Continue the art on the fabric and connect the community to
the world with two hands of a foreigner with Thai heart
Studio Naenna is a Thai fabric crafting studio which is famous for its Mudmee weaving and yarn dyed with natural colors. It was founded by Patricia Cheesman in 1985, and now her daughter, Lamona Cheesman, is helping to manage it.
The thread of the beginning
Lamona told us about the beginning of Studio Naenna that Patricia studied ceramics and had the opportunity to join a project to support ceramic production in Laos. At that moment, she saw a wide variety of woven fabrics especially cloth from Tai Lao ethnic group and spoke with migrants from the North. So, she became interested in art on canvas and began to study and learn about ancient cloth since then. This is an “on site on field” learning approach, which means learning from villagers through direct practice. At the end of the project, she went on to study further at a university in Australia. With a passion for ancient cloth, she returned to Thailand and was invited to be a special lecturer in Thai fabrics and design by Department of Thai Art, Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University. This encouraged Patricia to learn more about Thai fabrics and gave her the opportunity to talk to weavers in the North and the Northeast as well as Laotians. Her being in various villages and working with weavers and dyers not only gave her knowledge but also made her realize the needs of the villagers who wanted to have distributors. She also saw the value of those works, so she decided to act as an agent between buyers and sellers without taking advantage of the villagers.
“Studio Naenna started in a small house in Nimmanhaemin before moving to Chang Khian until now. My mother was married to Sahawat Naenna, and had a daughter, Susira Naenna, at the time of the establishment of the studio hence the origin of the name of Studio Naenna. The word "Naenna" is a solid name for the business and indicates the products we make and the sincerity we have with the producers and buyers. It also represents the close ties between relatives and friends as well as our aim to support weavers and producers in the villages.”
Tie the mind, dye the soul
Over the past 40 years, Patricia has continued to research ancient cloth as she wanted to help the weavers. As an artist, she has designed fabric patterns and created dyes all of which are the things that she likes and pays attention to. In addition, she knows the market and understands the needs of foreign buyers, including styles and tastes. This makes Studio Naenna fabrics always in demand.
Lamona said that, at the studio, fabrics are woven using a variety of techniques. The outstanding one is Mudmee as it is a weaving technique that Patricia has fallen in love with, and the fabric can be easily converted into clothes. With this technique, the fabric can be woven to have light, thick, smooth, or rough texture. In addition, this technique can be dyed and overlaid, and can be done in a variety of colors bringing fun from creating patterns by ourselves.
“Mudmee is a technique for binding yarns to create a pattern before being woven. It is a weaving technique that is done all over the country. It is found most in the Northeastern region. In the North, it is found in the work of Karen and Lua called Mud Kan, which is a tying of a standing line. One of the unique characteristics of Mudmee is that the edges of the pattern are soft unlike printed fabrics with sharp patterns which look unnatural. In addition, our fabrics are woven with pure silk, pure cotton and cotton silk which is the use of silk and cotton threads to weave together.”
When talking about the process of working, Lamona said that, in each weaving, approximately 6-10 meters of fabric is obtained. The whole process takes about a month from the preparation of the yarn, binding with Mudmee process, dyeing, removing the bound rope and rolling to be woven on the standing line. Studio Naenna focuses on dyeing on the fibers before weaving. If it’s Mudmee, the villagers will tie the pattern on the fibers first and send it back to dye. When finished dyeing, it will be cleaned to make sure that the paint does not bleed and there is no residual color. After that, it will be sent to the village for weaving or embroidery. Once the fabric is obtained, it will be sent back to Studio Naenna for washing, sewing and labeling to be sold as the final step.
“For the dyes used by Studio Naenna, most of them are naturally derived colors, such as blue from indigo, black from ebony, reddish orange from khamsad seeds, red from fang and shellac, yellow from the core of jackfruit, etc. Natural colors give a soft feel and have a simple beauty. We cultivate indigo and khamsad ourselves. Some trees are common. As for ebony, villagers will collect them and send them to us. In some colors that are not in nature or difficult in the process of making, we will use some chemical colors instead such as light purple and turquoise which require a process to take care of the environment. Water used after chemical dyeing must be treated before discarding. My mother has always been mindful of the environmental impact. The use of water and other resources must be cost-effective and non-polluting. In addition, we use eco-friendly cotton threads and natural dyes for sustainability”
A new heart on the same path
Located on Nimmanhaemin Road, Studio Naenna’s showroom is filled with a wide variety of woven fabrics and processed woven products which are unique in both appearance and color. Some designs are delicate while some designs have been reduced to look modern. Lamona said that Studio Naenna has created more than a hundred Mudmee patterns. For the ancient patterns preserved by Patricia, the fabric patterns were saved on graph paper and stored as digital file which is easy to study and follow. In addition, villagers who accept the works will be able to follow the patterns correctly without confusion.
There are many community networks that Studio Naenna has worked with such as a group of women weaving for the environment at Chom Thong (for weaving and Mudmee) Hmong embroidery group (a group of people living in villages on various hills. The villagers will spread word of mouth to each other to get the job. The number of embroiders and the timing is not sure, but the work turned out to be beautiful and worth the wait) and the Karen weaving group (it’s a woven work with backstrap loom that makes fabric which looks like a canvas. Studio Naenna will prepare a set of colors for weaving. The fabric pattern is in a simple stripe but modern with nice color. It is sewn into a bag. Some are woven with traditional tribal patterns). There are also weavers in Laos who have been in contact with Patricia for more than 30 years, who use Khit or Jok techniques and all natural dyes, emphasizing the ancient weave that Patricia studied by making imitations to resemble ancient cloth as much as possible because it can’t be bought anymore nowadays.
Carving challenges … weaving patterns with experience
Lamona describes the challenges at work that she always faces, but she views these challenges as fun.
“Challenge is what drives me to work until today starting from the search for sustainable raw materials, designing, dyeing techniques to contacting weavers which has the least problems because they have worked together with us for many years. We understand their way of life and their culture. At the same time, our customers understand the production process which takes time. So, everything went well. During the Covid-19 outbreak, it's a big change for us. 90% of customers are tourists, both foreigners and Thais. The rest are foreigners living in Thailand. When there was no travel, everything stopped. So, we started to turn to online marketing via both Facebook and Instagram. Fortunately, the studio has been around for a long time so existing customer base is still as strong as a fan. They are always asking about new products. When we have more time, we can design new fabric patterns and make some new products. In addition, two to three natural dyeing workshops are held per month at the studio in the midst of nature in Chang Khian area.”
Lamona thinks that crafting is important to everyone not only producers, business owners or buyers. Craft work is an identity of the community. It has become a valuable culture as it is a part of the culture. Therefore, both buyers and producers must support each other.
“It's the duty of designers to grab or bring out the appeal. It's not just crafting into fashion. Craft is not fast fashion but it's slow fashion and it is sustainable. Meanwhile, the trend of crafting businesses is likely to change as people are still in the adjustment period due to Covid-19. Of course, things will go in a better direction.”
Lamona concluded with a smile and said: