Hill Tribe Wares: Where Culture & Couture Collide

The Thai Fabric Chronicles continue with a look at Hill Tribe wares and apparel.
Hill Tribe Purses, shirts, pants, hadbags, bracelets
A sampler of Hill Tribe style apparel and wares.

Chow Kow (ชาวเขา) means “Hill Tribe” in Thai. It refers to indigenous people who have over the centuries migrated south from China into Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

All these indigenous tribes have developed over the centuries a colorful and unique traditional apparel and accessories. Decades ago, various Hill Tribes began selling versions of their traditional dress and wares to tourists at markets in Thailand. Today Hill Tribe style apparel and wares are sold everywhere in Thailand.

This post is about Hill Tribe wares and apparel: Their history. Their authenticity. Their future. The first step in our journey is to understand what a Hill Tribe is.

Thai Hill Tribes

Akha Hill Tribe
Hiking around the hills of Keng Tung, I met an Akha Hill Tribe family along the trail.

Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Yao, Lahu, Palaung, Akha -these are the main Hill Tribes of northern Thailand. They come from different genetic stock, speak different languages, have different cultures, are mainly animists by religion, and are the poorest demographic in northern Thailand.

Hill Tribes live in the mountains that cut across northern Thailand. They are not low-land farmers as are the Thai. Hill Tribes are swidden farmers-slash & burn-to clear a small patch of land in winter. The ash fertilizes the soil. But after a couple years, the soil is exhausted and they must slash & burn another small plot.

The mountain soil is hard scrabble to begin with and often sloped. They can barely eek out a livelihood for their families. They grow corn, rice, and a few vegetables. Until the 1960’s, they grew the opium poppy in Thailand. Starting in the 1970’s, the Thai government successfully weened the Hill Tribes away from opium to other crops.

Even today, the Hill Tribes don’t really consider themselves Thai. Their true allegiance is to their tribes that are spread across Burma, Laos, and China. King Chulalongkorn (reign 1853-1910) declared them subjects of the monarchy, or in effect Siamese citizens. (Thailand was called Siam until 1939) But the King’s decree had little effect on their lives or their attitudes about the nation where they lived.

Their villages are located in the most remote mountain areas. Many speak only broken Thai and they follow their tribal ways of life. They live peacefully among the Thais, but have never integrated into mainstream Thai national life.

Hill Tribes that make the wares

Photo Attribution: Steve Evans. This photographer is gracious enough to allow use of his photos for this post. Please click the link embedded on his name to view great Hill Tribe photography

You will see Hill Tribe women and their children in local markets around northern Thailand. They are polite and mind their own business. Rarely does a Hill Tribe person socialize outside their tribe.

Other than Hill Tribe woman selling their apparel and wares at a market, the average tourist won’t be aware of them unless you “trek” into one of their mountain villages. (A controversial subject which I’ll leave for another blog post.)

Here’s a brief sketch of northern Thai Hill Tribes that produce most of the apparel and wares you’ll see at the markets:

  • Akha: 2-3 million regional total with about 100,000 living in northern Thailand. Their wares are often made with diamond patterned applique and their use of silver bangled fringes is legendary
  • Karen: The Karen are the silversmiths of Hill Tribe jewelry. Nothing compares. 14 million in Burma and 400,000 in northern Thailand. This is Thailand’s largest Hill Tribe population.
  • Hmong (Meo): 150,000 in northern Thailand with populations in Laos. Hmong style Hill Tribe wares are the most common you’ll see in the markets. Their embroidery and bright colors make their wares easy to identify.
  • Lisu: 55,000 in northern Thailand. Estimated that 1.3 million Lisu live in Yunnan Province, China and Burma combined. Lisu style wares are for sale all over Thailand and are easy to identify with their pleated style of variegated colors.

The Origins of Hill Tribe Apparel & Wares

Akha Hill Tribe Jacket
Akha Hill Tribe Jacket. These diamond motifs make identifying Akha wares easy. Photo attribution: New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

Our culture is woven into our clothing. With Hill Tribes even more so. Every tribe has a unique style of fabric, design and color.

