Perhaps it was the scent of burnt banana leaves in the air or maybe the chanting of the 10 elderly weavers who surrounded me, but I was overcome with a feeling of dizziness and a sense of euphoria. The ladies who were all attired in garments that radiated shades of the deepest blue took turns pushing sticky rice and eggs into my palms, as part of a blessing ceremony, and showering me with hand-made gifts of fine cotton scarves and handkerchiefs, all in striking blue hues.
The experience was surreal, like a dream, but at that moment, I was wide awake in deepest Sakon Nakhon, on a mission to unearth the true-blue story of indigo dyed-fabrics, the pride of this north-eastern province.
AN IMPORTANT PLANT
Indigo cultivation in the region traces its roots to the Phu Thai people who traditionally resided in Laos and crossed and re-crossed borders. It seems that their knowledge spread across the north-eastern borders of Thailand from the early 1800s, spilling into Laos and Vietnam, with indigo weaving its influence into local customs for example, paying a midwife for her services with a piece of indigo-dyed cloth; basing young girls’ eligibility for marriage on their weaving skills; and using the indigofera plant as a natural healing agent.
Indigo is deeply rooted in Sakon Nakhon’s past, with men sporting indigo tattoos to indicate their clan background and farmers wearing indigo-dyed clothes in the fields, to protect their skin from damaging UV light. The importance of indigo is still visible today, as the wearing of indigo fabrics remains culturally significant to any ceremony and celebration, and towns are painted blue, especially on Fridays when everyone – villages and town folk – don their indigo best, encouraged by the local governor’s exhortations to lend support to this local enterprise.
However, this was not always the case. There was a time when this brilliant blue faded; in the 60s and 70s, with the arrival of factory-produced garments that seemed a cheaper and more practical alternative, indigo dye production came to a halt for nearly half a century, and was eventually abandoned. But, the zeal and devotion of one woman revived this art form.
Excited to begin my education on indigo treasures, I visited the Mae Teeta house, where the seeds of Sakon Nakhon’s once forgotten indigo industry were watered not too long ago. This is the home of Praphaiphan Daengchai, a local woman from the village of Ban Na Di, who, along with her mother Khun Teeta, resurrected the tradition circa 1992, establishing the now famous Mae Teeta group.
Although, I was not able to meet Khun Praphaiphan, who was attending to her mother Khun Teeta in hospital during my visit, Khun Morn, her daughter, who handles social media and design for Mae Teeta, was an endless well of information. I was incredibly honoured to discover that although not open to the public (like other indigo communities who need the exposure), Mae Teeta had made an exception for me, as they recognised the sincerity of my mission.
In the family’s indigo fields, which spread out covering the size of half a football field, Morn explained how, in the early 1990s, Khun Praphaiphan left her busy life in Bangkok to rediscover one of Sakon Nakhon’s early traditions. Upon returning to her home province, she began visiting local markets, scouring the stalls for old women with the mue dam, the ‘black hands’ that indicated that they had once worked with indigo. The search was extremely difficult and she found that many had completely lost faith in the old tradition of natural indigo dyeing. Even back when it had been in practice, indigo was produced only for the villagers’ own use, and never for sale. However, her relentless determination finally paid off, and she started a brand new chapter in indigo dye’s long history.
It was Khun Praphaiphan’s influence that not only revived the art form but also reminded the people of its importance, showing them its value and teaching them that this art form could actually sustain them. Her role in the history of Sakon Nakhon’s indigo industry is instrumental and she is regarded as the godmother of indigo dye.
In 2004, the wisdom of reviving this tradition was proven when a movie production company came to Thailand and placed a huge order for indigo-dyed garments for a big Hollywood film starring none other than blue-eyed heartthrob Brad Pitt! “It happened in one of our Chiang Mai stores,” revealed Khun Morn. “It was anonymous, and so, we didn’t know what the order was for. Only later did we find out that it was, in fact, for the movie Troy!” And indeed, you don’t have to watch the epic film too closely to see that Brad Pitt and the rest of the cast (including extras) are attired in garments of the most stunning blue hues!
The villagers took note of this, and inspired that their humble dyeing and weaving traditions could attract such interest, formed small indigo communities, thus beginning, the indigo revolution. Today, there are about 65 indigo communities across Sakon Nakhon, and the small industry is flourishing.
Before heading to Sakon Nakhon, I already had four different indigo communities on my to-visit list, and I learned with relief that these were not the usual tourist traps – meaning, I would not have to suffer being rushed through the indigo-dyeing process and having goods forced on me in the show room afterwards.
Eager to observe the indigo-dyeing process up close, I made inquiries upon arrival, and was happy that the very knowledgeable locals approved my selection. They treated the subject of indigo dyeing with reverence and a common importance that was in everyone’s interest.
According to Khun Morn and the locals I met, the places on my list like Don Kloy and Nong Krong offered genuine, hands-on experiences where visitors would be able to closely observe the process for a few hours, and smell or even taste the ingredients! Some other communities like Kram Sakon even offered the opportunity for visitors to dip elbow-deep into the blue paste to make their own scarves, skirts or t-shirts.
