Markets for Locally Produced Indigo Textile in Ban Kudhad, Northeast Thailand
Interviewing the community business
Dyeing the cotton
Interviewing the community business
The Ban Kudhad community of Northeast Thailand is known for producing beautiful indigo textiles. Unfortunately, though, their market does not extend too far beyond community and regional borders. This winter, Cornell applied economics and apparel design students—Daniel Halper, Rebecca Sisselman, Cheng Qiu, and Vivian Luu—paired with students from the Sakonnakhorn campus of Thai Kasetsart University to find new markets for indigo products, while making sure not to overtax the women who make and dye the fabrics. They worked with indigo dyers to advise them on new business strategies and also searched for luxury or niche buyers in the United States and developed world. Apparel design student Melissa Moukperian arrived several days later to pursue an individual project.
Day 3 (1/7/12) Sakhon Nakon
Rebecca: Today felt like the real kick-off to our project. The most meaningful part of the day was interacting with the villagers and learning about their lives. My group interviewed one woman for several hours, and toward the end of the interview she told us that her annual income is about $650. I was fully expecting to encounter extreme poverty on this trip, but that didn’t make it any less shocking. I keep thinking about all the things that I’ve spent that much money on—a semester’s worth of textbooks, one month’s rent, etc. I hope that our work will help raise incomes in the community so that the villagers can afford a better quality of life. But can we really swoop in and save the day here? I doubt it.
Day 4 (1/8/12)
Rebecca: Today is the second day that we went to the village to interview the artisans. Our group visited six households in the day—three in the morning and three in the afternoon. We asked a lot of questions about production capacity, raw materials, waste water treatment, sales, incomes, products and got much information. Some stories are impressive. For example, the woman we visited first is a weaving expert. She is very old, and she really wants to transfer her knowledge to other people. Her daughter is growing rubber trees because it generates more income to the family and thus can support her. We all felt that the transferring knowledge to next generation is important for the community, and our interview with a dyeing expert in the afternoon reinforced that opinion.
Day 5 (1/9/12)
Vivian: Today we had three meetings: with the Vice Provincial Government, the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperative, and a storefront distributor. These meetings gave us a sense of the organizations that the community may need to work with in order to continue growing their business, especially if they would like to export internationally. After the meetings, I realized just how many challenges the community will face if they want to further increase their sales. In order to get bank loans and financial support from the government, there first needs to be success, but to achieve success, the community needs support. This is an unfortunate cycle that keeps the community in a rut, and I hope that with our assistance establishing a record keeping system, standardization system, accounting system, sales efforts, and marketing efforts will help.
Day 6 (1/10/12)
Daniel: Today we met with two competing communities in the indigo textile industry. Our team was immediately aware of the higher level of organization and standardization of their business. In contrast to our client, there were about twice as many looms and people at work under the same roof as the business leader, who had an MBA and ran the community business accordingly. Her community had grown tremendously in two years and has its products shipped internationally. The second community was extremely impressive as well, producing beautifully intricate, unique designs and selling them at high prices in domestic and international markets. Our interviews with the competitors were eye opening, but it was intimidating to observe how far ahead of our client they were. We went to sleep that night knowing that we had our work cut out for us.
SMART Team members at the Ka-Leung Festival
Rebecca: When we arrived at the community this morning, we followed the Gud Haad women into the large open building where our presentation would take place. The first part of the day was a traditional blessing ceremony, where we all gathered round as members of the community chanted and sang. We knelt as the women took turns tying pieces of cotton yarn around our wrists, each of which represented a blessing to the recipient. Though we didn’t know exactly what they were wishing upon us because it was all in Thai, their emotion and expressions made it clear that they were kind words. Afterwards we found out from the Thai students that “I hope you will find an attractive husband” was a popular blessing. By the end of the ceremony, our wrists were covered with yarn. The ceremony was followed by a feast and then the presentation. But on the whole it was exciting and gratifying because we could see that almost all of the women were raising their hands as each strategy was proposed, indicating their approval, although to eliminate the effect of peer pressure, it would have been helpful to conduct blind votes.
Day 0.5 (1/15/12)
Melissa: My plane landed at Suvarnabhumi International Airport around 7:30 a.m. I was picked up at the Sakon Nakhon airport by two Kasetsart University staff and driven to the Kut Bak community to catch the tail end of the SMART group’s final presentation. I just caught the last bit of the Thai version, which seemed to go over very well with the villagers. After a great dinner of delicious Thai food, we were finally able to get a recap of how exactly the presentation went over with the villagers, which was very good. The villagers had many goals, including finding a way to get more working capital; figuring out a way to produce two indigo crops per year; improving the size, quality and consistency in yarn spinning; and maintaining their indigo dye baths. They are hoping for suggestions on how to improve cotton yield, indigo yield and quality production, and yarn quality and quantity. They are also interested in improving their product offerings—should they offer iPad covers and cell phone covers—and pricing their products, because they know they are not currently charging enough.