Fifty years ago, Hill Tribe villages were almost entirely self-reliant. The woman designed and wove their own fabrics (often hemp), hand embroidered their own cloth, hand stitched their own clothing. They rarely ventured into Thai society. Their apparel and wares remained largely unaffected by Thai culture. But as time went on, they began incorporating machine-woven fabrics from India and China into their common dress and wares.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, Hill Tribe wares were mostly the province of collectors of indigenous textiles and art. The “Boho” style (short for Bohemian) which would propel Hill Tribe apparel into a ubiquitous Thai fashion trend hadn’t been born yet.

But then something big changed. Starting with the Hmong, the Hill Tribes began making wares to sell at Thai markets.

The Birth of “Modern” Hill Tribe Wares

Hmong reverse applique
Hmong reverse applique. Cost: $125 (US) Photo Attribution: @chiangmaihilltribe_clothing (Instagram)

In the 1980s, Thai tourism exploded. Blame it on the ease of jet travel, or the exotic tourist appeal of Thailand. Tourism became a huge industry and it has increased exponentially every year. (In 2015, Thailand had 40 million tourists!)

Please read my post: The Golden Age of Thai Tourism: 1947-1979
Thai triangle pillow made from Hmong embroidery.

Every year, there were more and more tourists walking the streets of Chiang Mai. In fact, by the late 80’s, they were coming in gobs. Even little Chiang Rai was being deluged. And these tourists had money and were looking to buy charming, authentic souvenirs of their Thailand trip. Demand beckons supply.

The Hill Tribes realized this and started producing wares and apparel-handbags, blouses, trousers, pocket books, blankets, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, on & on for the tourist market. The Hill Tribe women would come early each morning and spread their wares out on the ground at the Thai markets where tourists loved to gather and gawk. And they not only sold, but their wares sold for a good price.

Selling Hill Tribe wares brought in desperately need cash income for their subsistence lives. Like the opium poppy, Hill Tribe wares became a cash crop.

And something else happened. Thai women fell in love with Hill Tribe wares and began including a piece or two in their wardrobes. Today it’s common from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to see Thai women wearing Hill Tribe style apparel and accessorize with Hill Tribe jewelry.

The “Not-So Hill Tribe” Hill Tribe Ware

Hill Tribe Style Jacket
Hill Tribe Style Jacket by Sirikarn Design. Cost: $80 (US)

By the late 80’s, Hill Tribe wares could be found not only in northern Thailand, but at the tourist markets of Bangkok and all the beach cities from Pattaya to Phuket. It was as if “Hill Tribe” had become synonymous with Thailand. Even upscale botiques were catching on and starting to carry a selection.

And so the obvious happened: The tremendous demand for Hill Tribe wares couldn’t be met by the Hill Tribe women who made it. Authentic Hill Tribe wares are incredibly time-consuming to make. They are made from hand embroidery, applique, reverse applique, quilting, hand beading and hand sewing. No two pieces are identical.

An authentic Hill Tribe purse could take days to make, depending on its complexity. But dozens of simple Hill Tribe style knock-offs can be made in a day by small Thai manufacturers who were also cashing in on the exploding tourist trade.

The demand for Hill Tribe wares overwhelmed the ability of Hill Tribe woman to make enough. And so Hill Tribe wares and apparel began to be made by Thais.

A photo = 1,000 Words
A Lisu woman selling her Hill Tribe wares.
A Lisu woman selling wares in her village. Photo Attribution: Claire’s Sabbatical Year Blog

The above photo was taken by a tourist while on a commercial Hill Tribe trek near Chiang Rai. The photo identifies a Lisu woman who has her wares spread out, knowing when the tourists will come to her village.

What exactly is she selling?

