The Tai Lue Project
As part of the British Council’s Crafting Futures programme, the Tai Lue Project is working with women weavers at a micro level in craft villages in Northern Thailand .
Fashion designers Alison Welsh and Jasper Chadprajong-Smith are working hand-in-hand with Tai Lue weavers from the Silalang community in Nan province, a mountainous agricultural region of north-east Thailand. Together they are developing new garments using traditional hand-woven cotton textiles. The project aims to explore methods of equipping local artisans with knowledge in design thinking and the ability to integrate their cultural identity into their cloth in an authentic and thoughtful way.
The communities still create hand-loomed cotton fabrics and the designs can be very sophisticated and time consuming to produce. These designs have passed from one generation to the next; they have not been written down or recorded, and are regarded as family heirlooms. The previous generation of weavers would have dyed the yarns using local vegetable dyes, but the use of natural dyes has been gradually declining. This project is exploring a return to the use of natural dyes to support sustainable and eco-friendly garment production.
Before the start of the project, the weavers identified their practical needs, which were to produce new product designs and to understand “how to choose colour to beautifully create products”. These needs were identified in an initial Research Framework Report, which, combined with the British Council’s terms of reference, underpins this work.
Methods of co-creation are being tested through practice-based design initiatives. Hybrid garments are created with mutual respect for each other’s skills. The relationship is normally an equal balance of fabric design/making and garment design/pattern cutting, with an overlap of shared responsibilities in the middle.
The creative process can be likened to a game of consequences, where the responsibility for creative decision making is passed from one person to another. Once a fabric has been designed, the fashion designer and the textile weaver will run through new possibilities for the weave together—a new weight, a change in colour, or a change of scale might be discussed. Then a garment design is created in response to the new fabric design. The next step is for one of the team to make up the garment, then after discussion and feedback in a trying-on session, the garment will be re-worked by the fashion designer. In turn, it will be taken back to the village for more analysis, alterations, and possibly embellishment. This ‘consequences’ co-creation method creates a hybrid garment designed by a number of people.
The weavers became active co-researchers through multiple meetings, trying-on sessions, and long discussions focusing on their needs and ambitions over three intensive field trips. Central to the development of shared learning were workshops that focused on natural dyeing and pattern cutting, weaving and colour.
An interim outcome of the project was a collection of 20 fashion garments that celebrate the intricacies of Tai Lue weaving. However, it is not the garments themselves that are the outcome here but the knowledge and cross-cultural understanding that have taken place throughout this journey. The joint aims of this project are equipping artisans with design thinking and the integration of their cultural identity into new products, and a significant technical and conceptual design exchange between the participants has taken place. The learning has benefitted all parties, and these new collaborative methods are drawing attention to the community’s traditional fabrics, helping them to find their place in the new realms of luxury fashion.
This collaborative research would not have been possible without the valued contributions of the Tai Lue weavers and entrepreneurs at Ban Hea, Ban Sala, and Ban Donchai in Nan Province, Thailand. Thanks are due to the Tai Lue Project team, particularly Jasper Chadprajong-Smith, technical staff from the Manchester Fashion Institute, Sasiwimon Wongjarin and Patcharawee Tunprawat from the British Council, and Professor Stephen Dixon at Manchester Metropolitan University, who have all supported this research.
 This information is based on the outcomes within Part 3 of a report prepared for the project by Chain Mai University, The Research Framework of Tai Lue Textile from Silalang, in section ‘The Needs of Weaver and Textile Crafting Business Entrepreneurs Concerning Product Development’.