Monday, March 22, 2010

Saht Weaving - The Rest of the Story

On Friday I wrote about "Saht Weaving Time" based upon my observations that day as well as several occasions observing Lao Loum women creating sahts over the past two years here in Isaan. In writing Friday's blog, there were many questions that I realized that I did not have the answers to. How long does it take to make a saht? How much does it cost to buy one? What type of weaving is employed to create a saht? How is the warp set up? How is the saht removed from the loom? How do the people keep the completed saht from unravelling?

If no one else was interested, at least I wanted to know the answers to these questions. There were two avenues available to me to find the answers to these questions. The first was to do some research on the Internet. I am amazed at how the Internet has contributed to and improved our life. When I first started out as a field engineer before fax machines were commonplace, there were many times when we needed technical information to do our jobs. Often the technical information was not readily available, i.e. on a drawing or in a catalog, physically located at the job site. We would have to find a possible source for the information, call or write to the possible source to confirm they had the information, and then wait one or two weeks for the information to arrive - if it actually arrived. Not so these days. As I sat in Udonthani, Thailand in my home on Saturday, I decided to learn something about weaving. I wanted to know and more importantly better understand what I had been observing and writing about. In writing this blog I have written that I describe what I have seen and what I have experienced. I don't necessarily understand, believe or can explain everything. I try to make no attempts to justify or rationalize however I do have the personal goal of ensuring that what I write about is accurate. It is important to me to communicate accurately about the sights, events, sounds, smells, and beliefs that I have encountered. I leave it up to the individual reader to determine their own sense or version of reality and truth. For a minute or two on the Internet I can better ensure what I describe is accurate. So it was with weaving last weekend.

Duang and I returned to Tahsang Village on Saturday to tend to family business. As I normally do on our excursions about Isaan, I brought my camera. The two sisters that had dyed the Ly plants earlier in the week were now busy weaving sahts from the dried reeds. I spent a good part of my time in the village photographing and trying to understand the process.

Today we returned to the village specifically to take our 13 month old grandson, Peelawat, to the clinic. Since we left on a semi-emergency basis, I did not bring my camera today. This ended up being an opportunity for me to better observe the process and get my questions answered without getting distracted by my photography efforts. Since Peelawt ended up getting an injection at the clinic while Duang held him he had difficulty sleeping during the afternoon and preferred my company to Duang's. Peelawat and I sat in a chair outside next to the weavers and watched them for two hours. It was a nice afternoon - watching the weaving, giving Peelawat comfort, and having him give me his version of "kisses" (gently bumping heads together followed by a wide grin).

Sahts are woven on a rough lumber framed horizontal loom about 6 feet wide by 9 feet long placed on the ground. The members of the loom are fastened together with a combination of large nails and rope - as is the case in Isaan whatever is available is used as long as it is fit for purpose. The looms are a simple rectangular frame - two parallel or close to parallel pieces of lumber set on edge and two cross members set flat at each end of the rectangle. The looms are often set up underneath the shade of a large tree in some one's yard. When there is a threat of rain the looms are set up underneath the extended overhang or a house roof or underneath an open sided structure often found on the grounds of local Wats.

At the head of the loom where the weaving commences there is a stiff solid wire rod about 1/8 inch in diameter that runs along the edge of the cross member. The rod is kept in place and is guided through a series of small nails that have bent over to form rough semi-circles along the cross member edge. At the other end of the loom, which I will refer to as the "foot of the loom" there is a row of small nails more like upholstery brads than construction nails partially driven into and running over the top of the foot cross member about 1/2 to 3/4 inches from the edge of the wood. The nails are roughly 1/2 inch on centers along the width of the loom. Often the loom is tied to a tree or set up against a couple of iron spikes driven into the ground to provide some additional resistance to movement of the loom during the weaving process.

The saht is woven using plain weave also referred to as tabby weave and sometimes as taffeta weave technique. Plain weave is a very basic weaving technique - a process where the lengthwise threads, referred to as "warp", and the crosswise threads referred to as "weft" are in a crisscross pattern. The weft threads go over and under the warp threads in an alternating pattern across the width of the textile.

