“I was working for the UN in Laos during the 1975 revolution. During that time antique textile came from the north of the country into the capital that nobody had seen before. Farmers were selling their textiles to survive but there were not many foreigners living in the town at that time and not many people were interested. I had no idea what they were but I bought a lot. I knew there was something special about these textiles and I started doing research those dying and weaving techniques. In 1980, I left the UN and went to Australia and started writing books on the research I had made. That brought me into Thailand because Laos was still blocked at that time and you couldn’t go travel into the countryside. I started getting the idea that maybe I could help weavers sell their products and get a better income for themselves and I decided to settle in Chiang Mai because I was offered a teaching job in the Thai Art Department of the University of Chiang Mai.”

“One day I was giving a lecture to a group of American tourists in my garden and they said they wanted to try some of the clothes I had made with traditional garment. I let them into my house and next thing I know, they came out wearing my clothes. They said, “This is what we are looking for’. So that’s when it downed on me that rather than just than getting things from the villages that were often difficult to wear, I could design some different clothes from that fabric. So I started doing that and then slowly decided to look for a more reliable and steady source of textiles. I like weft ikat, which is a very labor-intensive technique but beautiful to make into garments. In Chiang Mai nobody was weaving weft ikat anymore so I invited a group of weavers from the Lao part of Isaan to come and teach local weavers and stay with us. Most of them went back. One stayed, married a young man in the village, and became our master weaver.”

“At the very beginning Our main concern with giving work to weavers was that they could weave and continue their cultural commitments. In Thailand, the community activities create a social atmosphere that is very important to the continuation of everything within that structure. If a weaver is working from 9 to 5 somewhere, she cannot take part in social activities such as weddings, funerals, house warmings, and going to the temple to make merit. So the first thing we realized is that working on a salary was not allowing our weavers to be part of the community. Our master weaver is from another part of Thailand and initially was seen as a stranger. One day she came to us and said she wanted to be paid by piecework because she wanted to go to join these activities. The minute she did, she was accepted in the community.”

“I spent a lot of time gaining loyalty from our weavers. I used to go to the village twice a week and visit each weaver in their homes. We have invested a lot in training them as it takes years to learn how to weave these techniques. Out of the 40 or more that we have trained, we now have a core of 10 weavers. The fabric is woven in the villages and the cutting of garments is done here in Chiang Mai. My daughter Morna, who took over the management of Studio Naenna, does the clothing design but I am still the main fabric designer. We give weavers everything they need – the yarn, the weaving equipment, and the looms. The minute they send the fabric to us they get paid. One of the failures of most cooperatives is that they don’t pay the weavers until the piece is sold and it can sit in the shop for who knows how long. Weavers can’t afford that.”

“We pay weavers very good returns for their work but when you consider other aspects of young people’s lives nowadays, weaving is a lonely profession. You sit a your loom and weave, it’s very lonely. While it’s much more fun to go to the factory with your friends, it’s a whole different social experience. In the social structure of the village, weaving used to be very important for women and they would gain status from it. Also men used to come courting women while they were weaving. None of this is true anymore. Also, when we started, many girls would not go to school past 12 years of age because there weren’t many schools in the villages then and they didn’t want to travel a long way. They didn’t have many options so they were happy to learn how to weave, particularly silk, because they could earn more. Nowadays, young women can go to schools and university much more easily and don’t want to weave anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find women interested in this.”

“The big thing is to know your market and to keep up with trends. Right now tourists are not spending as much so we have to keep up the quality but focus on pieces that are more affordable. We do this by leveraging our knowledge of the weaving techniques. For example, an ikat scarf typically has the pattern through the whole piece. It is exquisite but it is very expensive to make because of the tying and dying process. There are tourists that buy it and wear it but a lot of them don’t want something that looks too “ethnic”. We came up with the banded ikat where we break up the ikat and share it out among 4 or 5 scarves, which makes it much more cost effective. We take indigenous techniques and make them more modern and appealing to the tourist market. We have also introduced new colors that go with different skin tones and hair colors.”

Company: Studio Naenna
Location: Chiang Mai
Founded: 1988
No of Employees: 13 full-time + 25 on long-term contract

Women-owned and led