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03 July 2023

Manuscript Textiles: Weaving the Thread of Faith

This blog post on the use of manuscript textiles in Thailand and Laos, illustrated by examples in the British Library's Southeast Asian collections, is by Chevening Fellow Methaporn (Noon) Singhanan, who also took all the photographs of the items.

Thai and Lao manuscript textiles have a rich history that dates back to at least the 18th century. Buddhist teachings and scriptures, written on palm leaves or paper, were highly valued, and often adorned with intricate designs, illustrations, and calligraphy. Manuscript textiles were created to protect and preserve these texts from dust, humidity and insects and, as a result, many were transformed into beautiful pieces.

Luxury manuscript textile from northern Laos
Luxury manuscript textile from northern Laos, made from a re-used tube skirt of exquisite quality, combining a silk and silver-thread tapestry (border) with a large piece of Ikat fabric (main body) and a cotton waistband. Ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16886

Manuscript textiles were fabrics, usually made from finely woven cotton or silk, occasionally also hemp, using a variety of weaving techniques, such as tapestry and ikat. They were created in many different shapes and patterns and often were a mixture of materials, for example silk brocade with cotton lining. Sometimes they included repurposed monk’s robes, ritual cloths, curtains and women’s skirts. Another type of weaving used bamboo slats interwoven with colourful cotton yarn and pieces of fabric in order to provide greater strength.

Manuscript wrapper using bamboo slats that were inserted while weaving the textile with red, green, black and white cotton yarns
Manuscript wrapper using bamboo slats that were inserted while weaving the textile with red, green, black and white cotton yarns. It was used to wrap ten palm leaf bundles containing Buddhist scriptures in Northern Thai Dhamma script, dated between 1827-74. British Library, Or 12401/B-C 

For centuries, textiles have been an integral part of women's lives in Thailand and Laos. From spinning raw cotton into yarn to weaving cloth, women have played a significant role in the creation of textiles. Often women planted the cotton shrubs, picked the cotton and dyed the yarn themselves. Textile production was a way for women to earn money and contribute to their families' income. In addition to their economic importance, textiles also held cultural significance. Traditional clothing and fabrics often reflected a community's values, beliefs, and history. Women were responsible for preserving these traditions by passing down textile-making techniques from generation to generation.

These manuscript textiles ranged from the luxurious to simple, and the materials used and their quality often reflected the wealth of the person offering the item. Decorative elements of these textiles include innovative geometric patterns and nature motifs.

Detail of a handwoven cotton shoulder cloth re-purposed as a manuscript wrapper
Detail of a handwoven cotton shoulder cloth re-purposed as a manuscript wrapper with diamond pattern in red colour on white background, with a simple red-and-black border design. Used to wrap ten palm leaf bundles with texts on the perfections of the Buddha in Northern Thai Dhamma script, ca. 1880-1920. British Library, Or 16865

Manuscript textiles were highly appreciated works of art due to the time and skill required to create them by hand, and enjoyed an exceptional level of popularity in Northern Thailand and Laos during the 18th and 19th centuries. They showcase the skill and creativity of the master weavers who created them, offering a glimpse into the rich history and traditions of the area. Manuscript textiles also provided an opportunity for women artisans to express their devotion to their faith through weaving. The textiles were believed to carry the energy and power of the teachings they encased.

Detail from a handwoven silk-and-cotton manuscript textile depicting two large butterflies surrounded by colourful geometric patterns
Detail from a handwoven silk-and-cotton manuscript textile depicting two large butterflies surrounded by colourful geometric patterns. Originally this was either a bedroom curtain or a shoulder cloth, then re-used to wrap palm leaf bundles. Northern Laos, ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16597

In Theravada communities in Southeast Asia, the main form of accruing merit for men was to be ordained as a monk for a period, during which they learned to study and copy the scriptures. Although ordination remained an option for women, it was not widely practiced and even forbidden in some monastic orders. This meant that most women at that time could not study the scriptures in the formal way men did. Instead, the Buddha’s teachings were learned orally, and female devotees acted as patrons of the monastic communities and devoted themselves to supporting the Sangha (monastic order) in other forms. Since weaving has been a strongly gendered profession in Northern Thailand and Laos, creating cloths to store and preserve the scriptures was considered an important form of accruing merit for women.

