Shan Dress and Textiles: Ancient Traditions, Modern Trends

Shan Dress and Textiles: Ancient Traditions, Modern Trends
The Shan States together comprise 160, 000 square kilometres, almost a quarter of the
known today as Myanmar. The Shan population is estimated to be approximately
five million with over half a million living in Thailand and an unknown number throughout
the world. The Shan describe themselves as Tai and their migration to the Shan States from
China probably began from the first century CE.1 Evidence of a common Tai origin is based
on language and comparable religious scripts but weavers throughout inland Southeast
Asia claim that they can recognise Tai people by their weaving patterns and dress. The
choice and colour of the yarn, the type of weaving patterns, the use of imported as well as
locally produced fabrics, the trimmings and the style of dress, whether tailored or created
by wrapping and tucking lengths around the body, helps to define dress as belonging to a
particular Tai ethnic group.
To give a sense of the history and continuity of textile production in the Shan States, this
power point presentation includes examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century Shan
dress and textiles from the archives of The British Museum, the British Library, the
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the Museum and Galleries, Brighton and the Denison
University Museum, Ohio. The collections contain dress and textiles created by women in
their villages, in cottage industries and in court workshops.
In terms of local production, cotton, hemp and indigo were cultivated in the hills and valleys.
Until the introduction of European aniline dyes in the nineteenth century, dyes were sourced
from a range of local plants and soil extracts.2 Most Shan women wove cotton on a seasonal
basis on wooden frame looms assembled in the space under the house. Hill dwellers like the
Kachin, Palaung and Karen used back-strap looms.3 The Shan cultivated high-quality cotton but
silk production was only possible in a few areas where the soil and climate were suitable.4
Until roads and railways were built the textile trade involved mule trains, ponies, bullocks and
human porters. Shan traders travelled to Chiang Mai and other cities in Lan Na (north Thailand),
or south to Moulmein in Burma. Among the goods they exported from the Shan States were silk
ikat fabrics from Inlay Lake, tapestry weave silk (luntaya) from Amarapura, hand-spun, handwoven Shan cotton, hand-made shoes and sandals. They purchased hand-woven textiles from the
villages around Chiang Mai and Lamphun, particularly women’s skirt lengths that fetched a high
price. From Moulmein they brought mill cotton and silk piece goods.
Chinese Muslim traders from Yunnan brought skeins of raw Chinese silk, silk turban cloths, and
Chinese silk and satin piece goods, sewing thread, tinsel cloth, gold and silver embroidery
thread, silk and brocade ribbons, floss-silk embroidery thread, felt carpets and straw hats. They
also carried ready-made silk blouses and jackets for summer wear and quilted indigo cotton and
fur-lined silk jackets for winter.5 After selling these goods at Shan markets, they travelled to
Moulmein to purchase Burmese silk, Indian muslin, cambric, printed calico and cotton piece
goods. On their return through the Shan States they bartered these products for bales of raw
cotton and local dyes which they took back to Yunnan.
Burmese traders generally did business in the southern Shan States, travelling from Tenasserim
to deal in a variety of Burmese, Indian and British textiles including muslin, mill cotton, flannel,
velvet, velveteen, satin, lace, printed cottons, ‘broderie anglais’, brocades, handkerchiefs and
flowered carpets. They also carried aniline dyes, sewing needles and thread, umbrellas, paper
fans and hair combs. Like the Chinese traders, they purchased bales of raw cotton which they
sold in Moulmein.
Short staple cotton (gossypium herbaceum) was one of the most important exports from the Shan
States to China and Burma. In years when the rice harvest was poor, cotton was one of the
commercial crops that Shan farmers could trade for rice. By the middle of the eighteenth century
there were so many caravans from Yunnan passing through the major cities that their agents
settled permanently. The Prince of Keng Tung sold land as a site for a mosque and non-Muslim
traders were allowed to erect a Chinese temple.6
By the late nineteenth century imports were competing with Shan yarns, dyes and woven textiles.
The British administrator Sir George Scott thought imports were inferior noting that ‘gaudy
calicoes and cheap Manchester fabrics’ were worn by the Shan on religious days and for local
festivals.7 He predicted that although women were still producing their distinctive forms of Tai
Lue, Khoen and Neua dress, it would only be time before imports were so cheap that they gave
up weaving. Other commentators noted the harsh colours that were the result of switching to
commercial dyes.8 Scott’s predictions were not entirely accurate as he noted in 1932.
