Oiled Umbrellas - Made in Chiang Mai

By Jan Willem Roeloffs for Sunisa Umbrella Workshop, updated 12 November 2013.

Umbrellas are one of Chiang Mai's most important traditionally produced, creative, handmade items. Foremost of these is the Thai oiled umbrella, exclusively produced in > Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

We will have a look at early umbrella history, the term umbrella, the early era of oiled umbrellas in Thailand, Chiang Mai's umbrella craftsmanship and what is a Thai oiled umbrella?

Ancient Umbrellas

The umbrella has a history reaching back to the ancient civilizations of Assyria and Nineveh, the Aztecs, Burma, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Rome, Siam and probably Atlantis. Early depictions with umbrellas as far back as 5,000 years are usually of high ranked dignitaries, emperors, kings, religious leaders. It is apparently less known if, or in how far normal citizens used umbrellas: it simply may not have been recorded in the inner sanctums of the elite pyramids and temples (1). It is beyond doubt, however, that dignitaries who used umbrellas did so for both practical and ceremonial purposes, with shapes and decorations marking status and rank. Another interesting point is that apparently all early documentation and depictions show umbrellas in use for sunshade, not for rain protection. This, in fact refers to early umbrellas as parasols (2).

The ancient depictions and English word roots lead some authors to assume that umbrellas or parasols in early history were exclusively used for sunshade and not for rain protection. This may or may not have been the case. One simple example may be a Chinese legend where animal skin is wrapped over a makeshift frame to serve as rain protection (3).

With the use of umbrellas in so many different early civilizations, the umbrella, rain or shine, is likely to have been invented and re-invented in many different places at different times.

The Term "Umbrella"

In the areas where English language is spoken, the concept, use and word for "umbrella" as we know it today was apparently unknown throughout the Middle-Ages. Also in continental Europe umbrellas were apparently not used for rain or sun protection, while there are incidental reports of ceremonial use. People relied more on cloaks to protect from rain and wind, while sun protection was probably not considered overly important.

Late in the 16th century we see first English language observations describing the novel use of hand held accessories carried by ladies as fashionable sun protection  in Italy and France (4). Consequently the term "umbrella" is an adaptation from Italian "ombrella" and French "ombrelle." These are Latin based with "umbra" meaning "shade" and the suffix "ella" for a diminutive, leading to "little shade".

The umbrella's introduction into the English speaking realm for rain protection  – and for use by men – was slow, and was initially popularized by English traveler, philanthropist and umbrella advocate Jonas Hanway in London starting around 1750.

What about the term "Parasol"?

The English term "parasol" is an adaptation of the French term "parasol", Italian "parasole". It combines old Greek/Latin "para" for "beside, near, contrary to, against" with the Latin/Indo-European term "sol". In all languages, including English, the parasol is an unequivocal "sun protector".

English use of the word "parasol" varies. It may be influenced by the origin or flavor of English that is used – Australian, European or US tinted. For example until about 10 years ago, the term "parasol" was not used very much in the US.

Some ambiguity exists between the English terms "umbrella" and "parasol": the umbrella has its roots in providing shade and later added rain protection – while generally the rain function is arguably the first that people associate with it. The "parasol" protects from the sun only, and has generally been a lesser used word.

What is a "Parapluie"?

Unfortunately it is not an English word. In French, with closely related terms in Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian, the "parapluie" is exclusively a rain protector, the direct opposite of the "parasol". It is based on the Latin word "pluvia" for rain. No ambiguities here.

Other Languages

In German, the word "Schirm" literally means "shield", referring to protective cover; it is appended with the terms for rain or sun: Regenschirm or "rain shield" and Sonnenschirm or "sun shield", with many other permutations, such as a Bildschirm or "picture shield" referring to a monitor or television (5). In Chinese, the symbol for umbrella is a pictograph resembling an umbrella, referring more to its shape than its function. The Thai word for umbrella also appears to be related to or derived from the Thai term for "shield". The specific word for umbrella translates to "cover", without mentioning sun, shade, or rain, yet implicitly used to protect against either elements, that is as an umbrella or a parasol.

