Well. I now have the world’s best drop spindle. Laceweight, perfectly balanced, gorgeously decorated, spins forever–oh yes, and solid silver. 🙂 97%, a bit higher than sterling.
I arrived at the silversmith’s in the early morning, along with Asaw, my new guide. (Chatree, my guide from the previous day, was off with another tour group that day.) After a cup of tea, we got started, with cutting and mixing silver.
It’s astonishing how little equipment Akha silversmiths need. American silversmiths (like American crafters generally) are insanely fussy about having the right tools: one wouldn’t *think* of making silver without a bunch of complicated and generally expensive equipment: a kiln, ring mandrels, casting wax, jewelry saws, files, etc. But you could probably buy all of Ati’s tools for a hundred bucks: a single reversible hammer (one round side, one rectangular), an iron anvil, a rusty machete, two sets of tongs, a pair of tin-snips, one flat piece of lead, and four or five decorative stamps. That’s it.
(Actually, that’s not *quite* true. He has two timesaving modern devices: a mill for extruding silver wire, and another for rolling flat pieces. But he doesn’t *need* either of them.)
Back to the silver. The first step was cutting a piece of 90% silver into four pieces. I started by putting a flat silver pancake into the fire and pumping the bellows. (The bellows is a hollowed-out log with a stopper in it; pulling back and forth injects air into a tiny charcoal fire.) Ati piled burning charcoal on top of the pancake, explaining that for big pieces, burying them in hot charcoal makes them heat up faster. I pulled back and forth on the bellows, making sparks fly out: not good charcoal, good charcoal doesn’t spark. Unfortunately he hadn’t been able to get any of the one kind of hardwood that doesn’t make sparks (we are not talking charcoal briquettes here 😉 ), so we were stuck with what we had.
Eventually, after it was hot enough, he told me to take it out and cut it.
Cutting a silver piece, Akha-style, turns out to be quite simple. You heat it up until it’s softened, put a rusty machete on top, and whack the machete with a hammer until the blade’s driven most of the way through. Then you take the machete out, lean the silver piece up against the anvil, and whack the backside with the hammer until it breaks in half.
Of course, it helps if you can hit the side of a barn door with the hammer. 😉
I didn’t actually do too badly at whacking it (I’m good at whacking things 🙂 ), although it did take me two tries. This was because they didn’t start explaining to me what I was supposed to be doing until the thing was out of the fire, and by the time Ati explained to Asaw what I was supposed to be doing, and Asaw finished the complicated little game of charades punctuated with English words to explain to *me* what I was supposed to be doing, the silver had already cooled substantially. Translation doesn’t work very well when neither you nor your translator has a clue about silversmithing, your teacher’s never tried teaching before, and speed is essential. But it was fun nonetheless. Life poses far too few opportunities to whack things with hammers. 🙂 )
After that, Ati weighed out the silver, picked out an appropriately-sized chunk, and mixed it with bits of pure silver from the gold shop. He handed me an old pair of hand-forged tinsnips/scissors and a tomato-paste can, and told me to cut the can in half.
A desperate struggle ensued, pitting me (143 pounds of muscular critter, with large mammalian brain) against the tinsnips and tomato-paste can. You know, small bits of seemingly innocuous metal can be devilishly clever? It took me ten minutes to hack the can inexpertly into a bunch of jagged bits–hand-forged Akha shears aren’t anything like the tinsnips I’m used to. (Not worse, exactly–just different.) I am still convinced the darn things were in cahoots against me. Worse yet, the entire household was watching in great amusement as I struggled with the bloody thing.
At any rate, I finally got the can hacked more or less into halves, put the silver in, and stuck it in the fire to heat. Eventually, it even melted. 🙂
Molten silver is really beautiful. It glows red, but has little crackly bits coming off the top where impurities (or maybe just chunks of charcoal that have fallen in) are burning away, and is molten silver underneath. Hot stuff. 🙂
Ati showed me how to blow small bits of charcoal off the molten silver with a blowpipe, and pick the big bits out with tongs. Then he had me grease an ingot mold with pork fat, and pour the silver in. (I botched the first attempt because I used my best chocolate-pouring technique, moving back and forth along the ingot mold–but it turns out that silver needs to be poured quickly, from the edge of the mold. Silver is not chocolate, a fact I will henceforth keep in mind. 😉 )
After that, Ati took one of my misshapen ingots, whacked it in half with a few casual blows, and handed it casually to me. I gathered that I was supposed to whack at the thing with the hammer, and promptly did so.