  • Along the very bottom of the photo, to the immediate left of her jewelry, you can see small coin purses with a triangle/rectangle pattern, multi-color motif-that is an authentic Lisu motif.
  • But the small purses in the bottom left-hand corner with the elephant motif are mass produced by Thais and sold all over Thailand.
  • The bead work and bangles to her front: I’ve perused the beads Hill Tribes sell to tourists from northern Thailand to northern Burma. They are all suspiciously alike which makes me believe they come from the same commercial source which isn’t a Hill Tribe. But the Hill Tribes are accomplished “beaders” so you never know. The cheap bracelets displayed are definitely not Hill Tribe.
  • She has three draw string purses (the one on her left side has lots of white bead work) appear authentic Lisu as does the Yaam (a Hill Tribe shoulder bag) that’s draped over a plastic basket on her right.
  • The wooden elephant on the right side of photo on the blanket of the other Lisu woman is mass produced by Thais.

The lesson of this photo: Even in a Hill Tribe village you will be offered wares that are made by Thais. The markets of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are the same. Buyer beware.

The Finest Wares-A Patchwork of Rags

Authentic Hill Tribe Purses

The most sought-after, expensive Hill Tribe wares, especially handbags and purses, were made from the worn, discarded Hill Tribe clothing. Those worn fabrics were used to quilt or cut applique from. It imbued the ware with character and authenticity.

The older and more worn, the better. The women would take this old fabric and cut small pieces from which they would patch and quilt intricate designs. Often added to this quilting/applique pattern were large pieces of hand embroidery, often in bright orange, yellow or red (Hmong embroidery). The stitching was all done by hand and rather crude, which gave great character to an authentic Hill Tribe ware. No two pieces were ever exactly the same.

Worn Hill Tribe fabrics
Worn Hill Tribe fabrics are almost impossible to find anymore, I scoured the Chiang Mai fabric district recently and found only one shop still selling it.

With authentic Hill Tribe wares, the older and more worn the fabrics from which a piece was made, the more expensive its cost. The quality of Hill Tribe wares was (is) determined by the intricacies of the quilted pattern along with the character and age of the fabrics used. If a handbag was quilted from new fabrics, it was considered of lesser quality than one that used old, dirty, worn, thread bare fabrics.

Remember, the initial theory behind Hill Tribe wares was that the Hill Tribe village would recycle its worn clothing to make wares to sell. The basis for these wares originally was not to make wares from new fabric.

*****

Sadly, I use the past tense when describing the use of worn fabrics to make wares. Today, it’s very difficult to find any authentic wares that were made from discarded Hill Tribe fabrics. They are now collector’s items and had disappeared from the Chiang Mai markets shortly after 2000.

Thai Hill Tribe Style

A Thai woman selling an assortment of Hill Tribe style apparel at the Chiang Mai Fabric District. Most of her apparel is Hmong style.

Hill Tribe Style can be anything. Fisherman pants trimmed with a Hill Tribe motif. A high-collar tunic with Hmong embroidery. A necklace made with beads and silver. Yaams! (Read my blog post  about yaams.) A simple cotton muslin pinafore dress with Hmong batik designs.

Hill Tribe style has conquered Thailand. But very little of it is made by the Hill Tribes anymore. It is made in the small villages in both Chiang Mai and Lamphun Provinces. I have been in countless small apparel/purse making business in both provinces where almost all Hill Tribe Style wares and apparel are now made.

If you pick up a “Hill Tribe” handbag in Chiang Mai, Bangkok or Phuket, the overwhelming odds are that it was manufactured by Thais in either Chiang Mai or Lamphun Provinces. I have even visited the tourist markets in Hanoi, Vietnam and am positive that the Hill Tribe style handbags they sell come from these same Thai-owned shops-identical fabrics, design and stitching.

But regardless of who makes it, Hill Tribe style is often bold colors, whimsical, artisan stitching, and use motifs and designs that are authentic. I love the stuff.

