Sharing values in a Thai textile shop

The Textile-lover’s Treasure Trove
Earlier today, I was thinking about a woman I met in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last year. My husband stumbled across her shop on one of the days when I was trying to learn the various presses, pulls and meridian line up-ing and down-ing of Thai Massage in the north-western city. When he came to meet me, he excitably told me he had somewhere to show me, rightly convinced that I would love the bags, wallhangings and scarves that sprang out of baskets and flapped on the walls of this textile-lover’s treasure trove.
 The woman- I regret never asking her name- greeted us warmly. Seeing me stroking my way through some rolls of indigo-dyed fabrics – some plain, some with beautiful patterns woven in – she told me about the hilltribes that made them, and about what characterised their style. She then said she would leave us to look, and did so for several minutes. When she returned, I was intrigued by a purple-y brown striped, woven skirt made in a straight, tubular shape with a wide plain cream band at the top. She demonstrated how to wear it- mentioning its additional bonus of being adjustable for when a woman is pregnant! (Having bought the skirt, I am now appreciating this feature!)Traditional v modern

   She was a gentle, un-pushy woman. A more cynical person than myself may accuse her of cleverly recognising that this can be a more effective sales technique than the in-your-face flattery, “special price just for you” and laying-out-the-entire-shop’s-stock-at-your-feet style of many of the night market stallholders. However, her serenity seemed to radiate around her shop and, although she spoke softly, to me it was with a genuine passion for the traditional handicrafts of her country – and a keeness to share it with a fellow fabric-collector. She felt that, although hilltribes were sometimes starting to buy modern machinery to increase the output of textiles, the actual expense of buying and maintaining these machines often did not actually increase income and alleviate poverty long-term. She very much favoured keeping alive the traditional skills and for hilltribes to retain their individuality and independence in this way.The Loss of the Story

   I returned to the shop on other days and we continued to talk about textiles and about differences between life in her country and mine. Any item I asked about, she told me which region it had come from and the production process. She liked to buy directly from those who had made the products and provide an outlet in Chiang Mai for them to sell their handicrafts though as many hilltribe communities tend to live very rurally.
   I could see several of my own values mirrored in hers; the desire for items to have a uniqueness and be made in a way respectful to the local and global environment, communities and traditions, minimising waste,  and for the buyer to know the story of the product they are buying. I believe that much of our lack of lasting fulfillment that we experience comes from expecting fulfillment, status and happiness from mass-produced goods whose story we do not know and so cannot connect to. (And that then, if we do consider their story, we are faced with difficult ethical questions regarding sweatshops, use of harmful chemicals and funding of oppressive regimes and practices).
When I joined Etsy, (, I was pleased to see that they also have at their core this desire for products to “tell their story” and to be unique. I enjoy seeing this being encouraged at markets, craft fairs, galleries and independent shops, as well as online. Do you remember when, as a kid, your mum coaxed you to make a birthday card (or something) for your Grandma (or someone) and that they’d love it “because you made it”? It doesn’t have to stop when you grow up! And, if you feel you just don’t have the time/skill/enthusiasm to be creative, it doesn’t have to be you that does the hand-making.Mo  ♥

Buddhist monks at a Chiang Mai monastry prepare to release a wish lantern at the November 2010 Loi Katung festival

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