Day 1 (1/16/12) Royal Palace Project
Vivian in the cotton fields
Imani and I started exploring the textile design process of the Kut Bak community, a small village with roughly 50 women who weave, spin, and dye indigo cotton fabric. We were accompanied by two people from KU, Natty and Phui, who were to help us with translations. Their main specialty is indigo-dyed matmee, the Thai word for ikat fabric. One weaver was working on weaving pa kao ma fabric that I was told is worn by men after showering.
After lunch, we visited the Royal Palace Project, started by the king and queen of Thailand to promote traditional weaving in the Isaan area. They had mulberry trees, silk worms, looms, spinning wheels, indigo dyeing, sewing machines, you name it—anything needed to teach local villagers how to spin, dye, and weave cotton and silk textiles in their homes. The Royal Palace Project also learns from the villagers—they were taught how to dye and weave fibers from water reeds, which they now in turn teach to other villages. I got talked into helping to wind some recently dyed yarn and learned a bit more about weaving and dyeing water reeds and banana stalk fiber. We learned that while originally set up to teach groups of villages, anyone is welcome to take classes. Prices for classes and workshops are extremely reasonable at 50 baht (approx 30 baht = 1 USD) a class, although to take everything they offer you would have to stay for a full two weeks! The whole project seems to be an invaluable resource for the local villagers.
Day 2 (1/17/12)
This morning we were back at Kut Bak. When we arrived, several women were out back dyeing cotton yarn with tree bark that turned it a beautiful golden yellow. What they seemed to want the most help with was coming up with new matmee designs. The majority of what they are currently producing they describe as “coming from their ancestors.” At the same time, however, they do not want other villages copying their designs and are quite sensitive to copying others’ designs.
After lunch, we drove down the road a bit to visit a cotton field belonging to one of the Kut Bak weavers. Each villager is responsible for growing cotton and indigo for their own production, and while I knew they were having trouble with the yields on both crops, I was not prepared for what the fields looked like. As it was the dry season, everything was just that—very dry. There is no irrigation of any kind in any of the fields, and I was really surprised to see that anything was growing at all. This community would benefit from a group such as the Peace Corps, who could send in a team of people to work with the community long term on a number of areas, including business and marketing, economic, agricultural, quality, and production issues.
Day 3 (1/18/12) Tam Tao and Nhon-rua
After taking a quick trip downtown to visit the Fresh Market, we were on our way to visit three competitor villages. Tam Tao was first up and has a very impressive setup. This group is run by a very savvy business woman who has her MBA from Kasetsart University. The majority of the Tam Tao members weave at home, although all orders come through the center and all finished products must go back to the center before being sent out to the customers. This group sells to Japan, America, Europe—France, especially—and India through catalog.
The way this group handles and creates their different designs was of significant interest. They describe their designs as coming from “local wisdom,” and in addition to traditional ancestral patterns, they have developed several new patterns based on recent events, including the tsunami and volcano eruptions. They weave patterns according to the lunar calendar (certain patterns are woven at certain times) and for specific customer orders. Specific patterns are considered “patented” by certain members, and to use another member’s pattern one must both ask permission and agree to pay the owner 3 percent of sales. My understanding is that this is an unwritten agreement by all parties involved which is respected and adhered to strictly—very impressive.
Our last stop of the day was Don Goi. I was also very impressed with the setup and quality of the operation here. While I believe there were also women who worked from home in the Don Goi group, there were a significant number working on the premises—weaving, tying, and dyeing. What was most impressive to me about Don Goi was their indigo dyeing. While the process itself was the same as we saw at all other communities, the Don Goi community must have mixed their dye bath differently because they are able to achieve a medium dark indigo color in two dips as opposed the four dips needed at Tam Tao or Kut Bak. Being able to obtain a darker color with fewer dips—and therefore in less time—is a huge money saver!
Day 4 (1/19/12) Sakon Nakhon
The Team at the community's farewell festival
Today we were able to squeeze in a trip to the OTOP store in downtown Sakon Nakhon. OTOP is short for One Tambon One Product and is a program that supports locally made and marketed products. Within the program, groups are rated on a scale of one to five stars depending on their product quality. Obtaining an OTOP rating is a successful marketing strategy that represents quality local craftsmanship. They did have a few different indigo products that I hadn’t seen before—pillows, neck rolls, pouches, and oven mitts—but the main item they stocked was women’s jackets/blazers.
As a textile designer, I could appreciate the skill of the embroidery, dyeing, and construction of the jackets, but contemplating jacket style options made me start thinking about changing business and/or production strategies. Where is the line between protecting and preserving older traditions and adapting to what the current market wants? How do these villages know what the market wants? How do they pick their target market? Or does “the market” choose them? Being in remote, “unwired” areas, how do these communities learn about new trends or what changes may be taking place in the marketplace? How do they get their marketing ideas? These are all really difficult, yet really important questions.
Overall, I wish I could have stayed longer and brought a whole slew of agricultural, economic, and production specialists with me. What Kut Bak really needs is a long-term investment of time and resources—Peace Corps project anyone??!?