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A nobility in THE HANDS

Nurtured by Her Majesty the Queen, embroiderers blossom into artists

A huge and intricately hand-embroidered forest scene hangs on the wall of the Queen's Gallery. Ten citizens of southern Narathiwat province created the two-by-three-metre "Source of Life", with hands roughened in decades' labour tapping rubber trees.

Everyone has an innate artistic aptitude, Her Majesty the Queen once said, and could create wonderful works if given the chance to hone their skills. Her Support Foundation affords people that chance.

"Source of Life", which addresses forest conservation, took a year to make. It's part of the exhibition "Hand Embroidery", which has 200 more stunningly good pieces filling the gallery's five storeys, each a faithful copy of an original image that's mounted by its side for comparison.

The Support Foundation has a department dedicated to sponsoring Thai embroidery. People receive a supplementary income to try their hands at stitching simple floral patterns. Many end up creating large and complicated works like "Source of Life".

Another of the highlights in the exhibition is the exquisite "Nang Loi", rendered by Ayutthaya artisans from a scene of a khon performance of that episode of the Ramayana staged by the Support Foundation in 2010.

You can watch Sitima Duromae at work at the gallery. Another Narathiwat resident, she's making a portrait of a beautiful woman and expects it will take another couple of months to complete.

"The hardest part is the face," she says. "I have to dye the thread in a colour that's as close as possible to human skin and take great care with the light parts and shadows so the perspective is right.

"Intricate work like this can't be done in hurry, and you have to be in a good mood and be really focused at every stage."

Sitima, who earns at least Bt10,000 for a finished work of 30 by 50 centimetres, first met Her Majesty when she visited the South in 1985. The Queen welcomed a group of craftsmen to Thaksin Rajaniwet Palace in Narathiwat.

"She encouraged us to try embroidery to earn extra money and asked her lady-in-waiting, the late Thanphuying Maneerat Bunnag, to provide us with a simple flower pattern, and we had the guidance of the foundation's teachers.

"On her next visit we had to show the completed assignments, and if we demonstrated enough skill we'd get more complicated patterns. I was paid Bt4,000 the first time and was very proud of my artistic skills. I believed in myself!" Sitima in fact now teaches others.

The Queen has been providing training in embroidery at the southern palace since 1976, as well as promoting the region's basket makers, who weave as per tradition with yan lipao vine and the reed called krachut.

The entire story and process are on display at the gallery. Visitors can learn to paint and embroider on the fifth floor. Embroidery kits and embroidered pillows, bags, aprons and tissue boxes are on sale.

"Her Majesty admired how Muslim Thais dressed so beautifully, especially their exquisitely embroidered headscarves," says Thanphuying Indira Polathorn, the Queen's assistant private secretary. "Embroidery work has been assigned step by step, from one village to another, and has spread far and wide across the country."

The Queen always had officials in each area she visited prepare plenty of embroidery patterns for local artisans because it would be at least another before she returned. They'd collect images from Thai literature and depictions of different ways of life, nature scenes and temple murals and reproduce them in outline on waxed paper that could be attached to fabric.

Her Majesty would present kits to the craftspeople containing these templates, embroidery tools and silk thread in colours to match the originals. From ordinary thread, the embroiderers progressed to thread spun from home-raised silkworms. Skilled weavers from the Northeast came to teach the southerners how to select the finest filaments - called mai noi (small silk) - and to dye their own silk yarn in hundreds of different hues.

"The finest silk thread is thinner than human hair," says Orawan Chaiyo, whose charming work "The Embroiderer" is on view. "It's used for smooth, delicate and shiny work that mimics the art originals much better. I learned needlework from skilled teachers 20 years ago during the Queen's visit to Phu Phan Rajanivet Palace in my hometown, Sakon Nakhon and now I earn enough from it that I don't have to move away to look for work."

Orawan created "The Embroiderer" in about six months, between farm chores. It's inspired by Wan Thong from the beloved story "Khun Chang Khun Phaen".

The Queen's templates for embroiderers became so popular that in 2001 she established a workshop at Chitralada Palace where art graduates could produce them.

"There are about 20 artists in two groups - one doing templates of oil and acrylic paintings and the other handling watercolours," says Wana Kumnate, one of the pioneers there. "Her Majesty grants us freedom of expression as long as the templates are beautiful and have bright shades. Ideally the pictures should also help promote Thai culture and natural resources.

"Her Majesty prefers images of nature, like lovely flowers," Wana explains. "She said they entertain the poor craftsmen who, after all, have to spend months or even years working on them."

MUCH TO SEE

>> The exhibition "Hand Embroidery" continues until November 13. The Queen's Gallery on Rajadamnoen Klang Road off Phan Fah Bridge is open daily except Wednesday from 10am to 7pm. Learn more at (02) 281 5360-1 and www.QueenGallery.org.

>> Thanphuying Charungjit Teekara and Danai Chanchaochai of the Do D Foundation will give a talk, "From Magnanimity to Hand Embroidery", on August 19 at 1.30pm.

>> Basic-embroidery classes are held daily except Wednesday from 10.30am to 3.30pm.

>> Porncheewin Malipan and the foundation's painters will lead classes in basic watercolour painting on August 18 and 25, September 1 and 29, and October 6 and 13.

>> See video at www.Nationmultimedia.com/ video/ or www.Facebook.com/Sunday Leisure The Nation


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