buy a motorbike or other material goods with his hard earned cash.

17. Weaving in Bena village (640x507)

Textiles have always played a very important spiritual role in Ngada the rituals – they are required at all ceremonies not only as garments but also as a necessary part of the ritual. Warp ikat cloths are used as burial shrouds, in exchanges of gifts before a wedding and the designs often preserve local legends and beliefs. 

For the Ngada people there are ten grades of cloth, ranked for quality, motif and size and a weaver must be able to make cloth at each level before graduating to a higher grade textile. “Lawo Butu” cloths belong to the top grade and very few weavers are qualified to weave them. The cloth is worn by a female clan elder to dedicate a new clan shrine Some old cloths are preserved in clan treasuries for centuries until just the tattered remains are left to be draped over the main post of the shrine.*

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Mama Khaterina is one of the few weavers who still makes these cloths and she shows us two cloths she has for sale. They are unlike anything we have seen before –indigo dyed with pattern of stylised stick horses but embellished with tiny shells and ancient beads in designs of crabs and boats.

The cloths are about three times more expensive than the most expensive ikats we have seen on the coast and although they do not compete in terms of the intricacy and fineness of the design, they have such power and integrity that we are smitten. We have to go away, have lunch, think carefully and visit a cash machine in town before we can go back and make an offer. Mama Khaterina needs the money for a family member who is in hospital – otherwise she wouldn’t be selling, and when we hand over the money, her grandchildren gleefully count it out in both English and Ngada.

18. Mama Katharina wears her ceremonial ikat. (421x640)

The future for fine Flores ikat is uncertain, just as it is for all hand made textiles which require so much time and effort. In most cases, the weaver is producing cloth for herself and her family and the hours are not counted. However when people rely on it for an income, it is inevitable that compromises are made. Time consuming plant dyes are abandoned in favour of much speedier chemical dyes, more complicated designs are left behind and simpler ones take their place, machine spun yarns are used instead of hand spun. Tourists will buy ikat as a souvenir but they usually don’t bother about the more costly refinements.

“Threads of Life” is an exemplary organisation based in Bali which sets up and buys from weaving co-operatives. By marketing top end textiles and attempting to educate the buyers into recognising the value of the very best textiles, they are managing to support some weavers. This is a small but vital drop in the ocean.

The truth is that we are probably seeing the final years in the production of the best ikat from Flores, and if such a thing existed, it would go onto the textiles endangered list. Now if I can just sell what I’ve bought, I can go back and buy some more.

* Thanks to “Threads Of Life” for this information.

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Phrae is just a small town in the north of Thailand. It doesn’t get many tourists – certainly not foreign ones anyway, although it does have attractions. The old town is enclosed by the remains of an ancient moat and the beautiful original houses are all made of teak – and raised on massively thick log stilts. It’s teak wood country round here and the lumber (or is it timber?) and the elephants used to move the wood are what made it famous. The people in this part of the world are also invariably friendly and jai dee (good hearted)

Old teak house in Phrae

A lovely teak house in Phrae

Blue shirts everywhere

Just outside Phrae town (turn left at Tesco Lotus) is the village of Thung Hong. On the very wide, very hot main street, in amongst the usual array of motorcycle repair shops, unhealthy snack and sweet drinks shops and cheap noodle shops, are many shops all selling clothing in a deep, dark blue colour. Thung Hong is famous for indigo.

I first came here about 10 years ago. I had read that Phrae was the place to come for “seua mah hom” . These are the dark blue shirts which were once worn almost universally in the north of Thailand (think Mao shirts). After much questioning of puzzled shopkeepers – me with no Thai, them with no English – I narrowed my search down to this village. I cycled out here along that aforementioned very wide and very hot main road with the highway traffic thundering past, and looked everywhere for the tell-tale signs of indigo; the big clay pots, the dyed cloth drying, the plants growing or even the pungent smell.

Phrae - indigo shirts on the washing line

Washing line full of indigo

Frustratingly I found nothing except the shops. So I turned off the road and cycled into the back lanes and soon to the open fields. I saw people wearing the traditional dark blue jackets and trousers but I couldn’t find anyone actually making it. On my way back to the main street, I looked across a small river and stopped dead in my pedals…washing lines full of indigo dyed cloth.

Three generations of indigo dyers

I had stumbled upon the Paluang Indigo Home. Behind a traditional teak house on stilts I found to my joy lots of beautiful old clay pots full of indigo dye in various stages of fermentation. Nobody stopped me, so I carried on nosing about, and in an open building at the back there was a young woman block-printing on white cotton. As I got nearer I could see that what she was printing was wax – she was making batik. Even better, she could speak some English, and we started to chat. Now every time I come to Thailand, I come to Phrae, and to Thung Hong village and to the Paluang Indigo House to see Panee and her family.

