Vintage cream parasols stand upright and opened like miniature suns in the grey pebbled and lush green front courtyard of Studio Naenna. They have been placed there, presumably to shade the two white workshop tables and the group of trainees who have gathered to learn about the ancient art of indigo dyeing. But right now, their purpose seems mostly aesthetic. Manager, Lamorna Cheesman and her mother, Patricia Cheesman, founder of Studio Naenna, are tut-tutting about the overcast skies. “The bubbles are not bubbling…they need the sun” Patricia remarks quietly. Without the sun, the indigo leaves ferment more slowly and the next stage of indigo oxidation must wait.
Ten eager students of varied ages and backgrounds, are congregated around Patricia, peering into a black bin filled with freshly harvested indigo leaves that they helped gather and bundle the morning before from the land right next to the studio. The rains arrived heavy and early this season, producing bountiful indigo that was bowing over and ready to burst. Now, two large rocks, speckled with aged blue stains that look like bruises, have been weighing the leaves down overnight and small soapy bubbles have started to form on the film of translucent pale green water. Those of us brave enough to try, dip our fingers in and taste cautiously - slightly sweet and a subtle hint of sour.
During the workshop, Patricia and Lamorna initiate participants into the traditional methods of using fermentation to transform green leaves into an intense, bold and captivating blue dye. For eons, cultures around the world have used indigo and developed their own rituals, recipes, and techniques. India is known as the oldest and once most knowledgeable and skilled center of the craft; their reputation for expertise reaching even the ancient Egyptians.
The liquid will be covered and left overnight for the indigo paste to settle to the bottom. Then, the top layers of tea-coloured water will be gently ladled out without disturbing the sediment resting below. The paste, which will be used for dyeing, is collected by pouring it over a sieve, strained though cotton cloth and then mixed with ash water and natural sugars like rice whiskey and tamarind to encourage fermentation.
In the meantime, the indigo apprentices have been guided through a variety of design techniques using white cloth that is rolled and folded with elastic bands, string, and needlework to produce everything from rolling mountains, exploding suns, dainty flowers, swirling spirals and an assortment of geometric shapes that lend an abstract, contemporary feel. Their designs are immersed into the indigo vat three or four times before the final climactic moment. They unfurl, unstitch, unwrap and untie their cloths to reveal their very own custom designed indigo art piece. “Ooh’s” and “Ah’s” and smiles of delight ripple around the courtyard. Another magical moment.
The tradition of indigo dyeing has been enmeshed in the local lives of Thais for generations. In years past, villagers would keep indigo jars under their house and to this day, farmers clothing continues to be dyed in characteristic blue. The appearance of contemporary style indigo dyed clothing at roadside stalls and Sunday Walking Street Market has been a trend in the last seven years that has mirrored global fashion directions. Like much of the commercialized textile industry, mass produced indigo often means lesser quality products made with chemical dyes and synthetic fabrics and questionable working conditions that harm workers.
Studio Naenna is differentiated by its fair-trade, ethical, eco-friendly, sustainable and organic practices. Such labels are thrown about liberally these days, making it sometimes difficult to distinguish a genuine article from a strategically marketed one. However, in this traditional teak house nestled within a residential pocket of Chiang Mai, something remarkably unique and radically authentic has been taking place since it first opened in 1988.
In addition to indigo dyeing, Studio Naenna produces exquisitely crafted clothing, scarves, accessories and wall hangings made from ancient weaving techniques such as weft ikat and supplementary weft. The textiles created under this roof are handmade in every sense of the term. Seeds are sown by hand, the plants are nurtured and harvested with traditional farming methods and dyeing, weaving and sewing are all done by hand. It can take up to six months to produce one medium sized woven wall hanging.
In a world dominated by ‘fast fashion’ - globalized mass production of garments produced from the design stage to the shop floor in only a few weeks, encouraging high retail turnover and over consumption - Studio Naenna’s practices stand out in strong contrast. Indeed, they could be the poster child for ‘slow fashion’, a counter movement that resists the idea of seasonal fashion and instead embraces taking time to ensure quality production of classic pieces that can be worn trans-seasonally for many years. Heralded as a revolution in consciousness about our fashion’s origins and production processes, slow fashion is touted for respecting the connection to the environment and the workers that form life links in the supply chain.
When asked about how Studio Naenna’s work fits in with ‘slow fashion’, Lamorna says, “Well, we were already there,” with a charming frankness and a barely perceptible knowing smile. She’s referring to the studio’s almost three-decade long commitment to ‘slow fashion’ methods before it became the ‘next big thing’. We are sitting in Adorn’s, Studio Naenna’s shop in Nimmanhaemin soi 1, surrounded by brilliantly multi-coloured woven textiles and clothes adorning the shop’s shelves, walls and hangers. Creating clothing that is beautiful, long-lasting and versatile is just one aspect of Studio Naenna’s mission, Lamorna explains. The other focus is on environmental sustainability and providing quality livelihoods for their employees - the farmers, weavers, embroiderers and sales assistants.
Studio Naenna’s ethical and fair trade practices encourage weavers to stay in their communities where work can be undertaken at home within flexible hours so they can participate in the social activities, rituals and responsibilities of village life. This allows young mothers to stay close to their children, those with elderly parents to continue caring for them and for neighbours to help at harvesting time. “It’s important that they can do that to sustain their lifestyles and relationships,” says Lamorna. She adds that managing this business model requires considerable forethought to the lengthier development stages and a willingness to educate customers to understand and respect the time required to make the quality product they desire. One has the sense that profits are measured here, not just in dollars, but in the knowledge that life on all levels is being cultivated and protected.
While we are talking, two women enter the shop. They are hot and bothered and have clearly come on a mission to peruse the offerings. They ask for directions to the studio workshop and then enquire about a few selected pieces in the shop. During the visit, their tension appears to melt away. Lamorna softly advises on the different dyes and fabrics, in a measured and unhurried way, like a gracious host inviting her guests into a world where authenticity, harmony and connection are honoured and valued.
During September and October, Studio Naenna will hold different workshops in their beautiful studio, each workshop will welcome a maximum of ten persons with a choice of:
- 8 to 10 September: Indigo harvest 2 workshop:From Plant to Paste.
- 29 to 30 September: Natural purple workshop:Working with Krung Red and Indigo.
- 13 to 15 October: Indigo harvest 3 workshop:From Plant to Paste.
- 27 to 28 October: Indigo, Earth and Ebony: NaturalDyeing With No Fire.
- 03 to 05 November: Indigo harvest 4 workshop:From Plant to Paste.
For more information and/or bookings, please contact Studio Naenna at 053-226 042.
STUDIO NAENNA- Main Gallery :
138/8 Soi Chang Khian. T. Chang Puak.Chiang Mai 50200
Tel. 053-226 042