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

The geographic area called Isan is a plateau region in the northeast of Thailand bordered in the north and east by the Mekong River and the main decorative technique of traditional textiles in Isan was weft ikat which is call "mat mi".
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April 26, 2010 - PRLog -- 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".

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Muharesch Puhar of Asian Textile Art ( has copyright to many essays relating to rare, antique Indian and Southeast Asian textiles.
Source:Muharesch Puhar
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