THE JOURNEY BEGINS
The Land of Smiles, aka Thailand, is known for many things… mangoes, elephants, green curry, beaches, massages, kickboxing and so forth. There is an abundance of incredible cultural achievements that have come out of this wonderful country. For myself, I have always been drawn to the beauty of arts ‘n’ crafts, especially traditional handmade items. Indeed, before I even moved to Thailand 17 years ago, I had long been interested in world-renowned Thai silks. Naturally, when I moved here I made efforts to discover more about this beautiful commodity.
I very quickly discovered that getting to the heart of the local Thai silk industry is no easy feat, chiefly because the weaving takes place in specialist villages far, far away form the capital. Back then Google, as we know it nowadays, wasn’t a thing and I couldn’t merely search online for the information I sought.
That coupled with my lack of local language skills and connections, left me with few avenues to proceed in my search. I had no way of connecting with these ‘off-line’ craftspeople that toiled away at home. Not to mention that Thais are somewhat suspicious of foreigners, especially ones that don’t speak Thai.
At that time my search came to an end, but my desire didn’t fade away. And so it was a few years late in 2013 that I again picked up the mantle and went on the hunt. This time I was on the hunt for unique Thai fabrics for my hotel clients (I was working as a buyer). This work led me to discover the incredible indigo dying in the north (Chiang Mai) and silk weaving in the north-east (Kon Kaen).
It was at this point that a long-held fascination with straw bags came back to me. As a small girl growing up in Switzerland I would create elaborate imaginary worlds dressing up in my grandmother’s flamboyant handbags and hats. Now that I had discovered the talent and beauty of Thai craftsmanship, I was determined to search out local Thai weavers. And that is when my love affair with water hyacinth began…
In Thailand, there are many types of wicker craftsmanship: krajod (plant), vetiver (grass), lipao (vine), bamboo and water hyacinth. But I always liked water hyacinth best because it’s the ideal bag material for bag making. At this point in the story, my fortunes turned around and I met my first artisan family. They proudly showed me their family album of stunning work, including decorative objects, furniture and baskets. The work was highly skilled and intricate and they told me that some pieces, particularly the larger items, could take several weeks to complete.
I was very impressed with their work and showed them a few samples of bag designs I had in mind. They were immediately interested and we began at once to collaborate and develop ideas. What I love about this close-knit family is that they don’t take shortcuts to make a quick buck; they put their heart and soul into every design and every item produced. And that was how I started producing my range of handmade water hyacinth (also known as ‘seagrass’) bags 4 years ago.
Sadly, for many people, beautiful water hyacinth is somewhat of a villain. For locals across Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, where I’m based, it’s considered a pest. Water hyacinth is technically a tropical “waterweed” (also known as seagrass), which is where its poor perception comes from.
Originally from the northern neotropics of South America, it can now be found in North America, South America, eastern Africa and Asia. Well-meaning people introduced it in the 1880s as an ornamental plant.
Unfortunately for these countries, without natural predators to keep it in check, the plant has spread wildly. The plant can withstand extremes of nutrient supply, pH level and temperature. It can even grow in toxic water.
Commonly found clogging up rivers and canals across the world, it grows in dense clumps about three feet high, each with 8-10 stems and an average length of 60-80 centimetres. Even though the plant with its violet flowers is quite strikingly beautiful, this free-floating aquatic plant is considered a menace.
Water hyacinth quite literally chokes waterways, creating a thick, spongy green carpet on the surface of the water. Thailand’s rivers and canals are afflicted to varying degrees, and even though daily boat traffic churns the water and disperses the hyacinth, the problem is that it’s incredibly fast-growing; it can double its volume in just two weeks (especially in slow-moving, freshwater)!
In many instances, an area cleared of water hyacinth one day will find it has returned by the following morning. For many years now the Thai government has been throwing tens of millions of dollars at this issue annually, all to no avail as it can’t be eradicated. So, what’s the solution?
After years of forced clearings, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that researchers at Thai Kasetsart University began experimenting with the long, fibrous stems of the plant and quickly cast it in a new light. Slowly they began to see its potential as an “environmentally friendly” material for production, rather than something that had to be eliminated.
Indeed, why not turn an environmental problem into a win-win scenario? Instead of looking upon water hyacinth as an invasive weed, it is now viewed as a source of livelihood. That’s right; innovative entrepreneurs started using water hyacinth to their advantage.