Fake Hill Tribe Style

Fake Hill Tribe Wares
Examples of fake Hill Tribe. Top photo shows fake Hmong applique. Bottom Photo: Fake Hmong embroidery

Five-six years ago, I was perusing through the inventory of a small handbag maker in Lamphun Province, about 35 kilometers from Chiang Mai. This was one of the countless small manufacturers that supply Thailand with Hill Tribe style wares. To my horror I discovered for the first time that cheap cotton fabric that mocks authentic Hill Tribe style by printing the Hill Tribe motif on the fabric. The above photos clearly depicts this.

Oh the outrage! And sadness.

Real Hmong Style Applique Work

Authentic Hill Tribe Style
With authentic Hill Tribe style, each piece is cut and sewn individually. Photo attribution: @lindalinda_shop on Instagram

Authentic Hill Tribe vs. Hill Tribe Style

Authentic Hill Tribe goods are made by a Hill Tribe. Hill Tribe style refers to goods that incorporate Hill Tribe motifs and designs, but are made by Thais. Let me explain. Again, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Authentic Hill Tribe? No. Hill Tribe style? Yes.

The above photo is a very nice Hill Tribe style purse. But it is not authentic Hill Tribe. Here’s why I know: (The numbers above correspond to the numbers below.)

  1. Fake Hmong applique. In the preceding section, I showed you what this printed fabric looks like up close.
  2. If the applique is fake, then you must question the embroidery. The embroidery just doesn’t have the same texture you normally see with authentic Hmong embroidery. I’m suspicious.
  3. Notice the stitching-its smooth and straight. That’s machine stitching. Authentic Hill tribe is handstitched and has wonderful character. Also, not only is this purse machine stitched, but the stitching machine is far more powerful than an ordinary sewing machine because it has to go through several layers of thick material. Hill Tribes don’t have that type of professional equipment. This purse was made by a professional purse maker.
  4. The tassels are made of swede. Hill Tribes almost never use swede tassels.
  5. Notice the eyelet. Again you need professional equipment to stamp an eyelet into place. That’s why eyelets are not used in authentic Hill Tribe wares.

I could go on and on but you get the point. The purse is very nice and I could easily see myself buying it as a gift. But I wouldn’t deceive myself into thinking that it was authentic Hill Tribe.

Authentic Hill Designs & Motifs

The Hmong

Authentic Hmong applique. Every piece is individually cut and sewn. Photo attribution by Xai S. Lor
Authentic Hmong embroidery
Authentic Hmong Embroidery. Photo attribution by Noah Vang
Hmong batik
Hmong batik. Batik is a hot wax resistant dying technique.

The photos above depict authentic Hmong motifs. You will see these motifs repeated countless times when you shop for Hill Tribe wares and apparel in the Chiang Mai Garment district.

Please visit the following website for a detailed discussion and tons of photos for Hmong textile motifs and art: www.hmongembroidery.org

The Lisu

Lisu woman. Photo Attribution: Steve Evans.
Lisu Applique
Top photo: A Lisu girl in a parade. Note the motif of her collar. Photo attribution: Green Trails. Bottom photo: A display of Lisu style handbags and purses in the Chiang Mai Fabric District.

The Akha

Akha Hill Tribe
This lil’ guy is wearing a cap with traditional Akha motifs. Photo attribution: Unknown
Akha Hill Tribe Wares
Akha Style wares.

The Karen

The Karen: Silversmiths of the Golden Triangle. Photo attribution: Steve Evans
Karen Silver Work
Karen Silver. Photo Attribution: Steve Evans
Karen Hill Tribe Silver
Karen Hill Tribe Silver. Photo attributions: Etsy.com

Where to find Hill Tribe goods in Chiang Mai

The Chiang Mai Garment District (Gat Luong area)

I’ve mentioned the garment district several times in this tutorial and it’s still one of the best places to shop for Hill Tribe wares (and fabric in general). While many stores in and around the Chiang Mai garment district sell Hill Tribe wares, the best shopping is in the back alleys.