Pannee and her Mum

Panee and her Mum outside their shop

Panee is about 40 now. She was born in the teak house on stilts and her parents and her grandparents were all indigo dyers – many of the massive pots of indigo were started before she was born. You could say she has indigo in the blood.

Panee learnt to do batik at school but thought no more about it. She went away to university and then to work in Bangkok, but after a while she found that the pace of life there was just too frenetic. She bowed to the inevitable, came back home, married a local bloke and settled down to work in the family business.

A new fangled idea!

She soon realised that the business of selling almost indestructible indigo work shirts wasn’t a totally lucrative one and, what’s more, it was likely that the customer base would be a dwindling one. She was looking for a new angle. She decided to think again about batik which in northern Thailand is the preserve and speciality of H’mong women (you remember them from the last blog). She found that the tiny metal triangular tools they use to put the hot wax on are not suitable for the volume of fabric she had in mind.

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Teak wood printing blocks

She then had the idea of getting some wooden printing blocks made. As I said Phrae is famous for the teak forests that surround it and teak carving is a traditional skill. She asked a carver in town to make her some stamps which she could use to apply the wax to the cloth. That was the beginning of a new business – wax resist batik dyed with home grown natural indigo from Phrae. The family now have dozens of different designs. In the village today, there are still around 20 families using their own home grown indigo to dye cloth and three families doing batik (and they are all related to Panee’s)

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Panee’s cousin doing a batik shift

But what about all those lovely indigo shirts and jackets on sale in the shops of Thung Hong? I’m sorry to say that around 80% of them are made with chemical indigo in a huge factory in Bangkok!

Lovely indigo

Amazing ancient indigo pots

Amazing and ancient indigo vats

Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) is grown intensively in the local area. The plants are at their height in the rainy season (June – September) and at the end of this, the family make their concentrated indigo paste. The dye bearing plants are cut down and steeped in water for a couple of days until the water turns a dirty yellowish colour. Lots of oxygen is added to the vat by beating, whisking, stirring and pouring until the water gradually changes to a deep blue colour and develops a very pretty light blue froth. 

The sediment from this vat makes a lovely sludgy deep blue paste which can be kept to make a fresh vat of dye when needed. With skill (and a little luck) an indigo vat can be kept “alive” almost permanently, it will just need waking up with a little more paste, some lime and wood ash. Panee’s family make about 2-300 kilos of paste a year. Nowadays with their increased business this is not enough and they have to buy in about the same amount again from indigo growers in Isan province.

One Village, One Craft and an OTOP champion

Mrs luang at her indigo

The OTOP Village Champion!

Queen Sirikit of Thailand is a wonderful woman and is a keen supporter of all kinds of Thai crafts. She has especially encouraged traditional textile skills, which are particularly close to her heart. Under her patronage, a very successful scheme, adopting an original idea from Japan, called OTOP (roughly “One Village, One Craft”) has been set up. There are OTOP shops all over Thailand and they’re a very good way to market hand-made craft items. The Paluang Indigo batik is marketed through OTOP.

Panee’s mum is getting a bit forgetful these days but in her prime she proudly carried the title of “OTOP Village Champion”. This means that she was asked to teach other people how to make an indigo vat and how to dye a good deep and consistent colour. She has taught local women from the village, hoards of local high school kids, and most memorably one of the Royal Princesses has had a dip in her indigo vats.

You used to go upstairs in the teak house on stilts to buy things but nowadays there’s a proper shop out front. There are jackets, and blouses, kimonos and men’s shirts and even batiked tissue boxes on sale. Sometimes they may have some traditional “mawhom” work shirts. These are a deep black-blue colour and fastened with ties or cloth buttons, at the front. The size is marked in white chalk on the back. They are extremely hard wearing – made for a time when people had very little cash to spare. Some people in the area still wear them every day, working in the fields or at the market. They seem to last forever and look better and better as they get older – just like a pair of your favourite jeans.

Apart from the

toilet (480x640)

I’m not kidding!

beautiful cloth and the fabulous state of those indigo pots with their light blue froth or deep green water or vibrant blue sludge, one of my favourite things at Panee’s home is the visitor’s toilet. Its indigo blue – now that shows dedication!

