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“Touch me! I’ve been washed about 10 times! The more I am washed, the softer I get!”
The message on the board next to FolkCharm’s clean and soft cotton clothes invites us to test the smoothness with our own hands. Besides the assurance that these clothes can be rewashed without shrinking (because they have already shrunk in their first wash), the board also describes FolkCharm’s clothes as:
- 100% Thai village-grown chemical-free cottons
- Handwoven with hand-spun yarns
- Machine-washable (with a laundry net)
Their storytelling concerning the material and quality might seem to be in a neat Japanese style, but FolkCharm is, in fact, a Thai cotton brand. We traced these beautiful clothes to their origin and met Lookkaew, Passawee T. Kodaka, in a small office located in the garden next to her own house. Naturally, she was wearing FolkCharm’s products, blending into this small world, becoming a part of it, in the same way it is a part of her.
The charm of these natural cotton products goes beyond what can be seen and touched, becoming absorbed into the stories of the people involved. From cotton farmers in Loei to Japanese and Korean customers, weaving deep into a craft-for-society community.
City Folks, Country Folks
Passawee’s interest in social work officially started with her Master’s Degree in Regional and Rural Development Planning at the Asian Institute of Technology. Her final thesis was about the economic and social power of home-based women workers, and it helped her to see a problem in the fabric industry, where the producers of fabrics worth ten-thousand-baht only received mere hundreds for their hard work. This shocking gap provoked her to do something.
After graduation, Passawee settled on a full-time job in social organisation, firstly at the Thai Health Promotion Foundation and then at an international organisation. Despite the impact these places have made on society, she still felt as if her work meant nothing and the salary ill-spent. At the end of the day, the void inside her heart remained unfilled.
On the other hand, Passawee has always been in love with craftwork, with a childhood dream to draw and craft until she became old. One of her favourite shopping places was the OTOP fair, where locals from around the country would go to sell their craft products. However, she did not really buy much at the fair because the products were either too expensive or not durable enough. “I think there’s a gap there,” she stated, “Why shouldn’t we sell good products? It’s really hard work to create these fabrics, but the design and tailoring usually ruin them. So, I decided to make something of my own.”
After taking that decision, a woman who never liked business started researching to find her own business model. Out in the countryside, she got to see a completely different world to her own city lifestyle — village life. Even without the internet, electricity or water, these people still survive and thrive. Someone asked them how they could be happy in such conditions. They responded by questioning “Why wouldn’t we be happy? We already have everything we need.” Passawee was touched by that and became inspired to tell their stories as honestly as possible so that other city people like herself might feel the same.
All her dreams have been weaved into the core values of the FolkCharm brand.
“What does FolkCharm do? We can’t weave, but we know who can. We don’t grow cotton, but we know good farmers who do. Even in Bangkok, we know where the experienced craftswomen are.”
The brand acts as a facilitator for various talents, from farmers in Loei to local weavers, or “aunties”, and tailoring experts in Bangkapi, Bangkok. These workers are already skilled in what they do, and FolkCharm only lends a hand in two main aspects: connecting them into one efficient system, and making their products compatible with the urban market.
Since its main purpose is to solve design and quality problems, FolkCharm goods strongly focus on these two aspects. Although Passawee herself did not major in art or design, her familiarity with Japanese culture and aesthetics has had a heavy influence on the branding of FolkCharm. The result is a simple brand image in brown and cream. The colours come from both the cottons themselves and natural dyeing materials. The fabric is soft yet durable, with every stitch neatly hidden. At first sight, one will definitely fall in love, and adore it even further after trying it on.
However, the design doesn’t come from her alone. With workers who have different skills and creativity and the availability of certain materials in varying weather conditions, the result is a co-designed working process. The weavers and tailors come up with ideas, and Passawee gives them feedback from the customer standpoint. This is why their products look both organic and trendy at the same time.
With pride on her face, Passawee showed us some bizarre examples. An aunty spun three cottons in three different colours into one yarn, creating a uniquely woven tiger-pattern. Another used her sewing skills to make a circle-shaped fabric. Anyone who has ever sewn will know the considerable amount of care and patience required to keep the seams bound in that shape.
“When I first gave the finished clothes to the aunties in Loei, they were so excited. They did not think the tailoring could be this dazzling.” Passawee told us in a joyous tone.
From Trees to Textiles
When asked about the procedure, the good-tempered entrepreneur was more than ready to enlarge. She claimed that theirs is an “ethical process”, meaning it is natural in every way, from start to finish. The resulting products are subsequently friendly to everybody involved.
