The textiles of Somporn Intaraprayong take us on a walk through the rice fields. Heavy stitches through hemp create an undulating surface, reminiscent of a rhythmic landscape, shaped by paths and contours of thread. Organic rows of stitches create maps, like enlarged cellular drawings or currents in an indigo ocean, with hidden clues to the place and people that created them. Embroidered spider webs, picnicking ants or numbers from a child’s maths book all give a sense of rural life in Thailand and tell the stories of the local seamstresses that work under Somporn’s guidance.
As we look closer the textural terrain reveals slubs of raw cotton, splitting hemp fibres and the uneven stitches of a human hand. Somporn’s work is locally produced. It begins with found or cultivated fibres such as cotton, hemp or linen then dyed using local indigo plants, abundant in the hills of Northern Thailand. Somporn describes how the work begins; ‘Every tiny piece of cloth has a long history. In the case of cotton, for example, the plant had to be foraged or cultivated, picked, spun, and then dyed and woven, or woven and dyed – all this before the cloth is turned into something else. To throw out even a scrap of material, therefore, is painful, so we keep everything.’ This understanding of how the cloth is made has lead to a deep appreciation for the irregularities of natural fibres, which are celebrated through her textiles.
Next, the raw cloth is stitched by many hands. Local women are taught how to become seamstresses to create densely stitched pieces that are sold at the best international craft markets. Somporn dedicates a lot of her time to sharing her sewing skills with anyone who wants to learn, creating work in areas where employment is scarce. There is a beauty that radiates through Somporn’s entire creative practice from the raw materials to the final stitch. She describes empathy as the most valuable tool in her process, which has encouraged her to reach out to those who may be struggling with poverty or lack of education.
Somporn is a self-taught artist, whose embroidered textiles are now coveted by collectors around the world. An influential moment in her professional development was meeting Vichai Chinalai of Chinalai Tribal Antiques, whist working selling jewellery in Bangkok. With an instinctive trust and shared passion for Thai handicraft, the pair began sharing sources and collecting unique and rare textiles. Together they have exhibited eight times at the Sante Fe Folk Art Market and have gained an enthusiastic following, including trend forecaster Li Edelkoort who featured Somporn’s work in last year’s New York Textile Month publication.
Lee Chinalai, Vichai’s wife and collaborator, explains a pivotal moment for the pair when they first came across the International Folk Art Market; ‘With the prospect of an outlet for the now piles of new cloth, with Vichai’s guidance Somporn, who had been sewing since the age of 13 and is an artist in her soul, began to teach women to sew. She started with 3 women and now has close to 50, mostly small farmers and day labourers who have little opportunity to make money between planting and harvesting or when the work simply isn’t there’.
Part of her teaching is encouraging creative thinking, allowing women to develop their own motifs or specialise in styles that are best suited to their skills or interests. Through developing motifs the women are able to include their personal stories in the work. By educating local villages in traditional techniques, Somporn also helps to revive some of the rich heritage that has been an integral part of Thai culture. Indigo dyeing and embroidery are skills that have been practised in Thailand for centuries and can be forgotten in the modern world.
Lee explains how reverting to old techniques was not easily accepted; ‘At first the women viewed sewing as a source of shame… as sewing was only out of necessity and symbolised a certain level of poverty. Bit by bit they have learned and are learning from Somporn that needle and thread can be connected to the heart and their use is not something shameful. As the seamstresses receive respect from their spouses because the work is income..... To read the full article click on the Selvedge Articles icon below from issue 87.