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It’s easy to love northern Thailand and Chiang Mai in particular and many people do. It’s easy to relax and start feeling that you could stay a few months and maybe even join the many ex pats who have made their temporary or permanent home here.lots of textiles

Start to think about finding a way to make some money and getting a work permit (and you don’t need to earn much to live here) or getting a retirement visa if you’re old enough (and I am, hooray!) or even just joining the queues at the Burmese or Laos border every two weeks to renew your tourist visa. And of course getting yourself a Thai girlfriend which is what just about every middle aged single man is doing here. In the interests of sexual equality I must report that of course as a middle aged single woman you could come here for a Thai boyfriend too, but it’s just that you don’t see that in every bar or café and on every street.

Yes, Chiang Mai seems to have mastered the art of pandering to the needs of the farang (the foreigners) in every way. There are umpteen cafes selling cheap and delicious Thai food or huge English breakfasts or mango and bee pollen smoothies – whatever your particular penchant happens to be. And on top of that don’t forget the yoga sessions, the thai massage schools, the cooking classes, the trekking, rafting, elephant rides, meditation retreats, mountain biking, and what have you. And the Thai language courses  – which is how I’m spending my weekday mornings. Sitting in a classroom being given vocab lists and practicing the five tones and the long and short vowels may not be every one’s idea of a good time, but I am enjoying it very much, thank you.

man holding signBut it’s not all sweetness and light – most of the “farang” here are polite and cheerful but still the Thais must get fed up of us. My guesthouse landlord confided in a private rant to me the other evening – he began by expressing his amazement that we would come here on holiday and then pay good money to spend a day COOKING?! And then proceeded to a general rage at having to smile constantly and answer the same questions over and over from dumbass tourists. In the end I wrote a big sign for him and told him to just point!

So what am I doing here? Between my morning Thai class, my evening yoga sessions and regular Thai massage in my local temple, I am very busy whizzing around the alleyways and back streets on a bright orange rented pushbike. I have settled into a regular routine – usually first down to the “H’mong village” at Warorot market. This is the section of the market where the H’mong tribal people have set up homes, where they watch TV, play with their kids, make clothes and stitch and embroider and sleep amidst their huge piles of somewhat tatty hilltribe embroideries and pleated skirts. This has all been developing in the past 5 years or so into a full on neighbourhood, and now I join the other traders (Thai, Japanese, other westerners) who are there most days riffling through the piles to see if anything catches our eye.

After that I visit the market shops, to buy indigo and hemp fabrics and buttons or beads or just to market stallssee what’s in. Once I’ve bought about as much as I can stick onto the wobbling handlebars of my bike I’m off to Poo’s. place. Poo has a shop selling clothes like me and she has usually already been down to the H’mong village that morning. By the afternoon she is flaked out on her settee at the back of the shop watching day time soaps – which are frankly appalling but quite mesmerising (and good for Thai practice – they speak slowly and dramatically – you don’t love me – you left me alone – you killed my father etc! )

Poo’s tailors make clothes for me, so most days I am there with my fabrics and my bits of hilltribe embroidered scraps and my patterns and samples, working things out and ordering or collecting. We can compare notes on what we paid for stuff, how the price of cotton is going up and the quality of hemp weaving down, have a laugh at the soaps and my crap Thai and share some mangosteens or other exotic fruits.

At the weekends the shopping doesn’t end, it just changes location – at the end of the road where I’m staying, the famous Sunday “Walking Market” sets up. From 4pm onwards the traffic is stopped, the roads are lined with stalls, the temple courtyards are full of food stalls and the road is thronged with people enjoying the atmosphere and the shopping. If it all gets too much you can stop and get a foot or shoulder massage at one of the massage “parlours” which get set up on every corner.

little sweets

people getting massages

So that’s my particular version of Chiang Mai – but there are so many others… girly bars and pool tables, reggae bands and beer, meditation and massage, sausage and chips and Premier league football at the Irish pub, cocktails and candlelit dinners, ancient temples and golden Buddhas, tennis or a round of golf at the Gymkhana Club. You name it, Chiang mai has it all!

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A polished indigo waistcoat and hundreds of braids

Well, I have seen some rice terraces in my time, but the ones at Yuanyang take the biscuit!

I think I can safely say that this is one of the most beautiful manmade landscapes in the world.

The trick is to get here when the weather is clear and the view unobscured by clouds – which can descend at a moment’s notice. We arrived in swirling mist and we left in thick freezing fog but in between we had two beautiful days.

