Rosanne Trottier'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 especially for her. The story since, is one of a social business to revitalize and honor a deep artisanal culture, promoting cottage weavers in north-eastern Thailand, when modernity has already modified much of traditional life.
Sawang Boran works for a community that is one of many silk-producing villages as well as a source of some of the best silk in Thailand – if not the world. The rare and naturally golden silk, and the designing, dyeing and weaving skills of Isan women make up one of the world’s valuable repositories of ikat creativity.
The textile skills are though little recognized beyond the limited market of Bangkok’s middle class. Salaries paid are not enough for a livelihood, and this time-consuming craft remains relegated to the informal economy. Young women cannot be expected to keep the tradition alive into the future and the craft and associated skills are bound to disappear - unless determined efforts are made to return true value, both economically and culturally.
Pamela Ravasio: Rosanne – tell us a little bit more about Sawang Boran and its community.
Rosanne Trottier: Sawang Boran is a dream of beauty and happiness, of elusive-but-real things that are increasingly rare 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, which are endangered everywhere by material development.
The concept with 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 tweaking 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 their 30s and 40s, who are happier weaving at home than doing factory work. And perhaps something significant is happening for the longer term: a couple of weavers’ daughters, respectively aged 16 and 28, are now joining too – a sure sign that their mothers believe there is a real chance for them in the project.
PR: How does the company function, who is involved and how?
RT: The company was set up 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.
Turning this into a business (under Thai law) was a major challenge, 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.
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 out a financial profit, it will be used for some goal to be decided upon jointly by the membership.
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. I'm training a local assistant to take over an increasing share of the many duties involved, and some of the younger weavers who show a sense of leadership are involved in specific tasks. Over time, I of course hope to make myself largely redundant!
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.
PR: How does village life look like at this point?
RT: Sawang Boran members make up the largest single organized group in the village – involving about 45 households out of a total of 170. The weavers are definitely happy doing what they do well and beautifully, and getting paid decently for it. They are also very sharp in negotiating fair prices for new items. They are proud of the exposure they get at events in large cities, or when foreigners come and visit them. 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. 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.
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 endeavors 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.
PR: What are the major challenges/hurdles you encounter at the moment, and what support would be welcomed?
RT: 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.
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. This is an asset, not a handicap, but it requires a different mindset in marketing and making the market work for traditional values and ‘ethical beauty.’
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, fully in the authentic, organic and fair trade paradigm.
Support to improve both the quality of our cutting and sewing, as well as the planning of sizes and styles would be welcomed, too. 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 couture skills.
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.
Beyond that, certification issues are another point. In Thailand there is currently no organic +fair trade certifier. The cost of trying to get certified directly by one of the big international bodies is well beyond what we can afford. We already adhere to a set of organic + fair trade standards developed together with an independent NGO (without certifying authority). They are probably the first such standards in the world for artisanal silk. So we are fairly advanced on this track.
Looking at the long term perspectives, 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.
Also, projects in other parts of Asia have been contacting me for various degrees of involvement. There is thus an immediate need, that I cannot yet handle ...
PR: Rosanne – thank you for your time.
Get to know more about Sawang Boran, and their products, on their website. You can also reach Rosanne and Sawang Boran directly firstname.lastname@example.org
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫'.