Friday, March 19, 2010

Saht Weaving Time

I have recently written about the diminished activity in the fields and waterways of Isaan coinciding with the rising temperatures as well as the dry season. This does not mean that there is not plenty going on to witness, observe or photograph in the rural villages of Isaan.

As you drive through the small villages that are scattered along the back roads of Isaan, you will find bunches of reeds laid out along side of the village streets drying in the sun. These are the marsh reeds, called "Ly" (?) that are used to weave the ubiquitous Lao Loum textile called "Saht". I read that the Khene musical instrument defines the essence of Lao culture. My opinion is that if the khene defines than the saht reaffirms the essence of Lao Loum culture. The saht is a scatter rug, a substitute for carpeting, an offering to Monks, a place to eat your meals, a place to drink, a substitute for a mattress, and a gift. People in Isaan villages place sahts upon the floor of their home to eat their meals. Sahts are placed inside of hammocks to create beds for babies and toddlers. Some people sleep atop sahts placed upon the floors of their home. Sahts are placed upon the floor of Buddhist temples for the worshippers to kneel and sit on. People place sahts on the ground for sitting on at outside shows as well as outdoors concerts. The body is placed upon a saht inside of the coffin prior to cremation.

Sahts are a multifunctional woven read mat that is typically around 39 inches wide and around 57 inches long. The width of the saht is restricted by the height of the Ly plant at harvest time. The Ly plant is cultivated very much like rice is here in Isaan however it does require more and a more reliable source of water than rice. It is harvested every four months - roughly Mid-March, Early-August, and December.

When the plant is about four feet high, it is cut using sickles that are also used to harvest the rice crop. The light heads are cut off the reeds and the reeds are laid out flat along the side of the street or in people's compacted dirt yards to dry out in the sun. Isaan villagers do not have lawns. Their yards are compacted dirt that they often sweep with long handcrafted brooms to remove leaves that fall from surrounding trees. Roving groups of chickens also assist in maintaining the yards.

During hot and sunny weather like we experience in March and April, the reeds are dry in three to four days. Later when the weather is not so sunny or dry, it takes one to two weeks for the reeds to dry out. After drying out flat, some villagers hang the sheaves of dried reeds over the top of their bamboo fences to protect the reeds from wandering water buffalo, cattle, dogs, as well as chickens. The local children seem to be well trained and avoid damaging or soiling the reeds along the street.

Most people dye the dry reeds before weaving them. I guess it is like any personal endeavor and enterprise, the villagers want to add some personal touch and style to their product. I have seen some plain dull brown sahts but not very many of them. Most of the finished sahts are very colorful. They typically are a mixture of orange, red, yellow, and blue. Just as with the local cotton and silk weavers, the saht weavers have the designs and patterns of their textile memorized. I have watched cotton and silk weavers here in Isaan as well as in Laos, and I am continuously amazed at how they can create such colorful as well as intricate patterns from only their memory. Saht weaving is a great deal easier for me to try to comprehend. The design and patterns are created using single reed of one color whereas in certain silk weaving some of the individual threads are multi-colored. Most sahts have no more than 4 distinct colors. I have seen some silk weaving involving 8 different colors.

Last week during one of our trips out to Tahsang Village we saw two of the village women busy with dying some dry Ly reeds. As so often is the case here in Isaan as well as in neighboring Laos, the Lao Loum people make do with what they have or with what is readily available. They were using a commercial water based dye that requires hot water. To heat the water they had built a small wood fire. In Thailand, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia, people are free to perform outdoor burning. Most people in the villages cook their meals outside over small wood or charcoal fires. The wood fire that the village women had built for dying the reeds was comprised of several logs each about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. As the wood underneath their pot of boiling by the small fire, the women maintain the fire simply by pushing the remainder of the logs to the center of the flames.

For a container to boil the water and dye mixture in and to contain the reeds, the villagers used a large metal container that had been used to store cookies. The container was about 4 to 5 gallons capacity. For stirring the mixture and removing the hot dyed reeds, the villagers used two pieces of readily available local bamboo. One of the women, gathered a sheave of dried Ly reed and twisted it together as she placed it into the pot of boiling dye mixture. She used a bamboo stick to ensure all and every part of the reed bundle was submerged into the red liquid. After about two minutes in the pot, the woman removed the reed sheave, now a shiny brilliant red, from the pot using the two pieces bamboo as a pair of long chopsticks. Carefully using the pieces of bamboo, she carried the steaming mass of stringy red reeds over to the other woman. The second woman was busy untangling the reeds and laying them out in the sun to dry once again. It is important that the reeds not be bent or twisted for weaving. After cooling the reeds will be hung to complete drying out.

Weaving of the Ly reeds into sahts is performed at people's homes and in covered areas at some village Wats. The weaving is a two person operation typically older women. They weave the reed upon a home made loom made from rough lumber and pieces of bamboo. The looms are set up on the ground. Plastic string is strung through a wide piece of wood with a series of holes drilled in it from one end to the other end of the frame. One person takes a colored reed to be woven into the saht. The selected reed is attached to a thin bamboo stick and pushed along the width of the textile between the two layers of the plastic string. The second woman manipulates the wide board to push the new reed up against the previously woven reeds. They talk and gossip all the while that they are working. Neighbors and family members often stop by to socialize with the weavers as they toil.


  1. Excellent article, Alan I wonder if the Interweave Press in Colorado would be interested in it. They publish the magazines Spin-Off and Handwoven. I am amazed that they use the dye pot for storing cookies...I wonder how safe that is. The weaving looks very similar to Swedish Rep. Plastic warp? I love it. Bringing together the old and the new. The colors are to die for. Again, great job..It is obvious that I enjoyed the article.

  2. The cookies were first stored in the metal can. The can was then used as a dye pot. It will only be used as a dye pot from now on. I'll look into the magazines - Thanks. I was out at the village today and will write a foolow up to this blog.