The students in my last class spent a lot of their free time weaving, making traditional Karen shirts and bags. While we were there, they were so sweet to let us watch and observe, and even teach! It was a really great opportunity to spend time with the students outside of class, practice Karen, and learn a new skill.
Not surprisingly, it’s a time consuming process. They begin with huge bundles of string about the size of a football. They stretch it out onto a bamboo contraption that spins, and you wind it into a ball of string like the ones above. I probably should have taken a photo of bamboo contraption, since that is likely difficult to picture. But in essence, just know that its pretty incredible that the entire process uses string, bamboo in all different shapes and sizes and forms, and one rice bag that stretches around your back. That’s pretty much it.
They then layout the string in the design they want as they set up the loom. Stephen and I each designed a bag by choosing our colors and patterns, and then they showed us how to create it step by step. This is the beginnings of my bag, which was more colorful in real life than I initially expected in my design. Let’s just say that the entire process of making my bag received comments of, “Wow, so bright!” and “So many colors!” and “There is only one bag that like that in the world. Only one.” And then more wows.
And then it went to the loom. I’m not even sure how to describe it. It’s just complicated and incredible. I spent a few hours weaving while we were there, and it was probably the coolest skill I have ever learned: how to weave traditional fabric in the middle of the jungle?! It was just incredible to have this contraption wrapped around your waist, hundred and hundreds of strings in front of you, and when you get it just right, you create material, exactly in the pattern you had chosen. Pretty incredible. It’s also quite exhausting: the band rests around your lower back, so you hold the fabric taut the entire time with the pressure on your back. You are also using your arms the entire time, so what looks like a sitting, restful activity can make you very, very sore in following days.
The students were so patient, because I pretty much needed a friend to sit by me while I weaved, helping me to sort out any problems that arose. I would do fine for five or ten minutes, and then a string would get tripped up.
After it is finished on the loom, it is just a long strip of fabric. It is then sewn together to make a bag or shirt, and some extra embroidery is usually added. The girls will all sit together in the covered area, some setting up new looms, some winding string, some weaving, and others sewing or adding embroidery. It’s all very time consuming, but they’ll sit and talk or listen to music and BBC while they work.
Once you are as skilled as they are, a bag takes just a day or two and a shirt takes three to four days. At the beginning of the year they made matching uniforms for all the students and school committee–a total of fifty shirts all alike and very detailed!
I was so thankful they took the time to teach!