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A Weaver's Dilemma

Thailand is a place where you can buy souvenirs at fantastic bargain prices. For some items, mass production has made it possible to bring down prices of goods to such levels that it is difficult to resist the temptation to buy.

Other products, however are difficult to mass produce such as hand woven cloth. I recently visited a weaving center supported by the Population and Community Development Association at Baan Pong Tevee, Wiang Pa Pao district of Chiang Rai province and got a closer look at how villagers converted cotton or silk threads into beautiful works of art. I have come to respect this humble cottage industry and would like to share my experience with potential collectors of hand woven cloth.

Hand woven cloth painstakingly produced by ordinary villagers is like a window to the past. Over the generations, villagers pass on this skill to their children and their children's children. Tourists marvel at the intricate beauty of the cloth that comes out of what could be considered as primitive handlooms called Gkee Gratook. I did not realize how much work was involved in putting together one piece of cloth that could be made into traditional Pha Thoong or sarong like skirt. The process is very simple but time consuming.

The weaving center at Baan Pong Tevee produces cloth, that is one meter wide. Different colored thread must be spooled onto small spindles that are in turn placed into weaving shuttles. A lattice of bamboo sticks must be placed above the loom to give the cloth specific patterns. A total of 800 individual thread each over 50 meters long are loaded onto a pipe-like spindle. Each of these 800 threads is passed through two sieve-like devices, which pull the thread up and down and a comb-like instrument. In summary, it takes about 14 days before the first inch of cloth is woven.

About 25 two-meter long pieces of cloth can be produced by each loom until it has to be reloaded. It takes about three days to make each 2-meter length of cloth. Therefore the total number of days that villagers invest in producing 25 pieces of cloth is about 90 days or 3.6 days per 2-meter length of cloth. If a villager was to receive 150 baht per day for weaving, the cloth should be sold for at least 5402 per length. Alas, the villagers at Baan Pong Tevee receive only 350 baht.

Small wonder that children of weavers would rather find work in the city than continue with a trade that does not pay a fair price for the work invested in weaving cloth. Unless weavers are paid the fair value for their product, it will not take long before the various types of weaving skills will disappear from this part of the world.

So the next time you see hand-woven cloth, please think of how much time the weavers have invested in producing it. As much as possible, please buy directly form the source.

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