Pranom Tapang, Master Weaver, Thailand
Pranom Tapang is a small woman with a big heart. Her back is bent from years of manual work and, when she walks, she moves with a slight shuffle that is not surprising for a 60-year old.
But any sense of stiffness in her bones disappears the moment she sits down to weave. For decades, her fingers have moved across these machines like wands creating magic. Pranom Tapang is one of the greatest weavers in Thailand and she has devoted her life to it.
“When I was very young, my mother taught me everything from getting the thread to spinning the thread to dyeing the colour without chemicals,” she tells me through a translator.
“We had no money to buy the clothing at the market so I tried to make everything by myself.”
For some people, this might have been the first step towards a career in weaving. But not for Pranom. Her family was too poor for her to continue at school after grade 4 and she was sent to Bangkok to work as domestic help. It was hard labour for a small young girl and she returned home, where she helped on the farm and sold local wares. It was during this stage of her life that her interest in weaving was reignited.
“I saw an old lady next to my house weaving when I was still a child,” she says.
“When that lady went away, I tried weaving myself without permission and I loved it. When the lady came back she liked the work I had done and I asked her to teach me. The patterns and design were so beautiful and I loved them.”
This was the moment that changed everything for Pranom and she knew she had found her calling in life. As the years went on, she learned the ancient local art of Tin-Chok weaving and this caught the eye of Queen Sirikit. Suddenly she had a royal patron. Business blossomed and Pranom began establishing cooperative groups to include other local women in the weaving business.
Traditional weaving in northern Thailand
Today I am meeting Pranom Tapang at her workshop near the Thai city of Phrae in the north of the country.
Downstairs are a dozen weaving machines that are all being used by young students. On the upper level of the building is her collection of woven designs. Some she has collected from across the country and the world – the rest are her own creations.
There’s a mixture of traditional patterns and more modern artistic styles. Over the years she has worked on both. The modern pieces are often commissions that she has been hired to create.
“I got my own designs from my parents and other ones I bought,” she explains.
“And then I just sit and think and fit them together.”
Pranom Tapang has been recognised as one of the greatest weavers in Thailand for both her skill and her artistic vision. The Office of National Culture Commission has honoured her in the field of visual arts and in 2010 she was named as a National Artist.
One of the reasons she is so respected in Thailand is that her fabric patterns are consistent with the social and environmental practices of the past. Her work is protecting the traditions of this region – particularly the Tin-Chok style.
She has also been named as a National Teacher of Thai Wisdom. The students working on the weaving machines here at her workshop have come to learn her skills and the traditional art.
“I pass on the education to the young children because I want to keep everything in Thailand,” she says.
“Even if I was to pass away, my education would still be here in Thailand.”
Pranom walks over to a girl, about 10 years old, who has just dropped something on the floor. The girl picks it up and together they get the machine set up again properly. I can’t understand the words she says to the student but I can get a sense of the tone. It’s a patient and caring voice, more concerned with the correct process than the final result.
The kind old teacher sees her work her as more than simply teaching a new generation of weavers. It’s about passing on her love of Thai culture and hoping that they will then do the same. And she has a royal blessing – and obligation – to do so.
“I went to the palace in Chiang Mai to study weaving with the queen,” she tells me, “and the queen told me to please teach other people as well. The queen loves fabric so both of us want to keep original things in Thailand.”
Visiting Pranom Tampang’s workshop
The workshop here is quite noisy with the clack of the wooden machines and the gentle murmur of the young students’ voices. Overall, though, it feels calm here. The traffic is quite light on the road outside and there is no major development in the area. This is rural northern Thailand.
Some tourists would stop to meet Pranom and see her workshop – and there’s a small shop where they can buy some of the work that is made here. It’s not really the point, though. Most of the business is done by custom order from Thai people.
The point of the workshop is to give the local people somewhere to learn and create. Pranom Tampang sees community development as important as passing on the technical skills. She wants weaving to be a viable career for anyone who wants to master the art.
I’m sure there is a part of her that thinks back to those hard years she spent working as domestic help and on the farm and hopes that no young girl with a passion for weaving ever has to do that again.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.