Internet

On the "net", English use of the term "parasol" for sales of sun protection and wedding accessories was rare (6) until two web sites successfully introduced the term around 2003 (7). In the past few years a number of newly competing web sites, began to use the terms "umbrella" and "parasol" simultaneously. Many others followed the trend of using both terms. Lately, concocted phrases such as "Cheap Wholesale Paper Parasols Umbrellas" or "What is the Chinese Parasol Umbrella" sprung up. In 2013 a major search engine apparently changed the way it interprets the terms, highlighting both for either search, and possibly changing how web sites are positioned in the results (8).

Today

To summarize today's general English usage, an "umbrella" refers to an accessory that provides either sun protection or rain protection, or both, while a "parasol" refers to sun protection. Parasols may display exceptions to the rule, umbrellas don't need to :). Here at Sunisa Umbrella Workshop we stick with the term "umbrella".

Thailand

As in other civilizations, umbrellas in early Siam and nearby Burmese kingdoms are documented to have been used as symbols of high rank and status, aside from their shading function (9). Also early Buddhist stupas or chedi  featured "... a cubical platform with a nine tiered stone, gold-leaf, or bronze umbrella on top" (10). Today, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the popular temple overlooking the Chiang Mai valley, features four golden umbrellas at the corners of the temple's main golden stupa (11).

The area that concerns us and Chiang Mai's oiled umbrellas was dominated mainly by three major kingdoms, the Ayutthaya kingdom (south), the Lan Na kingdom (middle) and the Bamar (Burmese) Toungoo kingdom (12) (northwest). Similar to Europe of this era, the period was dominated by elite intrigue, frequent wars, occupations, and constant redrawing of borders and allegiance maps.

Lan Na

The historic Kingdom of Lan Na – in original language "Land of a Million Rice Fields" – existed from the 13th to the 18th century and at its peak covered northern Thailand, parts of Burma, northern Laos, Sipsongpanna in southern China, and exacted tribute from regions in modern day northern Vietnam. Its political and cultural capital was the fortified citadel Chiang Mai. Today this is Chiang Mai's old city within the moat (13).

Wars and Occupations

Lan Na's woes started about three hundred years after it was established and enjoyed high bloom. After failing in its invasion of Ayutthaya in 1545, Ayutthaya counter-attacked and took Lan Na the following year, and made it a tributary state. As Lan Na leadership weakened, neighboring Toungoo king Bayinnaung (14) saw his chance and invaded Lan Na just 12 years later. It became a Burmese tributary state, with payments and labor provision to the Burmese. For the next 200 years Lan Na was caught in 20 major wars between the Burmese and Ayutthaya/Siam (15). This ended when Siam-backed neighboring chiefs recaptured Chiang Mai in 1775.

About a century later, Siam officially annexed and incorporated the remaining Kingdom of Chiang Mai, apparently to ward off the rising colonial influence of the British in Burma and the French in Laos. Today, a part of the former Lan Na area is incorporated into Thailand as northern Thailand,  while other former parts are in Burma, Laos and Yunnan, southern China.

Craftsmanship

With its rich variegated history, Lan Na and specifically its political and cultural center Chiang Mai became a melting pot for the many cultures that prevailed in Lan Na's historic kingdom. Chiang Mai and northern Thailand, then as now, are highly regarded for its creative arts and highly skilled artisan craftsmanship.

Umbrella Lore

Bo Sang is a small village about 25 km east of Chiang Mai's citadel. Old legend verbally handed down to today in the greater Bo Sang area relates that "hundreds of years ago" (16) the local monk Pra Inthaa  of Wat Bo Sang  made a sojourn to Burma. While the lore's time indication is not very precise, as well as the monk's actual destination, it may point to the Lan Na period of Burmese influence (17).

At the time it was quite usual for Buddhist monks to undertake long journeys to distant monasteries to learn (or to teach). The practice was similar to European "journeymen" going on longer travel to see more of the world and learn from other masters. On his journey the monk noticed the use of colorful umbrellas and formed the idea that such umbrellas could very well be made in his home village to provide off-season work and income to local farmers. He studied the umbrellas, brought back a few of them and instructed farmers on how to make them. To ensure that everyone could share in the work of umbrella making and its proceeds, he divided the production steps and assigned them to different surrounding villages. As a result, an umbrella making cluster of many villages emerged with Bo Sang at its center (18).

