One of the places that I like to take our new volunteers to see is the Umbrella Village in Bo Sang, outside of Chiang Mai. It is a place where craftsmen have continued the fine tradition of making umbrellas from natural organic materials. Everything used in the creation of these beautiful umbrellas comes from nature, beginning with the handles that are carved from the branches of trees. It is a rather primitive lathe, but if the craftsman is skilled, he can produce a beautiful product to be used in the new umbrellas. While he is creating the handle, the women sitting beside him are creating the framework for the umbrella itself (see thumbnail below) and threading the frame together (see thumbnail below). Again, everything is made from natural wood and wood products and there is very little waste, for what is not used in an umbrella can be used for fuel in the wood-burning stoves of the village.
One fascinating part of the process is watching one of the women make the paper that is later glued to the frame of the umbrella. This paper comes in all colors, with dyes made from natural products. On this particular day, the color was a deep wine color. The woman was drawing paper fibers from the water with a screen. Many layers are drawn from the water and then allowed to dry in the sun to make a sturdy paper that is then glued to the frame of the umbrella. It did disturb me that she did not seem happy in her work, though she gave me permission to take her picture. Of course, she does this every day, all day long, for tourists to see and I can imagine that it is boring work. The woman who was gluing the paper to the umbrella frame (See thumbnail below) and the ones who were cutting the paper to fit the frame (See thumbnails below), were much happier and more talkative. Some actually looked up and smiled when I took their pictures.
After the umbrellas look complete, there are still two more steps: covering the post that is at the top of the umbrella with black paper (see thumbnail below) and painting the umbrellas in designs that are attractive to tourists or others who might use them (see thumbnail below). Paper umbrellas are widely used year-round in Thailand for they are attractive, light-weight, and give shelter from both sun and rain. As you might imagine, tiny little paper umbrellas are used in fancy cocktails in major hotels around the world. Small umbrellas are used by school children going to and from school. Regular umbrellas are used by men and women (more women than men, as is true around the world, I think) for shelter from the elements. Large paper umbrellas are used on patios and in businesses by hotels, street vendors, and this man, selling drinks from his motorcycle. Having seen the umbrellas being made, it has made me much more aware of how many uses they have in this culture. (By the way, if you look in the thumbnails below, you will also see that hats can be painted by these talented umbrella artists, who will also paint purses and cellphones, if asked. Ben had a dragon painted on his hat as we toured this facility!)
More photos (double-click to enlarge):