Antique Thai silk textiles: mat mi (ikat) textiles of Isan

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The geographic area called Isan is a plateau region in the northeast of Thailand bordered in the north and east by the Mekong River which marks the international border between Thailand and Lao P.D.R. To the south, the edge of the plateau falls steeply into the plains of Cambodia.

With this geographical location it is hardly surprising to find Lao and Cambodian textile styles in the Isan region. The influence from Laos belongs to three main ethnic groups: the Lao Loum, the Phutai and the Tai Phuan while the Cambodian group are known as the Khmer Sung meaning highland Khmer as opposed to the Khmer Tam (lowland Khmer) living in Cambodia today.

The region is best categorized into three main section, upper Isan being the area between Nongkhai and Khon Kaen, central Isan being the area between Khon Kaen and Nakhon Ratchasima and the lower Isan being the area south of Nakhon Ratchasima to the Cambodian border. The Khmer Sung group occupied lower Isan while the Lao groups settled along the Mekong River and throughout upper and central Isan regions.


Isan was inhabited in prehistoric times and has a wealth of prehistoric sites, the most famous of which is Ban Chiang in upper Isan dating to 3600 B.C. However, the prehistoric societies abandoned the plateau in the 9th century A.D. and no archeological evidence is available on the interim periods in the upper and central areas until the Mon style megaliths of the 11th century. Hemp was the earliest fabric probably dating to 2000 B.C. while cotton was not introduced until 300 B.C. Silk traces have been found dating to 500 B.C. from the Ban Na Dee site. The climate has not led to the possible conservation of prehistoric textiles and most information has come from durable weaving equipment such as pottery spinning whorls found at the sites.

The Lan Xang Kingdom of Laos, controlled the Mekong River areas on both banks before 1828 with only very sparsely populated settlements only along the right bank in what is now Isan. The Siamese destroyed Vientiane in 1828 after the attack on Siam made by King Anouvong of Laos and reached as far north as Xiang Khuang the homeland of the Tai Phuan. Most of the Tai Phuan, Lao Loum and Phutai are living in Isan today as result of this campaign. The Siamese relocated the population on the left bank of the Mekong river and from Xiang Khuang to Isan. The main towns of Nongkhai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan, Khemmarat and Ubon Ratchathani along the Mekong River in Isan were established during this period. The interior of the plateau was dense jungle with no settlements except Khon Kaen and Nakhon Ratchasima between Nongkhai and Bangkok.

The skill of the weavers in Isan was quickly recognized by King Rama V of Siam (1868-1910) and he developed the silk weaving in central Isan around Nakhon Ratchasima to serve the court. To this day this area of Isan is the main area of silk production in Thailand, including the Jim Thompson factories. During the period of King Rama V wide looms are semi-mechanized equipment were introduced by employing foreign experts from Japan and India. Thus the traditional textiles of central Isan were adapted to wider weaving equipment and faster production since this period.

The textiles of upper Isan and the Phutai textiles from central Isan on the other hand maintained their original structures. In the early part of the 20th century land concessions were given to Chinese businessmen and the forests of Isan were cut down giving rise to new towns and villages throughout the region.

In lower Isan, Cambodian archeological sites date to the 8th century. The Siamese controlled Ankor, the capital of the Cambodian Empire, after 1431 until Cambodia became part of French Indochina in the late 19th century. The textiles styles of this area are distinctly Cambodian with exception of those from Ubon Ratchathani province where many Lao Loum and Tai Phun settled and a weaving tradition was developed specifically to cater to the Bangkok court. Another distinct group of textiles came from Buriram province in lower Isan. The main decorative technique of traditional textiles in Isan was weft ikat which is call "mat mi".

Mat Mi Technique

The mat mi technique is very labor-intensive requiring great skill in the careful measuring of the yarns to the exact width of fabric to be woven and tying off areas of pattern which are to resist the dye. In this tie-dye method the yarns are decorated before weaving commences. In the past natural dyes were used in an over-dye technique. To achieve seven colors, the three primary colors red, yellow and blue were combined to create green, orange and purple. Finally a total of the three primary colors led to a deep purple-brown. The design was not drawn on paper but planned in the weaver's head, often using an old textile as reference. The first sections of yarn were tied to resist the first color and then after dyeing, untied to expose to areas of the yarn that were to receive the next color and sections that were not to receive the dye were tied back. This process was repeated until every color had been placed into the design. The yarns were wound onto a stretcher for the tying process and divided into sections of the repeat pattern in a continuous thread. Finally when all the colors had been placed into the yarns, they were wound onto spools thus breaking the continuous thread. These spools were strung in careful order ready for weaving. If this order was disarranged, the pattern was lost. During the weaving process, each thread had to be meticulously aligned to reveal the pattern. In most of the antique silk pieces the yarns were the size of a hair and would have required great patience in preparation to avoid breaking and losing the pattern. This mind-tangling process is still being practised today, but with chemical dyes and discharge chemicals which require less careful planning than in the over-dye method used in the past with natural dyes.