After setting up the loom, the saht weaving process with installing the lengthwise threads (warp). For sahts the warp is not actually a thread but is a string. Plastic string typically about 1/32 inch (1 mm) in diameter is used. The plastic string is generally not a high quality mono filament line that is used to crochet fishing nets but is a higher quality than the polyethylene strapping used in packaging. The warp can be of any color with yellow, blue, and black chosen the most frequently. Spools of this type of plastic string are readily available from small hardware type shops in the larger villages and cities. The spool of warp is often set inside of a small plastic bucket to keep it clean and away from the marauding chickens searching for food. The warp runs from the bucket up and over a low hanging tree limb or roof beam down to the foot of the loom. The free end of the warp is placed through a hole or slot in a flat board that in textile weaving is called a "rigid heddle". The rigid heddle is a flat board about 16 inches tall and the width of the desired saht width. Along the width of the heddle are a series of alternating small diameter holes and narrow slots. The holes in the heddle prevent the warp thread going through them from changing their relative elevation whereas the warp threads that pass through a slot are free to change their relative elevation as limited by the slot. After passing through the first hole in the heddle, the warp thread is pulled along the length of the loom to the head.

The free end of the warp thread (plastic string) is then passed over the top of the small diameter rigid rod and looped pulled back towards the foot of the loom. When the warp string encounters the heddle once again, it is run through the slot adjacent to the hole that it previously passed through. When the free end of the warp reaches the foot of the loom a second time, the warp is trimmed to allow the warp to be tied off to each of two adjacent nails. The weaver pulls on the warp to ensure that the warp is taut. I doubt that I could pull the warp tighter than the Lao Loum woman can with their bare hands and fingers. This process of through a hole, over the rod at the loom head, through a slot, and both ends being tied off at the foot of the loom is repeated until all holes and slots of the heddle have a single warp thread running through them.

The heddle is used in conjunction with a piece of bamboo about 4 to 6 inches in diameter to lift alternative warp threads to create a space between the threads. This space between the alternating threads across the width of the textile, called "shed" is where the weft (Ly reeds) are inserted during the weaving process. One of the women worked the heddle while the other woman who sat to the right of the first woman ran the weft (dried reeds) through the shed. After selecting the proper colored reed, the weft feed bent on end of the selected reed over the blunt point of a long and narrow strip of bamboo. Using the bamboo strip she slid and pushed the reed across the shed to the far end of the textile's width. The heddle operator used her left hand to grasp the bent end of the reed and release it from the bamboo strip. The other woman then slid the bamboo strip from the shed and prepared the next reed for insertion. The heddle operator in the meantime used both hands to align and position the inserted reed. With a hand on top of each end of the heddle, she forcibly pulled the heddle towards her to push and compact the new reed agaist the reeds that had been previously woven into the textile. She then slid the heddle away from her to prepare a new shed for the next reed. After each reed has been compacted into place, the women braid the ends of the previous past two reeds to create a braided edge along both sides of the growing textile. This process continues for approximately two hours when the saht was completed.

After the last reed was woven into place, the women used some old thin knives to trim the reed ends along the sides of the saht that protruded past the braided trim. Both knives were too dull to accomplish the task so one of the sisters took them to the back of the house and rubbed them on a rock to sharpen them. Upon completing the trimming of the side, one woman slid the small diameter steel rod from the head of the loom thus releasing that portion of the saht from the loom. At the foot of the loom, the other sister cut the paired warp threads at about six locations. After cutting a pair of warp threads and before cutting the next set of threads, she tied the threads together using a square knot to prevent unraveling. After tying off the last set of warp threads, she cut off all the remaining warp threads releasing the saht from the loom and leaving the saht with a fringe on that end of the textile. Later that fringe is braided and trimmed with a series of cotton strings to create protective edge.

Each saht takes around two hours for two people to weave. Sahts are sold for 80 to 100 baht (about $2.50 to $3.00 USD) for the typical sized saht.

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