Tai textiles: Yesterday and today

by Jana Igunma and Cholthira Satyawadhna

Festive and occasional clothes from Luang Phabang and Vientiane
Festive clothes are characterised by their fine shade and design and the use of precious materials as refined silk, gold and silver thread. Often, the designs of festive clothes were influenced by the fashion of the royal courts.
The court of Luang Phabang preferably used long cloth woven in ikat technique as formal wear as it was a tradition of the former Khmer empire, often with a fine tiin sin - a border brocade woven in supplementary weft technique - sewed on. Other favourites of the Luang Phabang court were copies of imported supplementary weft brocades from India and Chinese satins. These served as men's pantaloons, women's tubeskirts, blouses and shoulder cloths. The classic Lao shoulder cloth, woven in brocade and bright silk and mostly decorated throughout, was worn wrapped around the torso with the loose end hanging down the left shoulder at the back. The court of Vientiane was strongly influenced by the Luang Phabang court, but also elements of the Lao Phuan (Müang Phuan/Siang Khwaang) and from Southern Laos, namely Champassak, can be found in Vientiane court textiles.
The royal courts influenced far away villages with their styles. Information concerning the costume and textiles of the courts may have been carried to the rural areas by word of mouth and via the popular theatre. Village weavers imitated court clothes and wove their own interpretations of court designs, and folk did wear such clothes at festive events.
Women's festive silk dresses are silk phaa sin (tube skirts) with fine gold-lace brocades and phaa biang (shoulder clothes), also made of silk with gild brocades. The motifs are manifold, and include such as flowers and stars, lotus flowers, stupa motifs, mythical figures as birds and Naak (Naga), diamond and key patterns.

Textiles for ceremonial purposes
In most cultures textiles are used in ceremonies as identifiers. Such textiles are of great importance in the lives of the people and often are used as gifts or for ceremonial purposes in "rites de passage" such as birth, puberty, marriage, death or the elevation of a person's social status. Among the Tai, textiles are also of special importance in healing rituals and in suu khwan (calling of the life essence) ceremonies. For example, the traditional Lao wedding, one of the most significant ceremonies in peoples’ lives, requires fine and elaborate costumes and clothes for bride, groom and the "master of the ceremony" (moo phoon). The dress of the bride worn during the main suu khwan ritual is woven with refined silk thread and lavishly decorated with silver or gold yarns using supplementary weft techniques. The preferred colour for a bride is red. The groom wears a phaa nung and phaa waa (pantaloon and shoulder cloth). The phaa nung is woven with fine silk in a single dark colour, sometimes decorated with a splendid lace; the phaa waa is a check silk cloth. An intricate bride's dress may take several months or even years to complete. But not only clothes are important in wedding ceremonies, but also textiles as a part of the bride-price.

The Tai employ textiles in ceremonial ways for death rituals, irrespective if they bury their dead or if they follow Theravada Buddhism and cremate their dead. Textiles are used to indicate the status of the deceased and their family. The body of the departed is dressed in the finest new clothes the family can afford; and several sets of clothing are placed in the coffin with the corpse as it lies in state. It is believed that, by offering textiles, one can gain merit and make the deceased more comfortable in their next life. In addition to this, among the Buddhist Tai communities, hand-woven banners are given to the Buddhist monastery or are erected at the cemetery as a memorial.
Another major event is the Buddhist ordination. Boys during several ceremonies and processions wear special silk clothes, and with the delivery of the yellow priestly robes to the ordinants the main ceremony is completed. Furthermore, cotton shawls are woven to cover and protect Buddhist sacred scriptures, utensils of monks or even sacred Buddha statues. Dyed silk or cotton yarns are used to create the designs of such clothes, using supplementary weft techniques, on a plain weave white cotton ground.
The finest traditional attire up to today is worn to functions at the Buddhist monastery. On Buddhist holidays or for ceremonial occasions, men often wear a shoulder cloth with check or key pattern. Women wear cotton or silk skirts and shoulder cloths, which do show religious motifs as stylised stupas, candlestick motifs, palm leaf patterns and key patterns, stars, diamonds, Rajasiha, Garuda, and naak (Naga)/ ngüak motifs.

While Buddhism occupies an important role in the lives of several Tai groups, religious practices exist side by side with pre-Buddhist beliefs and rituals. In addition to the very important suu khwan ceremony, which is held to call and to keep the khwan ("life essence") in order to stabilise and harmonise an individual or community, spirit mediums will be called when sudden or unexplained disasters or illness befall a person or community. The role of the medium is to make contact and communicate with the local or regional phii ("spirits") to determine the cause of the problem. The costume worn by the medium, often an elderly woman, are raw silk or cotton phaa biang (head- and shoulder cloth) and sometimes a long sash or shawl with coloured motifs. Red is a powerful basic colour with the Tai Daeng (Red Tai), black shawls are mostly used by the Tai Dam (Black Tai). One of the most important motifs is a central diamond - sometimes it has been also interpreted as "the third eye" - which is framed by stylised animal motifs. Mythical figures, especially the ngüak and naak, birds and fowl motifs, the ratchasii figure, spirit and ancestor figures sitting in a boat or holding candle lights, are believed to be powerful and protecting symbols. The same accounts for stars and magic diagrams.