The Hani people have lived in these mountains for at least 2,000 years and they still continue to maintain and work the rice fields which their ancestors built. The result is a sublime landscape which people like us travel to see (much to the rice farmers’ bemusement I should imagine)

Lovely or what?

These fields are probably lovely at almost any part of the growing year; bright green with fresh new rice, golden with mature rice ready to harvest but right now they may be at their best, flooded with water for a few months before planting begins in March.

There is not much point saying anything as the photos say it all (sorry but you’ll have to see just a few of the dozens I took) Our “Sunny” guesthouse had a sublime view and we spent hours gazing out at the beautiful patterns the sky, clouds and light make.

Oh yes, and the hill tribe women in these parts wear a wide variety of lovely garments too – some pink with lots of embroidered embellishment and others dark and subtle.

A woman making braids

A woman sits at her braiding stool

The old ladies and the old chaps still wear real indigo jackets and waistcoats in layers but the younger ones go for the ready-made ones they can buy at the market.

Two Hani womenNevertheless lots of women are still busy making textiles – indigo dyeing, stitching and embroidering, knitting, spinning yarn and braiding – the first I’ve come across so far.

They are making very fine thin braids which are sewn onto the ends of traditional indigo head scarves. The hundreds of metres of braid hang down like thin dreadlocks.

Hani women with baby carriers

Two Hani women at the market with baby carriers

We managed to buy one of the lovely indigo waistcoats the old ladies wear – it was on a stall we didn’t just wrestle it off someone’s back. The local market was one of the best, the rice fields are better than they were cracked up to be. So what’s the catch?

Only the Chinese Tourist Board’s insistence on building viewing platforms in the best spots. Then they can charge you to watch the sunrise or the sunset! But luckily there are usually a few friendly locals around to show you the way to get a great view for free!

(Building rice terraces like this takes generations of dedication and they start young. look at this photo of a little rice farmer practising to take on the job )

little boy digging

They start working young in Yuanyang

sunset over rice terraces

Now that’s what I call a view!

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Indigo shibori or tie dye

Part of an indigo shibori tablecloth

Dali, Yunnan Province, SW China

Dali – long-time hippie paradise– more Japanese organic cafes and groovy backpacker hostels than you can shake a stick at. It’s not hard to see why people have come here and kind of forgotten to go home again.

Jim in front of cafe

Jim in front of his own Peace Cafe

There’s a few of them in our guest house. The owner himself is one – a quiet Australian (yes they do exist!) who has managed to find a way of making a living here by organising dumpling parties and pool tournaments while playing his favourite rock videos. It’s just like “The Vaults” away from home!

This very pleasant little town is just a 15 minute bike ride from the lake shore. In between there are small scale, extremely productive fields. These supply veg to Dali’s seemingly hundreds of eating establishments

Behind the town are the Cang Shan mountains with extremely impressive cable cars, and an amazing paved walk all along the top – we did at least 11 kms of it, and there’s plenty more. Is there nothing the Chinese can’t do? An Expressway method of hill walking!

In spite of the endless coffee and cocktail drinking opportunities, the beautiful surroundings and the very congenial guesthouse company, we are here to work – honestly!

We have come to Dali because this is the area where some of the wonderful deep indigo blue tie dye fabric we sell in our shop is made, and we have come to track it down. We are directed to a village about half an hour away. The population is Bai – another of those 55 Chinese minority groups. The women wear bright pink scarves or disconcertingly flowery headdresses.

2 women

Two Bai ladies in those very popular pink headscarves!

If we had any doubts that we would have trouble tracking down the fabric, they don’t last long. No sooner have we stepped off the bus than we are “taken in hand” by two Bai ladies who beckon us to follow them down small alleyways. Either they make a living kidnapping tourists, or they want to sell us something.

They take us to a couple of houses with big yards where the fabric is made. Inside the smell of indigo tells us we have found the right place and we are confronted by the largest indigo vats I have EVER seen!Very big vat

At these small household factories the designs are marked on to the white cotton in a disappearing yellow dye. This is then farmed out to the locals who stitch and tie thread around the designs. This makes a resist against the dye.woman stitching

Once the design is completely sewn up, it is dyed and then the thread is pulled out to reveal the pattern. The cloth is washed and dried and ready to sell. The Bai seem to have a monopoly on this technique, and the older women sometimes wear bits of it. But mostly it gets made into very nice tablecloths.

Back in Dali we spend a pleasant day negotiating for the very best tablecloths on sale.

   So you see it’s not all swanning about! Hard research has to be done, and even harder haggling, and then what do you think we did? Yes another trip to our old friend China Post.

Old lady in chair

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