Chiang Mai

Monk Pra Inthaa  had a keen eye. His village and its surrounding villages had the materials and the carving skills needed to make these umbrellas.

Bo Sang village is situated in Ton Pao, San Kamphaeng district of Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. It represents the centerpiece and the showcase for Thai umbrellas and also nowadays, just as the Buddhist monk intended, the neighboring villages and areas specialize in specific activities and components. The villages teem with craftswomen and men specialized in the manifold aspects of umbrella manufacture: growing, cutting, carving, turning, assembling, covering, painting, weaving, to name the most important.

You won't find umbrella factories. You would need to discover home workshops instead, sometimes in front, often behind village houses, at times inside. The carvers are highly skilled craftswomen and men who prefer the farmer's independence, and prioritize their (and our) essential rice fields in the rainy season. The umbrella making area extends into what is now Doi Saket district, which borders on Bo Sang village. Sunisa Umbrella Workshop is located three kilometers from Wat Bo Sang,  in San Tonhaen village.

Some aspects of our own umbrella production are usually subcontracted within the Chiang Mai umbrella cluster. It is not unlike the automobile industry where you have specialists who supply brakes, tires and speedometers, while the core remains in-house. Still, some of our models are made in-house from top to bottom.

Bamboo and Carving

The core of the Thai and Chiang Mai oiled umbrella is bamboo. This also holds true for Burmese and most Chinese "oiled paper umbrellas". The abundance of bamboo in our area, then and now, combined with the available skills of bamboo carving make our area an ideal place to produce umbrellas with bamboo frames.

Carving bamboo is very different from carving wood. Wood is carved starting in top down motions with a chisel tool. Bamboo carving uses a knife tool with slicing motions until the desired shape is attained. In wood carving a heavy object (i.e. hammer, piece of wood) is often used to help drive down the chisel. In bamboo carving the needed strength and precision comes from both hands and arms, driving down the knife and holding the bamboo in the right position.

One other important factor in bamboo carving for umbrellas is that all carved parts and characteristics must be absolutely standard length (19). Quality assurance within the production process is of paramount importance.

Oiled Umbrellas

Historically, the Chiang Mai umbrella cluster's central product is the "oiled umbrella". Oiled umbrellas are made with a carefully carved bamboo frame, then covered with fine cotton, to which different layers of waterproofing are applied. While the natural waterproofing method is regarded as somewhat of a local trade secret, it traditionally includes teak oil and color pigment. In the modern, more competitive marketplace, natural materials may be combined with more easily available synthetic oils and colors.

Oiled Umbrellas – Oiled Paper Umbrellas

The oiled umbrellas made in Chiang Mai do not  contain paper. Their base cover material is cotton, not paper. Nevertheless many do refer to our types of umbrellas as "oiled paper umbrellas". It is understandable for two reasons: our oiled umbrellas look practically the same as oiled paper umbrellas that are predominantly made in China, and our oiled umbrellas have a typical parchment-like, flexible, yet sturdy surface very similar to oiled paper umbrellas. And finally, the fact remains that our cotton-based oiled umbrellas compete in the same marketplace as oiled paper umbrellas. The consensus among our craftswomen and craftsmen is that our cotton-based oiled umbrellas are superior to oiled paper umbrellas.

Other Terms – Other Types

Two alternative terms for our oiled umbrellas might have been "oiled cotton umbrellas" and "oilcloth umbrellas". Both terms appear to describe the technical characteristics of our umbrellas well, but each term is already occupied by another, different product: oiled cotton  is immediately associated with malleable fabrics made of waxed cotton, used to make jackets and coats (20). Second, oilcloth  is more often used for thinner oiled fabric materials like table covers. Also, oilcloth appears to be losing its original meaning as it is being associated with plastic wipe-clean tablecloths (21).

Sunisa Umbrella Workshop has chosen "oiled umbrella" or "cotton waterproofed umbrella" as the best short generic description. They have also branded their own oiled umbrella as the Chiang Mai Classic™ Umbrella.

Paper, Fabric and Other Umbrellas

Over the "hundreds of years" of umbrella production, Chiang Mai's umbrella cluster has diversified to many other types of umbrellas, mostly made with local materials. These are genuine paper umbrellas, genuine silk umbrellas, artificial silk umbrellas, canvas and cotton umbrellas, and heavy duty market umbrellas. The last two are made in hand held and patio umbrella versions. Sunisa Umbrella Factory makes many these models, plus other exclusive types not on this list.

