Another year has passed and the cycle of time measured by village activities has come full circle. It is once again that time of year - time for weaving sahts.
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".
The Khene musical instrument is said to define the essence of Lao culture. My opinion is that if the khene defines the essence of Lao culture then the saht must reaffirm 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 that is appropriate for all occasions Villagers in Isaan 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 worshipers to kneel and sit on. People place sahts on the ground for sitting on at outside shows as well as outdoors concerts. The corpse is placed upon a saht inside of the coffin prior to cremation.
Sahts are multi-functional woven reed mats that are 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 February, 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.
Dying the Ly reeds is accomplished in the yards of homes throughout the Isaan villages. 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 build for dying the reeds is 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 use 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 use two pieces of readily available local bamboo. A sheave of dried Ly reed is gathered and twisted it together as it is placed it into the pot of boiling dye mixture. A bamboo stick is utilized to ensure all and every part of the reed bundle was submerged into the red liquid. After about two minutes in the pot, the reed sheave, now a shiny brilliant red or some other vibrant color, is removed from the pot using the two pieces bamboo as a pair of long chopsticks. Carefully using the pieces of bamboo, the steaming mass of stringy red reeds is carried over to another location. There the reeds are untangled and laid 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 although the craft is still passed on to daughters and you will sometimes find young girls weaving. 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.
After the sahts are completed they are removed from the loom and placed over fences and bushes to further dry out in the sun. Last week Tahsang Village had many sahts drying in the sun.