Bo Sang is a village about nine kilometers east of the Old City of Chiang Mai, Thailand famous throughout the country for making paper umbrellas. The name Bo Sang has become synonymous with the paper-umbrella craft itself and the umbrella, a cultural symbol of Chiang Mai.

The umbrellas are made from sa paper (produced from the bark of the mulberry tree) and, a more recent development, cotton. The design has also evolved, from the original floral patterns to depictions of Chiang Mai’s rural scenery and even abstract patterns.

Today I took a ride on my scooter to see how the artists make the umbrellas in Bo Sang.

Hand crafted umbrella in Bor Sang district, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Map to Bor Sang district, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Inside the Bo-Sang Handicrafts Centre you'll see a group of artists each making their own part of the umbrellas at different stations along an assembly line. It starts with the making of the paper that forms the umbrellas, then different bamboo parts are made and assembled, and finishes with the artist's hand painting each umbrella. The end result is a work of art.

Sa paper is produced by drying the woody stems of the Sa plant (a kind of mulberry). The pulp is soaked and pulverized into a mush in a mill. Color gets added and the mix is placed in tubs and suspended in water. Drawing a fine mesh grill through the tub, sediment accumulates on the grill in thin sheets. The sediment coagulates to form the sheets of paper. These are then sold, or fashioned into souvenirs such as cards, notebooks, and umbrellas.

The village Elder, Luang Por Inthaa, who established the legend of umbrella making in Bo Sang tells the story of how umbrella making began in Bo Sang.

Approximately one hundred years ago there was a monk named Phra lnthaa (his ranking status was not stated) who had taken holy orders at Wat Bo Sang. The monk practiced Dhamma regularly (but had never been with the temple due to his pilgrimage travel). It was his nature that he liked to observe and investigate the local customs which he found in the area which others had not seen or encountered at that time. On one occasion the monk went north " close to Myanmar, and stayed for many years. Being close to the Burmese border, the people who came to make merit and give alms to the monks were probably both Thai and Burmese.

One day, while the monk was taking his morning meal, a Burmese, inclined to make merit, brought an umbrella to offer to the monk because he had seen that the monk did not have one, which caused difficulties.

After the monk had blessed the Burmese who had brought the umbrella, he asked him if he had made the umbrella himself. The Burmese answered that indeed the umbrella was his own handiwork which he had made to offer to the monk. The monk then asked where the Burmese lived. He said that he lived not far from where the monk was staying. One could get there within one day's walk.

After the Burmese had returned home, the monk opened the umbrella in order to see how it was made, whether it was convenient to use, and whether it would protect him from both sunshine and rain. The monk decided immediately that he would travel to Myanmar, intending to investigate how the umbrella was made.

When he went to the place in Myanmar where umbrellas were made the monk saw the villagers making umbrellas which could protect the user from both sunshine and rain. Additionally, he saw the villagers making large umbrellas, which they called 'ceremonial umbrellas', as they were used in various feasts and ceremonies and for religious ceremonies as well. This umbrella was made entirely of Sa (mulberry bark) paper, attached with rubber and suffused or coated with oil to help repel both sunshine and rain.

The monk was able to consider and asked the villagers what equipment was necessary for making the umbrellas. The villagers then explained the method of making umbrellas from beginning to end, including how to make Sa paper.

After the monk had made his observations, he wrote down everything concerning the method of making umbrellas, from the method of making Sa paper to the various steps in umbrella making. When he was finished he had it in mind to take the instructions and make umbrellas at home, as he saw that the various equipment needed for the process from the beginning to the end would not be difficult to obtain.

After that, the monk returned home. When he returned to the Wat (temple), the monk began looking for the various necessary equipment according to what he had written down. He persuaded the villagers to help him in his search and taught them every step of the method. He ordered a man to boil mulberry bark until it was soft, wash it, and then choose that which was soft and pound it until it was fine. He then instructed the man to use lengths of cotton cloth as a mold. Water to a certain level was put in a teak basin and then the clothes were placed in the basin.

They then took the finely pounded mulberry bark and put it in the water for the solution would adhere to the cloth mold. They stirred it so the fragments of the mulberry bark fell evenly over the cloth and then removed the cloth and dried it in the sun. When it was dry it could be made into Sa paper.

The monk chose women to be responsible for this part of the process because women are more perseverant than men. The Burmese relegated women to perform this step of the process, also. For making umbrellas the monk taught the men to make frames out of bamboo (in Central Thai this is known as Mai Pai but in Northern Tha, it is called Mai Bong).The wood at the top and bottom of the umbrella was pine and the handle was made of a thin bamboo called Mai Ruak, and resin from the persimmon tree was used as an adhesive. Finally, another kind of resin was used on the paper as protection against both sunshine and rain.

Concerning umbrella making, there were not many of the villagers who were interested in practicing and in helping the monk. When the final product was eventually available, some of the villagers made use of them when traveling to protect themselves from the sun or rain. When people from other villages came and saw the umbrellas, Bo Sang became known somewhat more.

Finally people began to place orders to buy umbrellas and it became a source of income. From that time until the present more of the villagers became interested in umbrella making. But we humans must agree that there is gradual evolution and so the process was modified as time passed. Bo Sang villagers began to make more umbrellas, the work was a profitable hobby as a supplement to rice farming. Once the harvest was completed the villagers began making umbrellas throughout the village. When the umbrellas were finished, villagers took just a few, maybe 20 or 30 umbrellas, to Chiang Mai to sell.

Later some people in Sanpatong District, in a village called Mae Wang, produced umbrellas similar to the people of Bo Sang. It is not known where they learned the craft of making umbrellas from silk or cotton.

When the cloth and Sa paper umbrellas were finished they were brought into town to sell. The Bo Sang village keenly observed the other designs and skillfully thought up a way to make cloth umbrellas as well. They developed this gradually and changed from using tree resin to using Mameu oil which was softer and stronger. They also used the oil mixed with Haang to good effect. (This Haang is a dust-colored pigment and at present is only sold in Myanmar at a very expensive cost.)

After the villagers learned the method of making cloth umbrellas, things develop the point that in 1941 the villagers got together and formed a cooperative within the village. The villagers called this cooperative "Bo Sang Umbrella Making Cooperative Ltd". At that time, the organizer was Mr. Jamroon Suthiwiwat, the head of cooperatives in the province. The villagers produced umbrellas of many different sizes, such as 14 inch, 16 inch, 18 inch, and 20 inch umbrellas as well as large ones of 35 and 40 inches, both cloth and paper umbrellas.

The umbrellas were painted with oil paints mixed with Mameu oil of many different colors, such as red, yellow, blue and green. (A that time these oil paints had begun to be imported.)

The have succeeded progressively to the point that in approximately 1957, the "Center for Industrial Promotion" for the North assisted the villagers by teaching them to make Sa paper and to print cloth in a fine plaid such as we can see up to the present.

Umbrella making developed prosperously to the point that they began to be painted with flowers and landscape view scenes of various kinds. This prosperity is the result of the assistance given and the fact that these umbrella products can be exported and sell well abroad.

The villagers have also been invited to give demonstrations of umbrella making that the citizens of other countries can see this craft at various fairs and shows to the extent that Bo Sang umbrellas have been transformed into one of the symbols of Chiang Mai. source

Here's a video of the umbrella making process:

Bo Sang Umbrella Handicrafts Centre Chiang Mai Thailand

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