Read my blog post: Visit The Chiang Mai Fabric District

The Garment District is maze-like, so finding the Hill Tribe back alleys is not self-evident. If you spend an afternoon exploring the Gat Luong and vicinity, you’ll eventually stumble across the Hill Tribe vendors in the alleys. But if you just start asking the shop owners where the Hill Tribe women are selling their wares, you’ll certainly be pointed in the right direction and will eventually find the alleys. (Remember! The Thai word for “Hill Tribe” is chow kow.)

These alleys are also lined with small stores that sell the myriad of fabrics, beads, tassels, silver fringe, rolls of embroidery and trim that are needed to manufacture Hill Tribe style wares. These stores sell to the small and individual makers of Hill Tribe style wares. Check out these stores also, and you’ll begin to understand that the manufacture of Hill Tribe style stuff is no longer exclusive to Hill Tribe villages.

Anasorn Night Market

The Anasorn Night Market is a sad story. Years ago, it was the best place to find authentic Hill Tribe wares and apparel. It used to be an open air night market, but no longer, as it’s been moved to under a warehouse style roof.

You can still find Hill Tribe style goods, but the days of discovering an authentic Hill Tribe blanket, yaam, or tunic are long gone.

The last time I shopped Anasorn, I was able to find some nice Akha style pillows and Hmong embroidered purses. I didn’t look, but I’m sure you could also find Karen style jewelry.

Instagram

Here’s some great Chiang Mai Hill Tribe style retail sellers on IG. You can contact them via IG for info. Many sell online:

chiangmaihilltribe_clothing: My favorite. A definite must!
sirikarn.design: Beautiful handbags, apparel and pillows
lindalinda_shop: Authentic goods
hilltribe_glam: Simple pull-over dresses
beloved_hilltribe_cottage: Assorted wares and apparel
hilltribe_style: Great Hill Tribe wares and apparel
hmonglovers: Specializes in Hill Tribe jackets

The Bottom Line

Easily finding authentic Hill Tribe wares and apparel in Chiang Mai ended nearly 20 years ago. Oh sure, you could still find a piece or two here and there if you look hard enough and are willing to pay top dollar.

In its place there has developed a brisk trade in Hill Tribe style apparel and goods. It may not be authentic Hill Tribe, but it’s roots are Hill Tribe in design, motifs, colors and fabrics.

I love the stuff and still buy a lot. Maybe we’ll bump into each other shopping the back alleys of the Chiang Mai Fabric District. Happy shopping!

4 comments

  1. Hi Jeff and thank you so much for this article!!! I’m leaving France for Chiang Mai area in 2 weeks in order to find as authentic hill tribes wares as possible and I’m ready to go in the villages. Which ones would you recommend? Thanks, thanks, thanks and on me time, thanks 🙂

    • Hi Patricia,
      Thanks for writing me. I would urge you to reconsider visiting any Hill Tribe villages near Chiang Mai (or anywhere in Thailand). These villages were over run with tourists decades ago and the tour companies that offer these “treks” promote their tours as if the Hill Tribe villages were zoos. You will not find authentic Hill Tribe wares at the tourist villages. What they will offer you are cheap Chinese trinkets (like beads) or at best some very low quality purses that probably weren’t even made in that specific village.

      Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible now to find quality and authentic Hill Tribe wares anywhere in Thailand. Finding wares that are made from individual quilting and hand beading is all but gone.

      But you can still find some interesting Hill Tribe motif wares in the Chiang Mai area. My favorite area is located in the Chiang Mai garment district. (also known as the “Gat Lueng”). There’s an alleyway in the garment district that concentrates on Hill Tribe wares. All the vendors are Hill Tribe and they produced most of the wares they’re selling. Another market in Chiang Mai to peruse is Anasorn Night Market (It’s near the Night Bazaar.). Although Anasorn has changed greatly over the years (it now has a roof over it!), there are still a lot of vendors selling Hill Tribe wares. And if you’re willing to spend some time shopping Anasorn, you can still find some decent Hill Tribe stuff.

      Have a great trip!
      -Jeff at mythailand.blog

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