Shirts off their backs and all that

Art August 13, 2012 00:00

By The Nation

Paothong Thongchue, a historian of Thai textiles, has long followed Her Majesty the Queen's efforts to promote and protect our silk industry and its traditions.

To that end his collection extends even to poor villagers’ ragged old clothing.

The Queen’s initiative inspired him, Paothong tells Lips magazine.

“Whenever I bought silk from local artisans I asked them if I could have the rags they used around the house. I’d ask for the ‘best’ rags they had, just because I didn’t know how to ask otherwise.”

The locals were often embarrassed about handing over an ancient article of clothing now used for sopping up spills, but Paothong said he’d be cleaning it anyway. And that was his way of supporting the venerable traditions.

He also collected clothing off people’s backs so that he could closely study the classical woven patterns. One trick he used was to offer a new item in exchange.

“I’d get a new sarong from Pahurat or Sampeng market in Bangkok and ask them to trade.”

Of course Paothong learned early on that upcountry people only wear their best silk clothes for important community events at the temple.

“These are the clothes they want to be wearing at their own funerals,” he says. He needed a different trick to acquire such esteemed outfits.

He’d be ready with a wad of Bt20 banknotes, offering Bt2,000 or Bt3,000 as well as a fresh set of replacement silks in return for the family’s treasured articles.

“I’d spot someone at a temple and talk them into letting me have what they were wearing,” he says. It didn’t always work – older people tended to insist that this is what they’d be wearing in the next life.

“I’d tell them I had an even better outfit that would surely send them to Heaven,” Paothing laughs.

He’s full of praise for Her Majesty launching the Support Foundation more than 50 years ago.

“Without her brainchild project, we might have no chance today to even see pah poothai or pah praewa Kalasin or mudmee silk!”