(1) Flattening things with a hammer is MUCH harder than it looks. Thwacking things with a hammer isn’t that hard (though it helps if you can hit the silver and not the anvil 😉 ), but getting it actually *flat* (and not dinted by the hammer) takes a lot of skill. I rapidly turned the thing into a misshapen lump, but it *did* get a little flatter…
(2) It takes considerable muscle to beat silver. Worse, every time you hit the silver, it gets a little harder, and eventually it breaks. So you really want to thwack it *hard* two or three times, instead of giving it love taps. Combining this with accuracy is really hard–silversmiths must have incredible control and finesse.
By this point I was working up a pretty good sweat, so I was glad to stop and feed the silver through the mill. (More steps than you expected? I was surprised too.)
The mill was more or less what you’d expect, a set of hand-cranked rollers with square-shape indents, which gradually compress the silver into thinner and thinner square wire. (Ati also has a roller mill, useful for flat pieces.) This required absolutely no skill, so no problem. I can extrude wire with the best of them. 🙂
After that, we took the wire piece out, I hammered it round (easy, as only light taps were needed), and then Ati showed me how to hammer a point on one end. I proved totally hopeless at this, so I let him do it.
Then came the hard bit. Ati had at this point worked out that I was more or less hopeless with a hammer, so handed me a test piece and gave me rough instructions on how to shape it. Basically, the hammer has two sides: round and rectangular. The round side is for finishing and polishing, and the rectangular side is for shaping. It’s wider than it is long, so it squeezes out more silver along the top and bottom of the hammer, thus can be used to shape bits. If you hammer at a square piece of silver with the rectangular side, you get a rectangle; hammering at it with the round side produces a larger square.
(I worked all this out for myself later, so I don’t guarantee the accuracy. At the time, I was just told that the rectangular side was for shaping and I should hold it this way….One of the major differences between Akha people and Westerners is that Akha learn best by watching and imitating, Westerners have to analyze and understand everything first. This made learning really difficult.)
At any rate, Ati explained to me that hammering a round piece from a square one requires strategy: start in the center and move the mass of the silver out towards the edges, gradually shaping the edges from corners to a circle. This sounded perfectly logical, but requires incredible skill to manage. I didn’t get anywhere with it at all, as I didn’t have nearly enough “feel” with the hammer.
I discovered at this point, by the way, that it is quite possible to turn flesh into silver, and also quite easy. Hit your thumb with the hammer. The flesh underneath immediately turns black, since you’ve just destroyed all the capillaries, but the skin on top stays white, giving a darkish gray color that really does look very much like silver. It’s kind of neat.
Oh yeah: it also hurts. I don’t recommend it. 🙂
They were all quite concerned after I thwacked myself, so I explained that it was nothing (fortunately it was only a glancing blow), swallowed four Advil, and kept going. (One nice thing about AIDS Lifecycle: I am now pretty good at tuning out pain.) I eventually managed to pound the test piece into a more-or-less-flat misshapen lump, whereupon I decided that shaping silver was beyond my current skill. I’ve got muscle, and dextrous fingers; but combining the two would take more practice than I’d get in one day. Besides, my thumb was sore. 😉
Ati then took up the hammer, and in about five minutes, whistling cheerfully, hammered a lump of silver into a perfectly flat, disc-shaped piece. (I suspect a pact with the devil. 😉 ) He then took it up, stuck a rock into a pair of rusty tweezers, and used his makeshift compass to draw a circle near the edge. I was wondering how he planned to cut the silver, but no–he was just checking how round it was. He picked it up again, tossed it into the fire to soften it, and hammered carefully and expertly around the edges. Then he drew another test circle and worked at it again. Half an hour later, he handed me a perfectly flat, perfectly circular disc. Amazing.
(You have no idea how difficult that is: (a) no hammer-marks anywhere, (b) flat, and (c) circular. The man is a god. Very, very, very, very skilled.)
