Phrae Wa – The Queen of Thai Silk
The term phrae wa (แพรวา) denotes a shoulder cloth of elaborately patterned silk brocade, traditionally with a deep red ground. The typical size of a phrae wa is two meters in length and 45 centimeters in in width. It is woven and worn by women of the Phu Thai community- an ethnic group originally from China, who migrated to the Mekong region of Laos and Northeastern Thailand. Phu Thai woman are taught the art of phrae wa weaving from young age. The cloth holds a significant cultural value and is often worn on special occasions, such as Buddhist celebrations.
Today, phrae wa is hailed as the “Queen of Thai Silk” due to its intricate patterns, vibrant colors, shinning texture, and unyielding beauty.
A piece of phrae wa typically consist of three parts:
[cr. Queen Sirikit of Museum Textiles]
- Lai Lak (ลายหลัก)
Lai laks are the large portions that feature most prominently on the cloth.
Traditional lai lak patterns include lai lak (ลายนาค) or serpent pattern, lai phan maha (ลายพันธุ์มหา) or great pattern, and dok sa (ดอกสา) or paper mulberry flower pattern, among others.
- Lai Khan (ลายคั่น)
Lai khans, literally separating patterns, are positioned between lai laks, hencethe name.
Traditional patterns for lai khan includes lai ta gai (ลายตาไก่) or chicken eye pattern and lai ngu loi (ลายงูลอย) or floating snake pattern, among others.
- Lai Chor Plai Cherng (ลายช่อปลายเชิง)
Lai chor plai cherngs are patterns placed at the opposite ends of the cloth.
Traditional lai chor plai cherng patterns include lai dok bua noi (ลายดอกบัวน้อย) or small lotus pattern and lai bai boon noi (ลายใบบุ่นน้อย) or small boon leaf pattern, among others.
Phu Thai woman are proud of their weaving skills. Training begins at a young age, leading to a lifetime of mastering and improving the craft. Phrae wa is considered the pièce de résistance of Phu Thai textiles due to its outstanding beauty and the high level of skills required to produce it. Experienced weavers are able to create pieces of cloth than runs on and on without repeating a single lai lak pattern. During important festivities, the women don their own handcrafted phrae wa as a way to show off their skills and express pride in their heritage.
Phu Tai ladies with phrae wa cloth [cr. Lankum Design]
Aside from well-known patterns, each family also possess their own set of designs, which are woven on to the pha saew (ผ้าแส่ว) – a rectangular cloth displaying heirloom motifs. The pha saew is closely guarded within the family and is used as a weaving template for women within the household. It is passed on from mother to daughter when the daughter gets married and sets off to start a new family. Each generation of weavers preserve the legacy of their foremothers, while adding new creations to their familial collection.
Pha saew [cr. Kalasin University]
Revival and Preservation
Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother (then Queen Consort) was introduced to phrae wa in 1977, during a visit to Kalasin province in Northeastern Thailand. A group of Phu Tai women from Ban Phon, led by Mrs. Khammai Yokhasing, came to greet Her. They were all dressed in traditional Phu Thai style: long-sleeved black blouses under striking, dark red, elaborately patterned phrae wa shoulder cloths. It is common practice for people to lay pieces of cloths on the ground for visiting royals to step on. The cloths are then taken home as a form of memorabilia and talisman. When the Phu Tai women lay their shoulder cloths on the ground, however, Her Majesty was so taken by its beauty that she refused to step on it. Instead, she immediately recruited some of the women to weave phrae wa for sale.
Queen Sirikit with a local [cr. Kalasin Province Official Website]
A small weaving group was set up at the community under the support of Her Majesty’s SUPPORT Foundation. Since then, the group has grown to more than 400 members. Older weavers pass their skills on to younger ones to ensure that this brocade technique is preserved. Most weave as a sideline, but it is the primary occupation for some. The Queen mother would also go on to hire fashion designers to produce dresses out of the shoulder cloths she had purchased from locals. This act helped introduce phrae wa to the global market and elevate the craft from its role as a traditional shoulder cloth to a versatile fashion material. Within the country, the beauty of phra wa became known to people from all the regions, leading to its recognition as the “Queen of Thai Silk”.
[cr. Post Today]
Today, with the help from the SUPPORT Foundation, phrae wa has moved beyond its traditional color scheme and narrow width to enhance its appeal to the fashion and interior design markets. Weavers continue to preserve and advance their craft, bringing income and pride to many Phu Tai communities in Northeastern Thailand.
[Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles]
*This article was created with special help from the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
- For the Love of Her People Her Majesty Queen Sirikit Creates the SUPPORT Foundation by the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
- Komarakul Na Nakhon, Thakoon “[แพรวา…เส้นสายลายผ้าสะท้อนตัวตน].” Watthanatham Journal: Department of Cultural Promotion, yr. 56, no. 4, October – December. 2018, pp. 30 – 37. Retrieved April 1, 2021. Link: http://magazine.culture.go.th/2018/1/mobile/index.html#p=36
- Boontiang, Suchanart “Pa Saew: Original of Design on Prae-wa” Prae-wa Kalasin Journal of Kalasin University (2015): 125-162.