Even at this point, very few people would have predicted that a viable export industry would soon emerge. However, that’s precisely what happened. Very quickly what was once considered a vile weed turned into an income-generating material: it morphed from villain to vogue!
The items, mainly accessories and furniture, produced became an instant hit; they were looked upon as ingenious works of art and beauty. The simplicity of the natural look combined with its delicate texture and rustic feel gave it a unique and appealing aesthetic quality. Very quickly, water hyacinth products become highly sought-after by fashionistas and interior designers around the world. Woven water hyacinth adds warmth and texture to the clean modernist lines of modern home furnishings and fashion items like bags and lampshades.
Being a tropical country with lots of water, there are many places where water hyacinth can be sourced across Thailand. The difference is that the final colour of the weave depends on its growing conditions and the season when it is harvested. Due to the fast-flowing water in the area where MonPanama artisans collect the plant, it has a golden look when first sun-dried; and this colouring continues to deepen with age.
Getting a finished bag in the hand of our customers is a very labour-intensive undertaking. I shall now share with you the eight-step process to create a water hyacinth accessory.
Water hyacinth stems that are neither too young nor too old are first selected to be hand-harvested from a myriad of local water channels. Men usually perform this task, as it is very physically demanding.
Once harvested, the soft stalks need to be meticulously cut down the middle and made into two halves
The stalks now need to be dried. Traditionally in Thailand, this is done on the street or any other outdoor flat surface with direct sun. It usually takes around one week for the green stalks to dry and turn brown.
Now the stems need to be treated, to provide them with an anti-fungal shield to prevent mould. This is achieved by baking with sulphur powder.
Once fully dry, the steams are now worked into long braids (rope). The quality and colour of the braids are vitally important; they need to be tight, regular and stain-free.
The long braids are hand-woven directly onto wooden frames (varying as per each design) by highly skilled craftspeople.
Now the all-important weaving process starts. Most MonPanama artisans use the “stake and strand” technique, which utilises both active and passive elements. This involves the horizontal weaving of long flexible strands (the long braids mentioned above) over relatively inflexible vertical stakes (warp). The warp forms the external skeleton or shape of each piece. Differences occur from one design to the next with regards to how the skeleton (i.e., frame) is built. To achieve the desired look, braids are passed over and under each other at precise angles and are not held together in any other way except at the top edge. Production is exceptionally low-tech and labour intensive; the artisan only uses their hands, a staple gun, hammer and scissors.
The last step in the production process is to apply a thin layer of varnish to the finished product and leave it to dry for two more days. This will give the completed item a shiny lustre and bring out the intricately handcrafted pattern. It will also help the bag to age gracefully*.
*Water hyacinth products must be kept dry. Remember that water hyacinth is a natural material and will absorb moisture, it is important that the place (i.e., cupboard) it is kept in is well ventilated. If an item is kept in a moist environment for too long, it will lead to the growth of mould. Also note that the colour of water hyacinth will deepen with age, making the simple weave stand out even more.
Today I am proud to say that MonPanama has one of the most varied and unique collections of water hyacinth products in Asia. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, over the past four years I have worked exclusively with the Lek family to create my bespoke range of bags. This incredible family does everything related to water hyacinth, harvesting, drying, curing, weaving, etc. It’s a second-generation business, with the parents, aunts, uncles and daughter working together.
After several years of close work together we have developed an extraordinarily close bond, and I certainly could not create my stunning pieces without their invaluable input. Beyond mere labour, they help me decide on new designs and further product development. They are an indispensable part of the MonPanama team. As of now, we have jointly produced nine bags in three styles:
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES…
I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work directly with local artisans, as it’s an opportunity rarely afforded to ‘outsiders’ in Thailand. On the surface, Thailand (my adopted home) is a very friendly country; it does have the moniker ‘Land of Smiles’ for good reason. But, having said that, outside of the larger tourist hubs, the environment is very different, particularly in a commercial setting. Working with a local family has pushed me to go way out of my normal comfort zone; in both a physical and emotional sense.
While I’m the first to admit it’s not always easy, it is always a hugely enriching and rewarding experience. As a busy working mum, I look upon my endeavour as precious ‘me time’. It’s time away from family (and friends); time for me to explore the rich heritage and culture of Thailand; and time for me to donate to my own personal development.