All but the poorest people own a loom, and everyday clothes are usually of home
manufacture though all sorts of cheap British and Indian stuffs are imported. Sometimes
gold and silver threads are woven into the women’s holiday skirts until they are stiff and
glistening. Blankets, bags and towels are all locally made and are strong and durable.9
Foreign observers expressed alarm at villagers’ use of cheap imported goods, but most imports
were expensive and destined for use in court workshops where ruling Shan families
commissioned ceremonial dress and textiles for themselves and their subordinates. Silk
embroidered wall hangings, cushions and other soft furnishings were also produced in the
workshops and all Shan weavers had a duty to provide robes and other textiles for the use of
monks, and temple banners and hangings for religious festivals.
Chinese raw silk was imported by the skein and processed and spun to a smooth, shiny thread.
Male dress included Shan turbans, jackets, coats and loose-legged trousers, and for women
ankle-length skirts, blouses and jackets. The clothes worn at court were embroidered using a
range of decorative stitches worked in multi-coloured silks and embellished with sequins and
bugle beads. A popular technique known as ‘couching’, involved sewing predetermined shapes
of gold and silver metal thread and semi-precious stones onto silk with a cotton backing.
Swirling tendrils and leaves, flowers, mythical animals and birds were popular designs. The
ruling families were aware of international fashion and in the 1920s and 1930s some designs
were copied from European Art Nouveau and Art Deco embroidery.
What is the legacy of this creative tradition? The exquisite court textiles and aesthetically
pleasing hand-woven village textiles of the past are highly valued by connoisseurs and today
form part of museum collections in Southeast Asia and throughout the world. They should be a
source of inspiration to Shan designers and dress-makers today. However, since the loss of court
patronage and support from a wealthy discerning Shan middle class, many highly skilled
weavers, dyers and embroiderers have either lost their jobs or are supplying a less discerning
clientele. The demand for cheap goods has lowered standards and encouraged the use of
synthetic yarns, garish colours and trimmings of inferior quality. Durable, hand-woven cotton
has decreased in production as large numbers of Shan farmers and their families move to the
cities where they have no room for looms. In some areas of the Shan States, imported synthetics
have flooded the markets and no locally-made Shan textiles and dress are available at all.
However, there is a glimmer of hope as Shan ethnic dress is still popular for Buddhist festival
days and family celebrations. The Shan living overseas in Thailand, Britain, Canada, the United
States and Australia obtain their costumes from the weavers and embroiderers working in cottage
industries around Inlay Lake, Nam Khan and other small weaving centres.
In conclusion, Shan businesses need to consider investment in quality control, standard sizing,
pricing and efficient marketing systems so that they can sell goods to a range of customers from
local shoppers to hand-made items of high quality for discerning buyers, including wealthy
tourists. This has already happened in Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia where they aim
to cater to all levels of the market. Dedicated designers ensure that their products are a testimony
to the creativity of local people and are recognised internationally.
1 Hall, D.G.E., A History of South-East Asia, London: Macmillan, 1955 reprint 1968, pp.10-11.
2 Sir George Scott and J.P. Hardiman recorded seventy-four dye plants used in Burma and the Shan States (Scott,
J.G. and Hardiman, J.P. Gazeteer of Burma and the Shan States, Vol. I pt. II, pp. 388-90).
3 Ling Roth, Studies in Primitive Looms, Bankfield Museum, Halifax, 1918.
4 Captain McLeod’s Journal, 4th January 1837, quoted in V. Grabowsky and A. Turton, The Gold and Silver Road of
Trade and Friendship, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2003.
5 Ibid 2003, p. 354.
6 The Chinese temple in Amarapura was constructed in 1773 (Conway, 2006).
7 Scott,J.G., Burma and Beyond, Grayson and Grayson, London, 1932.
8 Milne,L.,and Cochrane, W., Shans at Home, Murray, 1910, reprint 1970, p. 137.
9 Scott, 1932, p. 258.
Dr. Susan Conway is a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London. She was Adjunct Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Parsons, New
School University, New York. She has published numerous books on the Theravada Buddhist
culture, arts and crafts of inland Southeast Asia, particularly north Thailand and the Shan States of
Burma (Myanmar). She has contributed to books on textiles, art and archaeology for British
Museum Press, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Denison Museum, Ohio and the James H.W.
Thompson Foundation, Bangkok. She was curator of the highly acclaimed exhibition Power
Dressing at the James H.W. Thompson Museum in Bangkok (2003). Her current research involves
the material culture of Shan rituals. [email protected]