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 at a farm just outside of Chiang Mai city. 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 note of sour.
Over three mornings, Patricia and Lamorna will initiate these workshop 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 - from India to Japan to Peru - have
used indigo and developed their own rituals, recipes, and techniques. India is known as the oldest and once most knowledgable and skilled center of the craft; their reputation for expertise reaching even the ancient Egyptians.Here, in Chiang Mai, Studio Naenna stays true to age-old techniques that are part-art, part-science, wholly natural and wonderfully magical.
Once the bubbles have formed and multiplied on the surface, the indigo leaves are removed and the water is strained and mixed with builder’s lime. It is then oxidized through “beating”, which involves continuous scooping up and pouring of the water with a bowl back into the bin for about 20 minutes. It is during this stage, indigo beguiles with her fascinating metamorphosis. We watch as the light lime green liquid turns to a deeper jade green, then to turquoise. The water being turned over sounds like the ocean waves moving in and out of the shore. With each scoop and pour, the liquid is nurtured to a new hue of deepening intensity. “Faster, faster” Patricia instructs gleefully. “It’s exciting to be part of the turquoise part of the ocean now”. A foam has gathered and Patricia comes to inspect with the specialized care of an archaeologist unearthing a rare artifact. “The bubbles are still holding. It’s not ready yet. Keep going.” She peels off into a giggle that suggests, after so many moons of playing with indigo, it still brings her great joy and aliveness. The color turns teal, holds for several scoops and then releases into a deeper and deeper blue-black. The smell of raw, fresh leafy chlorophyll has beckoned into an organic earthy aroma. When the ‘beating’ pauses, the bubbles flatten out, indicating that it’s time to stop.
The liquid will be covered and left overnight for the indigo paste to settle to the bottom. Then, the top layers of tea colored 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 and finally the 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, Chiang Mai’s night bazaar and weekend walking markets has been a recent trend in the last four 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 finds its distinction from its fair-trade, ethical, eco, sustainable and organic practices. Such labels are thrown about liberally these days, making it sometimes difficult to differentiate a genuine article from a strategically marketed one. However, in this traditional teak house nestled in a residential pocket of Chiang Mai, something remarkably unique and radically authentic has been taking place since it firs topened 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 supplementory 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 hand 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 word 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 Studio Naenna’s shop in Nimmanhaemin, surrounded by brilliantly multicolored 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 to 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 neighbors 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 model of business requires considerable forethought to the lengthier development stages and a willingness to educate customers to understand and
respect the time that is 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 from the busy, construction riddled, sidewalks outside. They are hot and bothered and have clearly come on a mission, map in hand, 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, measured and unhurried,
like a gracious host inviting her guests into a world where authenticity, harmony and connection are honored and valued.
Studio Naenna will hold more indigo dyeing workshops on October and November. Booking early is recommended as places are limited and fill quickly. For bookings and information contact Studio Naenna
138/8 Soi Chang Khian. Huay Kaew Rd. Chiang Mai.
Tel. 053- 226 042