Sawang Boran and the Isan silk weavers – A social community business in Thailand

This article was originally published on my personal blog (https://shirahime.ch)

An interview-in-writing
- Interviewee:
Rosanne Trottier, CEO of Sawang Boran, a social enterprise supporting cottage weavers in north-eastern Thailand.
- Interviewer:
Pamela Ravasio, Twitter: @PamelaRavasio

Rosanne Trottier is a traditional knowledge anthropologist turned business person. She collaborates with weavers of the north-eastern Thailand region of Isan in order to sustainably develop their hand woven products through cultivating artisanal knowledge and excellence, truly natural colours and fully organic processes.

Rosanne’s adventure with the community of Sawang Boran started when she was given a length of Isan silk, a gift of love and art made specially for her. The story since, is one of a social business to revitalise and honour a deep artisanal culture, when modernity has already modified much of traditional life.

The village community Sawang Boran works for, is one of many silk-producing villages in the province of Khonkaen, source of some of the best silk in Thailand – if not in the world. The raw silk, typically yellow (see picture above), produces exceptionally soft, strong and shiny yarn best woven on hand-looms as it is not very amenable to mechanised processing. The designing, dyeing and weaving skills of Isan women make up one of the world’s valuable repositories of ikat creativity, in a remarkable, and complex, female culture.

The textile skills these women own are little recognised beyond the limited market of Bangkok’s middle class. Salaries paid are not enough for a livelihood, in a time-consuming craft still relegated to the informal economy. Young women cannot be expected to keep the tradition alive into the future under such conditions – females under the age of 30 no longer learn. Hence the craft and associated skills are bound to disappear. Unless determined efforts are made to return true value, botheconomic and cultural, to them.

Sawang Boran‘s underlying conviction is that healthy cultural continuity is central to a wiser sort of ‘development’ . The concept entails a holistic approach to sustainable development across all areas: livelihoods, ecology, social harmony, local democracy. The ultimate goal is to reverse villagers’ self-perception as ‘poor’, for they are actually rich in cultural and natural wealth already lost in ‘developed’ places. The challenge is to re-empower such ‘wealth’ – from within and from without, through carefully opening up respectful connections between a formerly self-contained, and now endangered, tradition, and the wider world.


Question: Rosanne – tell us a little bit more about Sawang Boran and its community.

Rosanna: Sawang Boran is a dream of beauty and happiness, elusive-but-real things that are increasingly rare in particular in the developing world, things that development doesn’t seem to care about, while they are crucial to any human life. Villagers who are poor today actually still have keys (cultural, natural, social, religious…) to beauty and happiness, keys that are lost elsewhere, and are endangered everywhere by material development and unfair capitalism.

The concept in Sawang Boran has been to take the existing assets, i.e. traditional skills and the natural resources of indigenous silk and (forgotten or near-extinct) dye-plants, and to nurture the development of a sense of excellence and inventiveness in the weavers. Initially, there was not much of a ‘community’ as weavers would compete to get the best prices from me, the foreigner, deemed intrinsically rich and powerful. Regular all-membership meetings, slight tweakings of traditional patterns, exciting discoveries with dye-plants, knowledge sharing, and of course fair prices, have all contributed to gradually building a unique community – where the women can really be together in building a very special project.

A major asset is that Sawang Boran has successfully attracted a number of women in the younger age group, 30- 40, who are happier weaving at home in the village than doing factory work. And perhaps something significant is happening for the longer term, since a couple of weavers’ daughters are now joining too, respectively 16 and 28 – a sure sign that their mothers believe there is a real chance for them in the project.


Question: How does the company function, who is involved and how?

Rosanne:The company was set up after much delay and hesitation, simply in order to get out of the informal economy, to build up a true business, to get the project out of the charity framework – as a charity it can never be made sustainable, and business is the only way to really make the local culture work with and in the real economy.

On the other hand, turning this into a business (under Thai law) is a major challenge for a person like me, without prior training in the field, and also because I do not have an active Thai partner – I decided to take the risk on my own as I had no time to look for a highly hypothetical partner who would be prepared to venture funds in a ‘cultural’ project. So, well… I have used a lot of my savings, and work just about full-time for free for Sawang Boran – this part is the only ‘charity’ aspect involved, as Sawang Boran could not at the present stage afford to pay me a real salary.

For the time being, I am the director, and am training a local assistant to take over an increasing share of the many duties involved. Some of the younger weavers who show a sense of leadership are involved in specific tasks. The company’s registered capital is held by 7 individuals, who are friends of the project and do not expect dividends – the profit is social, cultural and environmental, and if and when we do turn a financial profit, it will be used for some goal to be decided upon jointly by the membership. Over time, I do hope to make myself largely redundant!