The natural dyes used were mainly stick lac for red, indigo for blue and a variety of different resources for yellow including jack-fruit wood, cumin root and a jungle vine called cudriania javenensis. Stick lac is a resin extracted from various trees by the coccus lacca insect. It was harvested and boiled in acidic water prepared from various materials such as sour tamarind, red ants' nest of acidic leaves. The yarns were then boiled in the extracted dye to achieve a deep crimson. For blue, indigo was made into vats from indigofera tinctoria plants in a complex process which required much skill. The indigo itself was rarely used directly on silk as the strong alkali in the vats attacked the fibers. Instead it was used over the yellow or red dye which protected the yarns. The yellow dyes were obtained from a number of materials mentioned above, by boiling the substance to extract the dye and immersing the yarns in the dye liqueur for further boiling. The preparation of the yarns for one ikat silk fabric took many weeks of work before weaving could begin. In the case of some antique textiles, a purple and pink were obtained from dye traded from China. These dyes were made from plant and tin extracts which were commercialized in China before the 20th century. The majority of the textiles using natural dyes from Isan date to the early 20th century, with the majority of the chemically dyed pieces dating to after the second world war. The climate in Isan is not favorable to the storage of these delicate items and the chance of damage from insects, mould and dust was very high. Many people stored their textiles in ceramic jars with insect repelling leaves. The tradition of giving textiles as a sign of respect was very strong in Isan and this led to collections of precious textiles which were never worn, but woven as a means of saving and exchange.

The silk for making the textiles was the bombyx mori species reared by each weaver in Isan. This had bright yellow cocoons from which a fine filament was reeled by immersing the cocoons in boiling water. In the past the outer part of the cocoon was discarded as it was considered too rough for use. Instead only the inner, finer yarns were used, with the local aesthetics looking at the smallest yarns as an indication of the more skilled weavers. The yellow hue of the silk was bleached out in the de-gumming process leaving a cream colored yarn. Today the inner and outer part of the cocoon are mixed to give a rather uneven yarn which would have been considered inferior by traditional aesthetics.

The looms in Isan were standing looms made from wood and often using the house posts as part of the construction. Weaving was done in the cool area under the raised floor of the traditional Isan houses. The loom used by the Cambodian groups was different to the Lao groups, using a warp beam for winding the warp and stretching it in front of the loom on short ground posts or to the house posts. The Lao looms required the warp to be wrapped around a beam at the front of the loom and tied above the head of the weaver. Silk Mat Mi Styles in Isan

The silk mat mi textiles of Isan are the most varied and exciting in motif and color arrangement in Thailand. Silk ikats were reserved for ceremonial use such as going to the temple, weddings, official occasions and gift giving thus the only the most beautiful designs were made in silk. The ikat technique was reserved for women's tube-skirts and long cloths for both men and women. The tube-skirts of the Lao groups was smaller than that of the Cambodian groups. Another striking difference was the use of three shafts in the Cambodian pieces whereas the Lao used only two shafts. The result of the three shafts was a weft faced fabric which showed off the weft ikat to its maximum.

The Lao Loum and Tai Phuan styles:

The Lao Loum and Tai Phuan wove silk mat mi tube-skirts which are too similar to differentiate unless the traditional waist bands are in place. The Tai Phuan favoured a waist band made in red silk with supplementary stripes while the Lao Loum used multi colors cotton striped fabric. The mat mi patterns of these tube-skirts included geometric motifs representing the "nak", a protective river dragon, animals such as spiders and snakes, plants and flowers such as pine trees, sandalwood and jasmine and fruits such as watermelon and pineapple. The favorite arrangements for these motifs was within a lattice-work which covered the whole piece, design that grew from the hem or in narrow bands with a line at the selvage of the lower part of the tube-skirt to indicate the placing of the hem piece. The hem pieces, woven in a narrow band of compound weave were added to protect the main skirt cloth from damage. After the development of the silk industry in central Isan by King Rama V, the width of these tube-skirts increased from around thirty-six inches to forty inches and thus the waist band and/or hem piece were not added in central Isan areas after this period whereas the upper Isan pieces kept the old structure. Some mat mi tube-skirts were woven on a red and black striped warp. These warps were normally prepared for the weaving of plain tube-skirts used by older women called "sin thieu" but may have been left over and used for mat mi designs which gave these pieces an extra dimension. The Lao Loum and Tai Phuan wove their silk ikats in a two shaft plain weave.