I hope you enjoyed the short adventure into the background and greater picture of Chiang Mai's umbrella cluster and Thailand's traditional oiled umbrella.

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About the author:
Jan Willem Roeloffs directs a firm exporting handmade products and providing business advice to small and medium enterprises in northern Thailand. He holds a master's degree in business sciences and has worked as organizational development consultant for businesses and governments throughout Southeast Asia. He lives with his family in a countryside farmhouse close to Bo Sang village, Chiang Mai.

The author is an adviser to Sunisa Umbrella Workshop and other manufacturing workshops.

When referencing information contained in this article, please place the proper credit, and a link to this source. Hypotheses made in this article must not be referred to as facts.

Comments are welcome. See below.

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Footnotes

  1. Documented use by dignitaries does not preclude others from using umbrellas.
  2. This is an issue of definitions explained further below in the text. Apparently these definitions have been undergoing change, but the outcome is not yet clear.
  3. The legend is said to mention Ms Yun, the wife of a well known carpenter of the time, to have wrapped some animal skin over a frame to shelter her husband from the rain. Her husband, Lu Ban is said to have lived from 507-444 BCE: http://www.womenofchina.com.cn/html/report/6286-1.htm. The source mentions this as the invention of the oil-paper umbrella in China, but oil is not described in Ms Yun's use, and paper was to be invented 549 years later.
  4. Author John Florio describes an "ombrella" seen in Italy in a book published in English, 1598: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umbrella.
  5. Did early German warriors use their shield covers to protect themselves from the rain?
  6. The early web was more strongly US English oriented, which had lesser use of the term "parasol" at the time.
  7. One of the two sites works together with Sunisa Umbrella Workshop.
  8. This is possibly a move by "Big G" to re-introduce rationality in the use of these terms, while it may have other consequences.
  9. In 1688 the French envoy from the King of France to the King of Siam reported that the use of an umbrella was allowed only for a small number of subjects, and that the use of a multi-tiered umbrella was strictly reserved to the king. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umbrella.
  10. Thai Digital Monastery Project, Southeast Asian and Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, http://tdm.sas.upenn.edu/monastery/art_architectures.html
  11. See one of the stylized golden umbrellas at the corners Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep's main stupa here. In Thailand's Theravada Buddhism, closely oriented to earliest Buddhist teachings, the umbrella, parasol or chatra is one of the Eight Auspicious Buddhist symbols, signifying harmony and protection.
  12. The "Bamar" or Phamaa are Burma's main ethnic group (2/3 of population) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamar. Both, the Thais and Burmese use this term for the country's name.
  13. With the exception of earliest Lan Na kingdom years, and one generation at the Mekong river at Chiang Saen.
  14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayinnaung Expansion, Maintaining, Later Years.
  15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese%E2%80%93Siamese_wars.
  16. The legend is told with variations in its details and different time indications ranging from hundreds of year ago, to two hundred years and one hundred years, depending on the source. Our own sources are the umbrella master crafters connected to Sunisa Umbrella Workshop. Other sources on the web are: an article on Wikipedia (mentioning 200 years): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil-paper_umbrella and http://www.chiangmai-chiangrai.com/umbrella_making_history.html (mentioning 100 years). Some histories mentioning one/two hundred years apparently have not adjusted this figure over known passage of time (i.e. ten years ago it was also one hundred years), possibly indicating that this may actually represent a much longer time. We have not been able to substantiate an actual date or year based on formal, original documentation. Our informal research shows that umbrellas were definitely made as far as anyone can remember or heard, including parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, so it's certainly (and likely much) more than a hundred years or so.
  17. This is a hypothesis based on "hundreds of years ago". The actual time could not be verified.
  18. The Chiang Mai umbrella cluster is the only area producing traditional handmade umbrellas in Thailand.
  19. Incorrect lengths and measures outside tolerance levels cause breakage.
  20. Even big G (again) appears to equate oiled cotton with waxed cotton.
  21. Many of these plastic "oilcloth" fabrics are marketed from China.
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