From Hill Tribe Leggings to a Wall Hanging

In December 2018, during a trip to Thailand, we stayed for a couple of nights at a hotel in Chiang Mai. While taking a neighborhood walk, I came across this wonderous shop:

The inside of it (which the owner didn’t want me to photograph), was filled with gorgeous antique Hill Tribe textiles. A true Aladdin’s cave for textile lovers! Like a child in a candy store, I ogled and drooled. But I couldn’t buy much, because we still had a whole trip ahead of us, and because we were traveling light, with only backpacks.

I couldn’t leave empty handed, however. Combing the store, I found a pair of appliqued leggings that really jumped at me. Their colors reminded me of a Chinese minority textile hanging in our home office, and I thought these would be a good fit. There and then I decided to turn them into a wall hanging.

Based on a bit of internet sleuthing I did once back home, I’m guessing these leggings are from the Akha tribe. They were entirely hand sewn,  with applique, couching, and decorative button sewing. Since the buttons are plastic, I’m guessing they can’t be THAT old. Gorgeous nonetheless.

Since I wanted to make them into a wall hanging,  I also bought a beautiful Thai wooden hanger to go with them:

For a couple of years they waited patiently in my UFO pile. Until now.

In order to turn them into a wall hanging, I needed to open their back seam. This felt rather wrong and awkward. Like damaging a museum piece. But, I knew that I would never use them as leggings, and will enjoy them as a wall hanging. And so, eventually, I mustered the courage to unpick.

It turned out that they had a double seam. The woman who made them sewed the back seam, meant to secure the edge of the fabric and keep it from fraying, with incredibly even and tight stitches. She sewed the second seam, meant to fit the size of the legging to the shape of the leg that wore it, with bigger, quicker and less careful stitches.

It probably took me as long to unpick the stitches as it took the original artist to put them in. I tore through the stitches and marveled at them, unpicked and admired. Beautiful, even, small, tight stitches, nicer than machine stitches and even stronger. The woman who sewed these knew what she was doing. I felt close to her at that moment, through time and space, touching the same fabric. I revered up close, intimately, the work she did.

Finally, the leggings were open. A small piece of art all on their own.

I could now see the back. It, too, was neat and tidy.

I decided to put the two leggings together, mirror-image style:

On one of my visits to FabMo, in the good old days before the pandemic, I picked a large sheet of black silk for this very project. I now cut it to size and lay the legging pieces on top. Being hand made, they weren’t completely straight, so I tried to keep the edges as parallel to the backing as possible without cutting the leggings.

I added batting and a backing out of the same fabric, and pinned it it all together.

Then I took it to my sewing machine and sewed. I didn’t want to cut the original art, and left it as it was, imperfections, asymmetry, and all. But I did cover up a bit of the crookedness, to please the eye. 

Finally, I added a few tassels that I also bought at FabMo. By that I finished my new Hill Tribe wall hanging.

I hung the new wall hanging in its place. It fit in the room perfectly, and will be there for many years to come.