The Phutai style:

The silk mat mi tube-skirts of the Phutai in central Isan maintained their narrow width with added hem pieces and waist bands. The Phutai attached waist bands similar to the Tai Phuan, red silk with supplementary weft patterns. The hem pieces were very narrow, sometimes only an inch wide with dense compound weave in a strong ribbon-like form with bands of alternating colors. The Phutai favored red, yellow and green in their ikat patterns with black or dark purple as the ground color. The Phutai groups used a two shaft twill to weave their mat mi and preferred to weave the ikat yarns alternated with plain colored yarns creating a dot matrix effect. This method of weaving mat mi was called mi luang.

The Khmer Sung style:

The Khmer Sung of lower Isan wove their mat mi with three shafts making this a distinct feature among other mat mi in Isan. Their favorite design was an intricate ikat pattern called "mi hol" used for women's tube-skirts. The original structure of the mi hol design was as a long cloth up to four meters in length to be worn in the pantaloon style by women. This method of wearing the cloth was called "chongkraben" which was used by both men and women. The mi hol is an ancient design with strong taboos which have protected it against the winds of change. The tiny ikat pattern was made in yellow and green with a red or purple-brown ground. As the area was very dry they did not grow cotton and used their old silk mi hol tube-skirts to work in thus it is rare to find old pieces.

The Khmer Sung tube-skirts were much wider and longer than other Isan textiles. Sometimes a white cotton waist band was added and rarely a separate hem piece made in mat mi was added. This unusual structure may have been added to imitate the borders of the Khmer long cloths. The structure of the long cloths was based on a trade textile known as the patola sari from India. This sari was traded throughout Southeast Asia and became a symbol of wealth. Village women tried to imitate its beauty and today many versions of the structure exist. The long cloths had a central field design bordered on the two selvages by geometric designs framed by warp stripes. At the each end of the cloth there were bands of various patterns. The number and quality of these bands indicated the status of the wearer.

Long cloths were woven for Khmer Sung men and for donating to the Siamese court with different elaborate ikat patterns for official and court wear. These prestigious cloths were removed from court wear in the period of King Rama V, but local people continued to enjoy their use well into twentieth century for Buddhist ordination ceremonies. They were called "sompuk poom" by the Thai and "sompruat hol kaban" by the Khmer Sung. These long cloths had bands of plain red and ikat designs at each end of the cloth. Simple bands of white and red ikat were used by ordinary people while nobles had a band of triangular shaped designs which were made up of different motifs such as birds and hook. Royalty had two to three bands of these designs. An important use for these textiles was in the Buddhist ordination ceremony. Animal and large designs of nak and birds were usually favored for this occasion, thus special textiles were woven for this use. Bands of plain red silk and mat mi were placed at each end of the textile as before. Since the middle of the 20th century some other animal motifs such as chickens and peacocks were introduced. Other modern designs such as roses and lilies have also been woven not only for ordination cloths but also for tube-skirts.

The Buriram style:

In the province of Buriram in lower Isan a group of distinct mat mi textiles were made by Lao people. These were woven with two shafts and had a striking red band at both selvages thus gaining the nick-name "tin daeng" meaning red hems. Their patterns and motifs were similar to the Khmer Sung long cloths but the textiles were narrow and sewn into tube-skirts. A hem design was incorporated in the mat mi pattern on one selvage as part of the whole design. Red waist bands like those of the Tai Phuan were sometimes added.

The Ubon Ratchathani style:

Lao Loum and Tai Phuan weavers in Ubon Ratchathani, lower Isan, wove mat mi tube-skirts for the Siamese court. These textiles were distinct from other Isan textiles in their use of silver and gold threads which were woven in continuous supplementary weave bands alternating with mat mi bands. An elaborate supplementary weave waist band was added called "hoa chok dao" with a gold or silver woven hem piece. The use of gold and silver threads was usually restricted to the court and many qualities of yarn existed. Local women would imitate these textiles for wedding costumes using lower quality metal yarns.


Although the mat mi textiles of Isan, northeast Thailand, were made on simple looms and using basic bamboo or wooden equipment, stunning works of art were created. The patterns were placed into the textile in a complex process known as mat mi or weft ikat. Thousands of designs were created in a great variety of color combinations. This wealth of creativity was carried out by village women who were not only hard working but skilled in the planning and organization of the patterns they wove. With no formal education and in the most meager of living conditions, they were able to bring to life their beliefs and traditions in delicate, harmonious patterns woven in fine silk. The mat mi textiles of Isan are a legacy to the women that wove them and a treasure to the world.