Question: How does village life look like at this point?

Rosanne: If you mean the weavers’ life, well they are definitely happy doing what they do well and beautifully, and getting paid decently for it. They are proud of the exposure they get when they are involved in events in large cities, when foreigners come and visit them and take pictures. They know that customers love their weavings, and that many are multi-repeat customers. Their economic weight in the village is substantial, as they contribute at least half of their families’ income.

The process of converting them to fully organic processes has heightened their environmental awareness, so that more and more of their non-silk work is going to be governed by this attitude. They are also very sharp in negotiating fair prices for new items. Sawang Boran members make up the largest single organised group in the village – involving about 45 households out of a total of 170. The most important thing is perhaps that the group feels it is here to stay, that this initiative will not fall apart like so many endeavours villagers have seen over the decades. Having this kind of confidence and stability is in fact a rather rare resource in villages, across the global South.


Question: What are the major challenges/hurdles you encounter at the moment, and what type of contacts and support would you welcome most in the present time?

Rosanne: For now, my major challenge is that I am still largely alone handling everything other than the actual silk work –from making sure stocks of dye plants are sufficient and helping the weavers think through their creative ideas, to managing all post-production, PR and sales tasks – I once calculated that I do about fifteen different ‘professions’ in this venture, with no prior training in any of them…but I learn as I go! I need help for just about everything…

Possibly the two most urgent challenges, where I alone simply cannot do more than what I am doing, are sales and language:

From abroad, the most obvious line of help would be to represent us, and/or to develop a commercial relation with possible outlets, for necessarily small batches of silks. I feel that the market opportunities are there – lots of them, but still dormant and necessarily very niche… multiple niches in multiple places probably. A lot of the work in marketing is about knowing that truly artisanal production can never be adapted to the way mass markets operate. In fact, that’s the whole point. Customers love to acquire absolutely unique and authentic pieces from real artisans. So this is an asset, not a handicap, but it requires a different mindset in marketing, making the market work for traditional values and ‘ethical beauty’, for both producers and customers.

Here in Thailand, there is one very immediate and constant hurdle: language. The village speaks only Lao and Thai. Foreign helpers who might come around don’t speak these languages, so I must necessarily give my time to interpret. As I have so little time, I have to be sure that the contribution will be really useful! On the other hand, my assistant and some of the younger weavers are very eager to learn English as they know this is key to their greater agency. Would somebodylike to come out here and teach English – say, as a kind of ‘useful holiday’, that would also be a great learning experience for the person(s): real village life, the weavers’ universe, and lots more.


Here are a few other needs I can mention:

I feel that our unique pieces could be of interest to fashion designers who would like to create one-of-a-kind outfits or dresses (since no two weavings of ours are alike, and we can only do lengths of up to about 10 metres), fully in the authentic, organic and fair trade paradigm. People who could make such connections for us would be most welcome.

Another idea for a ‘useful holiday’ is that we would need help here, to improve both the quality of our cutting and sewing, and the planning of sizes as well as styles. This is another line of business that I want to develop for the local people, especially as our authentic silk is too wonderful not to be worn as garments. A couple of village seamstresses have been trained, locally, but of course they cannot be expected to have acquired haute couture skills.

Help can also be from people who could simply help spread the word …

I could also use some help with certification issues – in Thailand there is no organic+fair trade certifier at the moment, and I am sure the cost of trying to get certified directly by one of the big international bodies is well beyond what we can afford. Sawang Boran already has a set of organic + fair trade standards developed by us herein Thailand with an independent NGO (that does not have certifying authority). These are the standards we apply. They are probably the first such standards in the world for artisanal silk. So we are pretty well advanced on this track already.

My dream is to expand the number of project members – there are many more silk weavers in this region, and many more villages where I would like to get the Sawang Boran dynamic started so that the skills will indeed be happily kept alive by younger women and girls. There are also projects in other parts of Asia that have been contacting me for various degrees of involvement. There is thus an immediate need, that I cannot yet handle, for more people to join – to learn about how this kind of thing can be done, and go and do it!


Rosanne – thank you for your time.

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Do you want to know more about Sawang Boran? Can you provide the support Rosanne needs at this time to lead the venture to success and sustainability on the long run?

Do get in touch with her! You can her reach her at:

rosanne_at_sawangboran.com

sawangboran_at_gmail.com

Or use the this contact form to get to know more.

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