Two fashion designers Alison Welsh and Jasper Chadprajong from the Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University undertook a creative residency in Thailand in November 2017 as part of the Crafting Futures programme. They were based in Nan Province, which is on the eastern border of northern Thailand. Welsh and Chadprajong were working in conjunction with women weavers from the Silalang sub-district near Pua. This is an area with inherent natural beauty surrounded by forested mountains and extensive rice fields. It is the forests that provide the communities with the source materials for their natural dyes. They work in tandem with the land and the forests, maintaining a respect for the environments and the eco-culture. The methods and processes of dyeing and weaving have been passed down through the generations, and this ancestral wisdom is valued and celebrated. Their weaving looms, like their traditional homes, are made by highly skilled craftsmen from local timber. They continue to weave both for their own consumption and for commercial reasons.

Welsh and Chadprajong visited many weavers and textile community enterprises based in small rural villages. The weavers, all women, produce complex traditional patterns with immense patience and concentration, on looms they have been using since childhood. The cloth produced has inherent qualities which possess ecological and spritual properties which reflect their personal heritage. It was these fabrics that Welsh and Chadprajong fell in love with.  The sense of history and of skill is visible through fabrics which take weeks to weave, fabrics which leave a trace of the weaver with every thread. When Welsh and Chadprajong were asked to design garments, and cut patterns for the weavers to make into clothes, their initial response was of respect for the fabric, and the fear of cutting into cloth which took so long to make (and which did not feel theirs to cut up). The weavers themselves made some garments immediately, confidently and with less fear of cutting their own cloth. The results were wearable, desirable clothes fit for women to wear in both England and Thailand.

Welsh and Chadprajong spent two intensive weeks immersing themselves within the culture of the villages, repeatedly visiting groups of weavers, gradually gaining an understanding of their weaving, their natural dying and their way of life. These communities have a distinctive working pattern, and their daily lives are based on traditional family social structures. The weavers normally weave for a set period of their day, worked in amongst other roles. The women maintain a balanced way of life which is based on a confident, caring and supportive social structure. Welsh and Chadprajong came away with complete respect for a community which has such a strong and unique identity.

Both Welsh and Chadprajong have gone on to make more garments from the hand-woven fabrics in England. These new designs continue to celebrate the inherent qualities of the cloth, the natural irregulars in the weave and the variety of colour shades as a result of the natural dyeing. These garments, along with the dresses made in Thailand, were exhibited at the 12th Fae Gaem Mai’s Lanna Ethnic Exhibition in Chaing Mai, in December.