Around this time I got distracted by a friend of his who’d come by and was making bamboo withes. He had a four-foot length of green bamboo, and was carefully slitting it into tiny slivers, then trimming the slivers very thin to produce long, flexible strips of bamboo. These are suitable for, say, tying a house together–which is, in fact, exactly what he was using them for. Dry season is, for obvious reasons, the most practical time for rebuilding bamboo houses, redoing roofs, etc., so a lot of building goes on during the dry season–in fact, they rebuilt two houses during the week I was there. (Bamboo houses need to be reroofed every 2 years, and rebuilt every 8-9 years, as the grass roof rots and termites eat the bamboo.)
You are probably envisioning a guy sitting there carving at bamboo with a small, controllable blade–say, a Swiss Army knife, or something like that. Nope. Knives used in the Akha village are big hand-forged thingies with 12-18 inch blades, which they use for *everything*–clearing land, butchering, hacking up firewood, fine detail carving. This usually means that a guy carving is sitting there pulling a tiny piece of wood along the blade of a giant knife, looking like he’s about to take his thumb off. Which is pretty much what was going on here. (He did not, however, take his thumb off–nor did anyone else while I was there, much to my surprise. I had been envisioning entire villages of thumbless former woodworkers, but apparently Akha people are much more dextrous than Westerners, because such accidents are really rare.)
The guy also had his hair in the classic Akha male haircut: shaved all over, with a little pony-tail on the top of the head. The shaved parts were growing out, so the overall effect was short hair with a 5″ ponytail on the crown of the head. Kind of neat, actually.
Around the time that Ati was performing arcane wizardry to pierce the disk and solder on the shaft of the spindle, a friend of his friend showed up. Asaw translated parts of the conversation for me, which was quite interesting: all about opium farming in Burma. Ati’s friend was from Burma originally, and his friend still lived in their old village. (I apologize for munging the pronouns–I don’t know their names.) They were discussing this year’s opium crop, which was apparently fairly good–Akha have traditionally raised opium as a cash crop, as it grows very well on the hills, is easily transportable (small and nonspoiling), and has high cash value–all very good for rural mountain farmers. His friend wasn’t raising opium himself anymore, but explained to me how opium farming works–apparently one farmer can raise about 1.6 kg of opium in a year (~3 pounds). Depending on the quality of the land, it takes somewhere between 1/3 and 2 acres to grow that much opium–some people have more land, some people have less. It takes a lot of work, but not much space and not much money–and because it’s so valuable, it’s easy to transport, which is important when you don’t live anywhere near a road.
Oh, and his friend was Burmese. He couldn’t get into Thailand legally, but no problem: the border’s long, and largely unguarded, so he just walked across.
(It’s easy to see that Thailand’s war on drugs is going to be in trouble, as long as its neighbors permit opium farming. The border is too long, and too porous. Burma is largely uninterested in rooting out opium farmers–they’re already fighting two civil wars in that region, one against the Karen (pronounced Kuh-RIN) tribe and one against another hilltribe, so they have other worries. The Burmese civil war is a major reason why hilltribes are migrating to Thailand, actually: it’s hard to grow food in the middle of a war.)
Anyway, around this point Ati handed me the most perfect spindle I’ve ever held–silver, about eight inches long, with a hammered pattern based on my sketched design, and *perfectly* balanced. (I wish American metalworkers could do as well!) It was a little too heavy for lace spinning, though, so I asked him to make me another one. Which he did–took him about two hours. It is absolutely perfect for lace spinning and I’ve already spun several hundred yards with it. Lovely piece. Ati stamped the big spindle with my name and his, and the date; I plan to keep it forever. 🙂
Anyway, that was it for the day at the silversmith’s…later that day I went to a ceremony where a bad-luck pig was being ceremonially sacrificed, but that’s another story…I’ll write it up later, along with the spinning and weaving.
The Akha village was just fascinating; if you ever get a chance to go to Thailand, try going there yourself, and living with them for a few days. This will teach you much more than any hilltribe trek will–most of those just pass through the village and let the tourists gawk for a couple of minutes. Living there is way different. 🙂
hi, great blog 🙂
i’ve just moved to chiang mai and would love to know where i could find the akha silversmith?!
where was the village you stayed in?
Coleen Nimetz says
Hi – really enjoyed reading your posts about Thailand, especially the textile-related ones. My husband and I are planning a trip to Thailand, and I’d really like to visit the Ahka village that you’ve written about. Can you tell me how you were able to arrange the visit, and which village you stayed at. I’m particularly interested in the spindle spinning, as well as the silver spindle. We would like to avoid the tourist things.
Thanks you for the information you’ve posted – it’s really helpful.