An artist with a unique and eccentric style takes her eye-catching and meaningful creations from humble origins to the global stage
Somporn Intaraprayong, known to most Thais as Nall, defies simple definition. For almost four decades, she has been a presence in the Chatuchak Weekend Market, where she has dealt in sterling silver jewellery, sensuous silk, folk art, tribal antiques, vintage textiles, hand-crafted clothing and accessories from far-flung places and her own designs. Besides her alluring products, her quirky hairstyle and oversized spectacles often turn heads.
Before being recognised as an award-winning embroiderer and textile artist, Nall suffered a difficult childhood. Nall recollects, “I was born in Bangkok and attended elementary school in Takhli, Nakorn Sawan, and followed by five years living with my aunt and uncle in Baan Rai, Singburi, where the schools were better but I felt like an outcast. My hardworking parents were not in a position to support my drive for higher education so I enrolled in a secretarial course. I dreamt of working as a deputy district chief so I left vocational school and enrolled in Political Science at Ramkhamhaeng University. To save money, I lived with another aunt in Lopburi and travelled to Bangkok to study.”
To help her family, Nall worked since she was little, selling food and other items at the Takhli bus and train stations. It was during the Vietnam War and there was a U.S. air force base in town. Nall wore used clothes from the American G.I.s. That was the beginning of her unusual style. “I wore trousers and jeans instead of skirts and my own style of haircut, nothing proper like that of other kids,” Nall expresses. “Out of necessity and to achieve my own look, I began sewing clothes when I was 12.”
Nall continues, “During my university years I worked every job I could find in order to make ends meet. For two years I lived in an On Nut slum collecting qualitative data for an NGO documentary. In Klongtoey, I foraged for inexpensive fabrics from factories to make clothes and accessories which I sold with two friends, Paijong Laisakul and Sirima Limpasawat. They bought silver tribal jewellery to sell in markets at Wat Mahathat and the Artists’ Market in the Goethe-Institut. The business was booming! I had to search for more things to sell. So first I went to Chinatown in Bangkok, then after to markets in Chiang Mai and to nearby hill tribe villages, and found silverware and more jewellery.”
Nall’s turning point came when she graduated. She clarifies, “I took all the money that I had, which wasn’t a lot, and rented a corner stall in Chatuchak Market. From there, I raised enough money to put down 4,500 baht on a proper shop in the market. During the weekdays I tried every way I could to find merchandise to sell. I bought baskets and added Art Deco furniture, like beds and armoires, to the inventory. I also bought textiles from Hmong and Muser Hill Tribes and used them to adorn contemporary clothing. Remembering my puppet days, I returned to Surin to buy vintage silk hip-wrappers like those I had worn even as a university student.”
Nall recalls, “Although I already had a good client base, business really took off when Somchai Kaewtong or P Kai (a renowned couturier) opened a shop in a white tent which attracted Bangkok’s fashionistas and socialites to the market. My reputation grew and my wares and work were published in an Italian magazine. I’m passionate about my work because I put myself into it. People from diverse countries and cultures began to find my shop. I traded with an Indonesian customer for material that was exotic to the Thai market like bags from Sarawak, and found more bags and baskets from Ecuador and Kenya. For five years I also sold fresh fruit juices made of passion fruit, pomegranate and blueberries from an orchard in Chiang Mai.”
Former editor-in-chief of Dichan magazine and the publisher of Ploy Kam Petch magazine, Chulita Areepipatkul, came to interview Nall about her life and work. Readers were inspired by Nall’s unique life and success and soon lined up outside her shop in the mornings even before it was open. Her stock was totally depleted and she had to find more. So during the week she would travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, return to Bangkok to leave what she had purchased, then head to northeast Thailand or Laos, Cambodia and Burma for more. Nall laughs, “You can imagine that surrounded by luggage and with my odd hairdo, humongous earrings and funky clothes, I raised many police’s eyebrows at border checkpoints.”
At that time, the elegant Queen Mother Sirikit had already given a boost to the weaving industry by wearing Hill Tribe and indigenous Thai textiles. Nall added clothes and textiles to her inventory and soon became well-known within textile circles. In the 1990s it wasn’t so easy to travel within the Southeast Asian region. She became one of the first to sell pidan ikat silk from Cambodia, Tai Dum tube skirts from Laos, and luntaya achiek from Burma. By wearing them herself, she made them current, creating interest years before they became part of later fads.
Throughout her life, Nall continued to sew, for herself and for sale. She is now more famous for her needlecraft on clothing and accessories, mostly made from natural-dyed and hand-woven textiles. As a seamstress, she likes using fabric fragments, such as clothing hand-stitched from materials collected in China, because she recognises their value. She explains, “I have worked in sewing, stitchery and embroidery for over 36 years. At first, a friend of mine brought a piece of hand-woven cotton by Saengda Bunsit (a national artist in textile weaving) for me to make his shirt. It took me a month because it was meticulously hand-hemmed at every seam to last for years. Later I started to design, make and distribute more clothing, both machine-made and handmade, to Taiwan and other countries.”
Around 16 years ago, Vichai Chinalai, a close friend, architect and antique and textile dealer who knew her from Chatuchak Market, suggested that they work together. They promote traditional weaving, dyeing and sewing by helping open the Western market to regional weavers and Thai seamstresses. A further goal is to create zero waste by recycling and upcycling any old and worn materials or scraps and to improve the economic and educational opportunities for everyone involved.
Nall muses, “After that, there was no looking back! I began to teach sewing to anyone with genuine interest and willingness to learn. Bit by bit, I had groups of mostly women sewing throughout Thailand but concentrated in my hometown, Takhli, and Bangkok. Our hand-sewn, hand-stitched and embroidered designs have been exhibited in other parts of Asia, Europe, the United States and Latin America. I have participated in fairs in Japan, France, Mexico and the United States, including over a dozen years at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico.”
Nall’s personal style is easy, unassuming yet unconventionally individual. Nature and simple things that surround her give her inspiration. She loves natural pigments and dyes like indigo, tamarind and mango leaf. She uses needle and thread to tell stories that attract the eye and play with the mind. To create unusual patterns on the cloth she applies basket-weaving and thread-pulling techniques. One of her signature creations is an embroidered ant which she originally taught one of her seamstresses whose nickname is “Ant.” Now there are four women who embroider ants, large and small, red and white, alone and in colonies.
Nall has never forgotten her modest beginnings. With few prospects, she managed to educate herself, work hard and provide for herself and her family. Until now she is not only known in Thailand but in many countries all over the world. She is back to teaching all age groups in the provinces. Her mission is to care for the environment, to teach and inspire others, and to pay it forward. She says, “I tell my students and seamstresses, many of whom are farmers and day labourers, that when they sew from the heart, there are no mistakes. In the beginning, many of them viewed sewing as repairing, a necessity that came from poverty. Now they feel proud and empowered by what they create. Although very few will ever leave Thailand, and some have never been to Bangkok, their work has travelled the world. Everywhere I go, I bring portraits of the seamstresses to show the customers and photographs of the customers back to show the seamstresses.”
For the artisans, sewing is an affirmation in sustainability and self-sufficiency. They are proud of their work and in turn, their families are proud of them. Nall sums it up beautifully, “If we invest real effort and purpose in whatever we do, we are very likely to achieve our goals. Success doesn’t only come from research, preparation and knowledge but also from intention and powerful determination. The outcome is greater than any monetary value. My wish is for my work to be the visual representation of the feeling that we all simply are one big family.”