Weavers had to learn to use a variety of techniques in order to create beautiful fabrics. Materials were selected carefully, and an elaborate cloth woven with a meditative state of mind counted as a valuable offering to honour the Buddha. Handwoven fabrics made in this way were therefore more refined and of a higher quality than handicrafts used in everyday life. Creating textiles on the basis of belief and faith in Buddhism was regarded as one of the Dhamma practices, with the hope that the produced virtue will contribute to a happy rebirth in the next life.

Detail from a handwoven manuscript textile depicting the popular chicken-and-ancestor motif
Detail from a handwoven manuscript textile depicting the popular chicken-and-ancestor motif. Northern Laos, ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16597

The copying of manuscripts preserved the Buddhist teachings that were written down and passed on for centuries. Manuscripts were also used in meditation and prayer and were considered sacred objects. Manuscript textiles, which were used to wrap up the manuscripts in order to prevent damage by dirt, dust, intense sunlight, or insects, were thus comparable to protecting the Buddha’s words.

Sponsoring and offering manuscripts to a Buddhist temple has traditionally been an important and widely practised way of making merit, and as a result one would be re-born in fortunate circumstances. Anisong (Pali: ānisaṃsa) manuscripts praising the benefits of meritorious acts and gift-giving enjoyed great popularity across Thailand and Laos, and were often  themselves presented to monasteries alongside other manuscripts with beautiful cloth wrappers. Anisong texts frequently mention the virtue of creating scriptural manuscripts as a special meritorious act. It is believed that “one script character yields the same merit as the creation of one Buddha image” (Peltier 2014: 183).

Many Anisong manuscripts specifically mention the importance of offering textiles to wrap scriptures. A frequently found quote is: “A person who offers manuscript textiles will have a prosperous life full of barns, clothes, and plenty of food. The person who provides the manuscript cloth will go to the celestial palace, which will be decorated with various precious gems after their death” (Wichian 2006: 315).

In Lao culture, a common practice was to re-purpose tube-skirts (Pha Sarong or Sinh) or shoulder cloths (Pha Biang) - often the most luxurious a person or family owned - as manuscript wrappers. An explanation for this practice is that “… people donated Pha Sarong or Sinh because their son or daughter had died when they were very young. Their children thus had had no chance to wear beautifully woven clothes, so during their funeral ceremony the parents did not burn beautiful Sinh cloth with the bodies, but instead produced palm-leaf manuscripts wrapped with Sinh cloth to make merit for their dead children in the hope that in the next life they would live long enough to wear plenty of these clothes” (Legends in the weaving 2001: 89).

Handmade cotton cords with loops used to string three bundles of a palm leaf manuscripts containing Buddhist texts in Pali language with plain wooden covers
Handmade cotton cords with loops used to string three bundles of a palm leaf manuscripts containing Buddhist texts in Pali language with plain wooden covers. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 4888

In addition to the manuscript wrappers, people could offer a cord made from silk or cotton yarn, which was used to string palm leaves together to create bundles or volumes of palm leaf scriptures. A method of binding palm leaf books going back to the first millennium was to put a looped cord through a hole that was drilled through the palm leaves on the left side; another hole on the right side was often left empty for ease of flipping the leaves while reading. Northern Thai and Lao Anisong manuscripts often contain a dedicatory phrase like “whoever offers the cords to string the palm leaf manuscript will dwell with the wise and not lose their treasures” (Wichian 2006: 319) or “Whoever ties a rope to a book will have a lot of wealth and infinite perseverance” (Wichian 2006: 315).

