A little bit of history

The Karen ethnic group belongs to a traditionally nomadic people from the Tibeto-Burmese regions. Probably coming from the Yunnan region in China as well as from the high plateau of Myanmar, around the VIII century after JC, they decided to settle down in the North of Myanmar. The first archeologic mention of them dates from 1235. They are called the “Karen” and are known, at that time, for having offered slaves for religious ceremonies. The stele is part of the remains of the conquering kingdom of Bagan, who was known to deport ethnic minorities. It seems that this ethnic group settled down and lived as a minority in the mountains between Thaïland and Myanmar. They lived on crop growing, hunting, fishing, and moved regularly according to the soil resources.
A few rare academic publications by sociologists, anthropologists or ethnologists distinguish several sub-groups of Karens who have slightly dissimilar traditions and geographical evolutions. Despite these, they share a strong identity and community feeling. The Karens who have obtained the Thai citizenship during the XVII century probably descend from the “Sgaws” sub group.

Récolte du riz
Jeune Karen
Femmes Karens
Scène de vie Karen

Lifestyle, traditions and beliefs

Their nomadic past and their oldest beliefs still strongly influence their traditions and lifestyle. Cultivation of the land and traditional weaving are the core of a Karen village activities. Their activities still remain well apart from the recent economic developments of the Thai Valley.
Willingly indifferent to the economic and societal evolution of the “outside world”, thanks to their traditions they have been able, through the centuries, to preserve the harmony of their community life and their relation to nature.
Agricultural life shapes the lifestyle pattern of a village and follows the different stages of the rice and corn production according to the cycle of the seasons:

  • A rainy season from May to October
  • A dry season from November to January
  • A hot season from January to May

Karen women weave when they are not required by agricultural work as well as in the evenings. A great majority of Karens are animists – they believe in spirits and worship them. However, the Thaï Buddhist breeding ground and the logic of harmony in society specific to Asia have also strongly influenced their way of thinking.

Infographie Les Karens

Traditional weaving

The traditional clothing is entirely the fruit of the weaver’s labour. The Karen women have a unique expertise based upon a very complex and meticulous technique requiring infinite patience. Mothers transmit these skills and the secret of the different pattern combinations to their daughters, preserving a generational heritage. The different colours and patterns express a tacit language that everyone wears on himself and reads on the others’ clothing. The Karen dress code varies according to individual status. It allows everyone to express what reserve forbids to say: the emotional situation, the origin, the personality traits. The techniques used to create the different patterns are based on a set of rods and threads differently organized.
Nowadays, the textile industry in Thailand allows the families to find much cheaper clothes than in the past. However, their traditional clothing is still worn daily by the elderly people and by everyone during community gatherings and celebrations.
The proportion of people who wear « modern » clothes varies according to the degree of contact the villages have with the Thaï society. Clothes remain the sign of a great majority of Karens’s strong attachment to their culture and identity.
Karen women gather to weave together. Within a family, the mother weaves with her daughter and her granddaughters, or with other women of the same generation to create the traditional clothing. It is also the opportunity to discuss their family lives and exchange about one another. It is a privileged place to propagate village information.
They rarely commercialize the clothes they produce. They mainly use them for themselves or give them as presents for weddings or special events in order to thank the host.
The main projects of Terres Karen’s association aim at increasing the value of the weavers’ work and generating from the surplus an additional source of income for the households. Those projects will be presented in a further article.

Tissus Terres Karens

 Travel in Karens lands: follow the travel invitation of the association.

Voyagez en Terres Karens