Date of this Version
From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC
The Thai peasant economy has frequently been characterized as a "subsistence economy" in which villagers planted their own rice and wove their own clothing. The uncritical use of the phrase "subsistence economy" has contributed to a series of significant misunderstandings about the character of the Thai peasant political economy, including the social process of cloth production.1
Because most scholars have assumed that obtaining clothing was not a problem for villagers, they have tended to minimize the significance of differences in dress between rich and poor in traditional nineteenth century Thai society. I believe that a better understanding of the process of cloth production will provide a different view of the statements of contemporary western observers of the period, who wrote, "Rich and poor all dress alike, except that the higher classes vary the universal style a little by inserting a very showy strip of wrought silk into the skirt near the bottom" (Cort 1886:34S).2 Even though such nineteenth century writers are in fact pointing to the differentiation between rich and poor, they are nonetheless in effect minimizing the class differences between rich and poor in fact being represented through their dress.
The failure to understand the process of cloth production has -contributed to a serious misunderstanding of the social significance of cloth in the Thai peasant economy. The image of villagers universally weaving cloth in the old days in part results from a failure to counteract the elite and urban bias of archival sources with the voices of the peasants. However, if archival records are combined with oral histories a much fuller and richer picture emerges.
The research for this paper in based on both archival sources, primarily the accounts left by British consular officials and American missionaries, and oral histories. In earlier research I interviewed over 500 villagers over the age of 80 living in about 400 villages for their recollections of life in their youth, and in the days of their parents and grandparents (Bowie 1988). Last summer I returned to Thailand and interviewed another 90 villagers over the age of 80, primarily living in 6 districts in the Chiang Mai Valley (Hang Dong, San Patong, Saraphi, San Khampaeng, Hot and Basang) of northern Thailand. I was specifically interested in their recollections of cloth production in the days of their parents and grandparents.3