Art of Loom: The future of sustainable fashion

Fashion-loving Thais are choosing homegrown designers who make clothes out of traditional Thai textiles which are spun from silk, cotton or hemp
Ban Hat Siew in Sukhothai province, Northern Thailand: A Tai Phuan woman meticulously patterning a ‘Pha Sinh Teen Chok’, a kind of sarong for ceremonial use | TAKEMETOUR WEBSITE
Ban Hat Siew in Sukhothai province, Northern Thailand: A Tai Phuan woman meticulously patterning a ‘Pha Sinh Teen Chok’, a kind of sarong for ceremonial use | TAKEMETOUR WEBSITE

How many times do you wear a piece of clothing before throwing it away? A study of 2,000 women by the British charity Barnardo’s reveals that one piece of clothing has been worn an average of seven times before being thrown out. Fast fashion has made it possible for one to constantly change their looks on the cheap. The Instagram culture is fueling the drive to buy new clothes often. Outfits that “no longer spark joy” can be easily discarded. But this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is quickly inundating landfills across the world with unloved garments. The fashion industry accounts for about 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and 20 per cent of wastewater. This should not come as a surprise as synthetic textiles are the mainstay of the fast fashion industry.


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Fabric-like polyester and those spun from plastic threads, break down into microplastics which go into the soil and water, ultimately entering the food chain. In fact, microplastics have become a leading marine pollutant. Even if countries have good marine debris and wastewater management, microplastics from synthetic fibres in the laundry could still threaten the well-being of life below water. In contrast, and a blessing, in fact, the natural yarn used in Thai silk and cotton garments is biodegradable, and so, does not break down into microplastics. Thai consumers are equally addicted to fast fashion. But there is hope on the horizon because a growing number of fashion-loving Thais are choosing homegrown designers who make clothes out of traditional Thai textiles.

For environmentally and socially conscious customers, Thai handloom fabrics are a part of the answer. Traditional Thai fabrics are spun from silk, cotton or hemp. Moreover, they are ethically made and help develop communities. In Thailand, handlooms are strongly grounded in local villages and organised around women-led initiatives. In fact, they empower women to be the decision-makers and breadwinners for their families. Income generated by these enterprises goes back directly to improving the education and healthcare of community members.

The making of artisanal Thai fabrics is also closely associated with nature. For silks, villagers grow mulberry trees and harvest the leaves for feeding silkworms. Leftover waste from growing the silkworms then becomes good quality fertiliser. As opposed to chemical dyes, colours derived from natural sources such as indigo for blue, ebony seeds for grey and black, and lac for red, are non-toxic, so they can be discarded without causing harmful pollution. Old traditional techniques continue to prove better for both the planet and the people. However, Thailand’s traditional textile industry might have not seen the light, save for one woman and her powerful vision. While accompanying His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol the Great on his many trips to distant villages in Thailand, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother would receive many gifts of traditional hand-woven fabric from the local women.

The intricate and meticulous designs made a lasting impression on the Queen, whose appreciation for the art of the loom became well known, and wherever she went, villagers would come and present their creations. She inquired about each piece, paying ample attention to each of their stories. Her Majesty was perturbed to hear that this traditional Thai art form was in danger of disappearing. Farmers were more interested in sending their children to cities for better opportunities.

Handloom was a skill and knowledge passed from one generation to the next. What if these women were to organise themselves around a cottage industry to weave in between crop growing seasons as a way to supplement their family's income? It could be a way to save this cultural heritage from dying while supporting rural community employment in the process. Her Majesty Queen Sirikit launched the SUPPORT Foundation to institutionalise the royal initiative to develop the cottage craft industries around the country.

By providing an outlet for their products to reach the market, the SUPPORT Foundation played a crucial role in making sure the villagers actually had alternative means of income besides farming which resulted in a number of them starting to develop the business of handloom fabrics in earnest. Meanwhile, Her Majesty became the trendsetter of traditional Thai fashion. Her elegant outfits made from traditional fabrics from different regions of the country inspired city ladies to send Thai silk and cotton fabric to their dressmakers. She founded a fashion movement that aroused a sense of pride in the nation’s cultural heritage.

In turn, the demand for traditional Thai fabrics transformed small household looms into commercially viable enterprises. Later government policies such as One Tambon One Product (OTOP) would formalise state support for micro-enterprises involved in traditional arts and crafts, featuring handlooms as a major product. Such is the story of Baan Hua Fai, a village in the KhonKaen Province in the Isan region, or the northeast of Thailand. The celebrated local mudmee, or ikat pattern of Thai silk was family wisdom that was passed on from mother to daughter, made for special occasions such as weddings or given as gifts. When Her Majesty the Queen Mother visited the region in 1983, she was impressed with the unique artistry of Baan Hua Fai’s silk and invited them to send samples to Chitralada Palace. Soon after, the villagers were granted royal patronage under the SUPPORT Foundation.

Over the years, Baan Hua Fai has grown to be a village cooperative of almost 200 members, most of them women. Today, it has become a model OTOP enterprise that welcomes visitors and serves as a learning and collaborative centre for design and production techniques. Younger generations are adopting new business models according to changing tastes and the marketing environment. They sell products online via Facebook and Instagram and collaborate with Thailand’s top designers. The next phase in the growth trajectory of traditional Thai fashion is for it to truly “go global”.

In the footsteps of her grandmother, Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana spearheaded the creation of the Thai Textiles Trend Book. As the editor-in-chief, Princess Sirivannavari oversaw the compilation of “Thai tones” as well as patterns and materials that would make traditional Thai textiles marketable beyond Thailand. Made available for free in both print and electronic versions on the Ministry of Culture website, the Trend Book offers ready references for weavers, designers, students and anyone developing new ideas for Thai textiles.

Besides drawing upon Her Majesty The Queen Mother’s legacy for inspiration, Princess Sirivannavari envisions sustainability to be interwoven with traditional Thai craftsmanship and local wisdom. The use of natural pigments, fibres and low-carbon production techniques corresponds to the Bio-Circular- Green Economy Model of sustainable consumption and production that the Thai government is promoting. Thailand’s village handloom enterprises also represent success stories in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These include SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), among others. The story of Thailand’s sustainable fashion industry gives us an important lesson – that we can look back into our past to find answers for the future. For Thailand, the Royal Family has been instrumental in preserving traditional knowledge and local wisdom, which have shown the way for our people to live in balance with the natural environment for centuries. That is why the concept of sustainability finds a ready audience in Thailand. It is almost innate in the real Thai way of life.

The writer is Deputy Permanent Secretary for Foreign A airs of Thailand

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