Haven’t you ever wondered how paper umbrellas are made?
No? Neither had I.
They were just one of those things that just…were. A souvenir for decoration.
However, in Chiang Mai, paper umbrellas are a very important item. There is even a yearly umbrella festival.
When I was in Thailand, one day I miraculously ended up at the Chiang Mai Umbrella Factory in Bo Sang.
How does one simply “end up” at an umbrella factory, you ask? Easy. It happens when you are traveling with other people and they make decisions without telling you where you are going. Then you hop out of the van and see this:
Ok, cool. I wasn’t expecting this, but it sounds like it might be fun.
The umbrella factory is basically a covered outdoor area with little old ladies sitting on tables assembling various stages of the paper umbrellas.
Let me walk you through the steps that baby umbrellas go through toward becoming a full-grown, functioning umbrella.
Step one: Carve a wooden handle
This was done by a little old man, not a little old lady. And actually he wasn’t that old, but whatever. Working with a machine that rotates a cylindrical piece of wood, he carves grooves into the wooden handle with a flat knife. His station said he used sandalwood.
Step two: Make the paper
I was confused when I first saw this step. What was the lady doing? There was a large vat of dark something. Some kind of water.
She had piles of wooden frames with screens in them. Then she would take the screens, put them into the water, move them around gently, and then lift them up so they come out flat.
When she took them out, the screens were covered in a thin, pink layer. This would then dry to become paper. The paper was made from mulberry bark. The explanation at the factory reads:
“Sa paper is made from the bark of the mulberry tree. Initially, the bark is soaked in clean water for about 24 hours. Then it is boiled with several kinds of ashes for about 3-4 hours and rinsed cleansed with water. Next, the material is hand beaten with mallets until tender and thereafter fibres are put into a water-filled tank and stirred with a paddle until the fibres are suspended in the water. The fibres are then sifted with a screen and dried in the sun for about 20 minutes. Once dried, sheets of paper are formed which can be peeled off easily. (This process all done by hand).
Uh, yeah, I knew that.
Step three: Make the wooden frame
Things started to get a bit complicated here. The little old ladies’ hands move so fast, it’s hard to figure out exactly what they were doing.
Also, one of the (many) drawbacks of traveling with other people: I always feel pressured to keep moving when I would like to stay longer in one place. This was one of those times.
Anyway, like I said, here the ladies were making the umbrella frames. To do this, they cut thin strips of wood all the same length, poked holes in the end, then strung them all along a string. Then they were sewn into the top button of the umbrella to make a hinge. Longer pieces were then sewn on so the umbrella would be able to expand when it was opened.
Sign up for my newsletter
Step four: Glue the paper on the frame
Somewhere along the way, the mulberry paper is peeled off the wooden frames and cut into the correct shape. Then it is glued onto the wooden frames and left to dry. There are also people making smaller umbrellas that must only be for decoration. They were cute.
Step five: Paint the umbrella
After the glue is dried and the umbrella is pretty much finished, it’s time to make it look purdy. Here, men and women paint designs on the umbrellas. As a former oil painter, I must say I love the smell of paint, and walking through this area was very nostalgic for me.
And now you have a completed, fully functioning paper umbrella. Congratulations!
In the painting area, there were other people painting little pictures on whatever material you could give them. A lady offered to paint something on my shoes, but I said no. After visiting the gift shop though, I came back to get an elephant painted on my iPhone case.
After exploring the stages of paper umbrella-making, of course you must then explore the equally large and visually impressive gift shop. Take your pick of figurines, bags, paintings, wall hangings, strings of lights, placemat and table sets, folding fans, and of course paper umbrellas of various sizes and in countless colours and designs.
There’s also a small cafe after the gift shop. You can enjoy a quick bite here while looking out over the front yard. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for this. It’s a pity because I would have liked to spend more than half an hour here. How much fun it would be to go back and watch the ladies working hard building umbrella frames, or have something else of mine painted.
About Chiang Mai Umbrella Factory in Bo Sang
The Chiang Mai Umbrella Factory is 20-30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai by car, songthaew, or motorbike. The address is:
Chiang Mai Umbrella Factory 111/2 Moo 3
Bor Sang Village T.Tonpao Sankamphaeng
Chiang Mai 50131
Some parts of the website are in Thai, and some of it is not finished, but that’s okay.
The Chiang Mai Umbrella Festival is held every year in January.
Have you ever been to the Chiang Mai Umbrella Factory or another handicraft centre like this, where you can experience the process of how a traditional cultural item is made? Or make it yourself, like the time I painted a mini toilet? Let me know in the comments below.
Follow my blog
More posts from Chiang Mai