The design patterns and motifs, dyeing and weaving techniques; and the use of textiles represent the fundamental ideas the weavers and the users of textiles have of the world around them. Textiles are an excellent way to understand culture and history, because we are able to get in touch with the past and the present of a particular group through their textiles. Tai textiles furthermore are an example for cultural and economic exchange in Southeast Asia through history. Designs, weaving techniques and the use of material do not only show signs of exchange with Indian and Chinese traditions, but also have similarities with patterns and motifs of Indonesian and even Dong Son cultures. Tai women are still preserving their traditional textiles and their artful handicraft. Up to today, weaving is an ideal profession for Lao women and girls not only in rural, but also in urban areas, providing an additional income for the whole family. In Northern and North-Eastern Thailand, weaving has seen a strong revival in recent years.

The richness of patterns, motifs and colours makes weaving an artful handicraft, which reflects the creativity and the aesthetic mind of Tai weavers. The manifold symbols represented in traditional textiles originate in the natural environments and also reflect the Tai world view. The most important symbols are:

Phayaa naak (Naga) and ngüak
Phayaa naak and ngüak are names of water serpents, which appear in Tai mythologies as powerful rulers over the waters and therefore over life. These water serpents symbolise fertility, and are seen as important powers on which all human life depends, especially in wet-rice cultivating societies, even if irrigation systems are constructed as this is the usual practice among most Tai groups. Thus the Phaya Naak or ngüak are worshipped as guardians of human life, but also are believed to control human’s rights/responsibilities and moral behaviour.

Nok Khut (Garuda)
The Garuda is a sun-bird and symbolises the opposite of Phayaa Naak or ngüak. In the Buddhist dualistic world view, every thing must have an opposite side to establish a stable balance of the world. The Garuda is believed to be a heavenly being, and to be able to wander between human and heavenly worlds.

Chaang/Saang (Gaja)
The elephant symbolises wisdom, strength and nobility. White elephants are sacred animals, and in the former Tai kingdoms they were kept and bred at the king`s court. Thus, the elephant often appeared on flags and official seals of Tai kingdoms. The elephant symbol is also seen as a guardian of travellers.

Raatchasii / Gaja-Siiha / Siihoo
The raatchasii (Rajasiiha / Gaja-Siiha) is a mythic figure, which is a mixture of lion, dragon and bird. In some legendary tales, the Rajasiiha / Gaja-Siiha is presented as the King of all animals. The Rajasiiha symbol is believed to protect people from natural catastrophes and accidents.

Nok / Kai (Birds / Fowls)
The fowls motifs are components in many rituals offered to the ancestral spirits, and it is believed that these motifs possess magical capabilities. Ritual masters (moo / mau / maw) use the whole or parts of the fowls or eggs to perform future forecasting rituals. Besides, the fowls patterns symbolise fertility.

Laay baimai-dokmai and Baaysii (Palm leaf and flowery wreath)
Generally, palm leaves and flowers motifs are used for ritual purposes and as offerings to worship the Buddha, guardian and ancestral spirits. The palm leaves motif also symbolises the “tree of life”, which is understood as an element connecting heaven and earth.

Ta-laew / taa läo (Stars)
Stars or rows of stars symbolise the cosmos with its four or eight directions (N, E, S, W; NE, SE, SW, NW). The star symbol (taa läo) is often used as a protective symbol (signified to the Red light), during ceremonies within a family or a community. The star symbol is thought to throw off evil spirits or negative powers. Therefore it has been used to maintain the fruitful harvest in the wet-rice cultivation cultures. This motif is also very significant for the ritual specialist to cure the sickness of any individual, and to ensure communal health and safety.

Mondhop/ Hau kham (Palace)
The palace symbol (or towers of palaces) represents the heavenly worlds, where the gods and thewadaa (angel-like beings) reside. These beings are believed to have super-natural and magic powers, and they are able to help human beings. As the Tai rulers when adopted Buddhism are believed to be deva-raja, therefore only those from royalty could wear or make use of this particular powerful symbol.

Stupa / Sathuupa
The stupa is a symbol derived from Buddhist architecture, it usually is an integral part of the Buddhist temple (Wat). In Buddhist Tai societies, stupa is worshipped as a sacred building, where Buddhist reliquia, manuscripts, Buddha figures and other works of art may be stored. Therefore the stupa symbol is used in Tai/Thai meditation practice, and it also symbolises enlightenment.

Phii hüan / Phii baan / Phii Müang (Community Ancestral Spiritual figures)
The ancestral and guardian spirits phii are mostly represented in the shape of human beings. In some delicate pieces of Tai textiles, male, female, including child motifs are signified. This shows their close relations to the human world, as well as their influences on human life. The ancestral spirits are thought to be able to protect human beings from danger and illness.


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