Posts Tagged ‘woodblocks’

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.

teak blocks

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)


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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