Beginning with the cotton trees, Passawee chooses local cotton seeds already grown in the area, allowing the farmers to grow them in their own way. The cottons are seeded before the rainy season, making them adequately water-fed with rain, and ready for harvest by the time the season comes to an end. They also use chemical-free local techniques to control pests, resulting in the fields being good to both nature and the farmers’ health, unlike many other cotton fields around the world which are renowned for a chemical and water-intensive approach.
Continuing with the cotton process, FolkCharm’s cottons are hand-spun. While factories are normally used to spin cotton into yarn, there is a local method in Thailand called “Khen-Mue” which literally means spinning by hands. Although this takes much more time than in the factory-spinning process, it also creates much softer yarn.
Khen-Mue is an old tradition that has almost disappeared from many Thai communities. When they first picked it up again, many aunties struggled to produce fabrics of the required standard. Passawee did not refuse their work, instead she urged them to learn techniques from experts in the group. In a short time, the fabrics produced by these aunties became no less beautiful than any of the others.
Great care is also taken in the tailoring process. With her unwavering interest in home-based women workers, Passawee managed to find experienced tailors through her family’s personal connections. She ended up with various home-based tailors in Bangkapi and Ladprao, all of whom are professional with their own expertise. She assigns work suitable to each tailor’s specialty, resulting in high-quality finished products.
By the Folks, for the Folks
With its community first approach, FolkCharm sends 50% of their income directly back to the makers. In the past year, the fabric-producing community alone received more than one million baht. When she checked the company’s accounts, Passawee was surprised to see that last year, one aunty worked so hard that she earned more than a hundred-thousand baht from FolkCharm — possibly representing even more than a year’s earnings for many Bangkok office workers.
For many people in this community, farming is a full-time job, with fabric weaving being part-time. However, there are some aunties who are too old to work in the fields. Working with FolkCharm gives them the opportunity to earn money again.
There are also psychological benefits as well as financial. This work allows producers to “meet” users, both figuratively and literally. Passawee usually presents the aunties with the finished work and photos of their customers. She also invites city people and foreigners to take a trip to see the origins of what they are wearing. Hopefully, this helps to make the locals aware of the value of their work and increase self-pride. She told us that once a group of Korean and Japanese were interested in the brand, and wore FolkCharm clothes to the villages, bringing great delight to the aunties.
These psychological values are not limited only to the workers but have also spread to their descendants. Village children might never have got the chance to learn the hand-spinning process without their parents picking it up again with FolkCharm. Many of the elderly do not have enough strength to process the fabrics on their own and ask for their children’s help. That is how the knowledge is passed through generations, making it immortal.
Making Fashion Sustainable
Concerning the future, Passawee believes that FolkCharm should not grow any bigger. What she wants to grow is its core idea. Along with GoWentGone, Bhukram, Larinn, and other similar businesses in Thailand, she has assembled a network called VolksKraft, with the purpose of supporting small craft-for-society businesses. Its main mission is to bring together entrepreneurs to share knowledge and drive their small communities further. As a group, they have organised many activities, including markets, workshops and seminars. This network is supported by the British Council’s Crafting Futures project. They have been a tremendous help in many aspects such as financial support, the potential development of entrepreneurs, network growth, as well as searching for seminar speakers.
“When we are together as a group, it is easier for people to contact us. The power of what we do becomes more apparent, giving us a reason to establish VolksKraft,” said Passawee. She also added that with support from the British Council, which encourages handicrafts for society and associates of the Thai-British handicraft network, the community can be even more active and make a greater impact.
One of the impacts they have already made is to gain an invitation from the WTO to become the Thai national coordinator for a movement called “Fashion Revolution” — a global movement with a mission to make the fashion industry transparent. This means the procedures must be fair to producers and good to nature. In today’s fashion industry, fast-fashion products made to spontaneously respond to consumers’ never-ending demands are merely creating profit solely for the companies concerned. The result is an abuse of workers and a huge amount of pollution. In the end, everybody loses.
“I want the tide to turn back to slow fashion. I want people to ask where their clothes come from, to wear things that are psychologically valuable and physically durable so that we don’t create more waste.” In an era where producers never know who they are working for, and consumers never know who made what they are wearing, the human connection between entrepreneurs, producers and consumers is missing. This is what the Fashion Revolution movement wants to restore.
What could be better than having beautiful, high-quality clothes that never do anyone any harm? For those interested in its products, although FolkCharm does not have permanent shops, they always show up at temporary markets here and there and also have an online shop. See more details at shop.folkcharm.com
Photo: Folkcharm, Teerapan Leelavansuk
Crafting Futures supports the future of craft around the globe. This British Council programme strengthens economic, social and cultural development through learning and access. The Crafting Futures project supports practices and people, through research, collaboration and education. For more information, Click here
The British Council is also an international partner of Fashion Revolution. If you believe in a fashion industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit in equal measure, Click here.