A LIVING ENTITY
At Kram Sakon, I met an artisan named Sakuna Saranun who explained the complexity of making dye, opening my eyes to incredible facts I’d never considered. The whole process is so ceremonious and delicate that it provides local artisans with a certain security that comes from knowing the inimitable nature of their art. “There were Japanese designers who tried to acquire the recipe and copy the know-how,” explained Sakuna, “but they soon realised that it was just not worth it. There are too many factors to get right; too many circumstances have to be favourable. There’s not really one particular method you can go with, and it needs a lot of patience. Eventually, they gave up.”
Having visited many communities over three days, I quickly saw that Sakuna was right. They all treated each step with tremendous respect. When I spoke to the eldest artisans at Kram Sakon, they explained how they treat each indigo pot as a living entity, as if it were their own sister or child. Referring to the indigo plant as a ‘she’, Sakuna concurred, “She has to be nurtured, fed, cared for and given constant attention.” As the result of each pot is so unpredictable, those tending the plants lend an almost superstitious approach to indigo cultivation, for instance, protecting the plants from the ravages of storms using their own blue garments.
At Don Kloy, I was able to observe the inner workings of an indigo community. Each community usually comprises 10 to 15 artisans, and here, I watched the artisans, who were mostly women, work on weaving machines in comfortably shaded barns decorated with images of the greatly loved monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol.
However, I was told that the real magic happens in a heavily shaded area, which provides just the right temperature for the fermentation and dyeing to take place in 10 to 20 pots at any one time. The whole process is completely natural. No chemicals or artificial materials are used, as it is believed that this would disrupt the harmony inherent in natural indigo cultivation and dye production.
To begin with, the leaves of the indigo plant, which contain the greatest concentration of the dyeing molecule, are soaked in water for about 24 hours, allowing the colour to seep out and turn the water a bluish-green. Then, the leaves are removed and lime is added to the mixture, changing the hue to a deep navy blue, and creating a thick indigo paste at the bottom of the pot. To this paste, whisky, tamarind, and other organic ingredients such as burnt banana ash, lime, Thai rice wine and burnt wood are added, triggering the fermentation process. After all the ingredients have been mixed in, the pot is left out for seven to eight days. To determine if the dye is ready to be used, dyers monitor the colour; if it is green and bubbly, it is healthy and ready for dyeing.
Dyeing requires a lot of muscle; it’s not enough to simply dip the yarn into the paste, the dye needs to be worked in thoroughly. I learned this firsthand when I decided to give it a go, turning one of my favourite shirts a brilliant blue in the process! Once indigo dye stains a garment, the colour will never come out. With each dip, the yarn takes on a deeper and darker shade of blue, and artisans only stop dipping the yarn into the dye once they are happy with the shade they’ve acquired and the balance of colour. When I was done dyeing my yarn, I washed it in the canal behind the house, happy not to have to worry about polluting the water. As I did this, the dyers fed the paste with burnt banana and allowed it to rest and regain energy – a ritual that happens after every dyeing session, which is measured as 100 presses in the vat.
BRILLIANT BLUE FUTURE
Visiting these thriving indigo communities, I was thrilled that the future of this ancient art form seemed bright. The industry is invigorated with young people, just like Morn who with her mastery of two foreign languages (Japanese and English) and design expertise, showcases her community’s products in international fairs in Russia, Germany and Japan, proudly continuing the indigo legacy. But, even more impressive to me was the consideration for the preservation of the traditional and intimate customs involved in this art form.
Speaking to local university lecturer Netnapit Tasakorn helped me gain even greater understanding of the current state of Sakon Nakhon’s industry. So extraordinary are the natural indigo-dyed cottons and silks from Sakon Nakhon that the Thai government has granted these products a Geographical Indication mark – a significant endorsement of the quality of indigo-dyed treasures that are unique to Sakon Nakhon. The value placed on the work of the local artisans here has directly and significantly impacted their lives, improving the livelihoods of at least 10,000 people in the region. Meanwhile, indigo dye export is constantly growing, with products not only reaching retail shops in the Thai capital of Bangkok but also moving abroad.
It cannot be denied that the impressive reach of this small industry has been aided by the Thai government. According to Netnapit, the government initiated a formal programme of support for the natural indigo weavers and dyers of Sakon Nakhon back in 1992. Researchers were sent to the indigo fields to study the plant’s cultivation and improve upon the process, while community developers trained local weavers in organisational skills and marketing.
But, it didn’t stop there. Taking things a step further, the government set the mood for an even larger local market by requesting that the people dress in indigo once a week, and even organised indigo-themed fairs, festivals, fashion shows and a weekend street market. This encouraged many entrepreneurs who were connected to dyeing and weaving communities in the villages to open small retail shops in city centres. Today, there are many weaving groups and retailers who sell their products online using the power of social media to expand their market.
KEEPING THE POT PURE
Though becoming increasingly popular, Sakon Nakhon’s indigo-dyed fabrics are still woven with a sense of purity. While there are many who are keen to promote the industry, there are even more who are passionate about protecting it, sensitive of the qualities that make it unique, and ever vigilant that commerce not dispel the magic of the indigo pots.
This tour was made possible courtesy of Very Local Trip (www.verylocaltrip.com), a tour operator that is passionate about offering authentic and immersive travel experiences that take you to the heart of unique communities in Asia. To get in touch with the friendly people who make this happen, email [email protected] or [email protected]
EXPERIENCE SAKON NAKHON: AirAsia offers the lowest fares to over 150 destinations. Book your seats, accommodation, holiday packages and activities now at airasia.com