07 Or 4890 combined
Handmade cotton cords with tassels, no loops, in dark red colour used to string five bundles of palm leaf manuscripts containing a Pali grammar, with lacquered and gilded covers. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 4890

A white cotton cord mixed with long hair to string a palm leaf manuscript, with dedicatory inscription mentioning a woman from Lamphun Province as donor
A white cotton cord mixed with long hair to string a palm leaf manuscript, with dedicatory inscription mentioning a woman from Lamphun Province as donor. Northern Thailand, 1949. British Library, Or 16985H

Manuscript textiles were not only works of art in and of themselves, but also mirror the social status and beliefs of the people who created them. For Northern Thai and Lao women the act of weaving wrappers and cords was analogous to the act of weaving the thread of faith, thus ensuring the preservation and continuation of the Buddha’s teachings.

Many of the practices and beliefs relating to manuscript textiles described above are still in use in Northern Thailand and Laos today. Since 2015, there has been a campaign with local communities and students to revive the custom of creating and offering traditional manuscripts with textiles at Lampang Province's Pongsanuk Temple. There are now many workshops and cultural events taking place in Northern Thailand to teach about making manuscript textiles in various techniques.

09 wrapper making
Creating manuscript textiles using colourful yarns by intertwining them with bamboo sticks. Methaporn Singhanan, Chiang Mai, Thailand, November 2020 (photo courtesy of จดหมายเหตุกรุงศรี Jod Mai Hed Krungsri)

Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23  Ccownwork

References and further reading
Andaya, Barbara Watson. Flaming womb: repositioning women in early modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, c2006.
Arthid Sheravanichkul. Narrative and gift-giving in Thai Ānisaṃsa texts. Buddhist narrative in Asia and beyond. Edited by Peter Skilling and Justin McDaniel, Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2013, pp. 37-46. 
Gordon, Alec and Napat Sirisambhand. Evidence for Thailand's missing social history: Thai women in old mural paintings. International Review of Social History, 47(2), pp. 261-275. 
Legends in the weaving - ຜ້າແພນີ້ມີຕຳນານ [Phā phǣ nī mī tamnān]. Vientiane: The Japan Foundation Asia Center, 2001
Peltier, Anatole-Roger ed. อานิสงส์กลุ่มชาติพันธุ์ไท ในภูมิภาคลุ่มน้ำโขงและสาละวิน [ʿĀnisong klum chāttiphan Thai nai phūmmiphāk Lum Nam Khōng læ Sālawin] = Ānisaṃsa in Tai Buddhism = Les Ānisaṃsa dans le Bouddhisme Tai. Chīang Mai: Mahāwitthayālai Rātchaphat Chīang Mai, 2557 [i.e. 2014]
Seeger, Martin. Gender and the path to awakening: hidden histories of nuns in modern Thai Buddhism. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2018
Sundara, Ajahn. Women in Theravada Buddhism. British Library, 2019 
ผ้าห่อคัมภีร์วัดคงคาราม: ประวัติศาสตร์(ที่อยาก)บอกเล่า [Phā hō̜ khamphī Wat Khongkhārām: prawattisāt (thī yāk) bō̜k lao]. 2557 [i.e. 2014]
วิเชียร สุรินต๊ะ; อุไร ไชยวงค์ [Wichīan Surinta; ʿUrai Chaiyawong]. อานิสงส์ล้านนา: การปริวรรตและสาระสังเขป [ʿĀnisong Lānnā: kānpariwat læ sāra sangkhēp]. Chīang Mai : Sathāban Wičhai Sangkhom, Mahāwitthayālai Chīang Mai, 2549 [i.e. 2006]
อุไร คำมิภา [ʻUrai Khammiphā]. ผ้าห่อคำภีร์ใบลาน: ศรัทธาและปรารภนาแห่งสตรีไทย [Phā hō̜ khamphī bailān: satthā læ prārop nā hǣng sattrī Thai]. Nakhon Rachasima: King Rama IX Commemorative Library.