#9: Suchada Cotton: Hearing the Story Again

Dec. 18, 2009

The colour indigo -- painstakingly made from the leaves of the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) -- conjures a depth of blue that can't be achieved with chemical dyes. Repeated dippings of cotton yarns, sometimes more than 20 times, can produce a blue so deep that it appears black. More importantly, traditional cultures on every continent have attached significance to indigo beyond a colouring agent.

We first met Suchada Cotton at the Sunday Walking Market in Chiang Mai last year. Their placemats in deep blues and rich browns snagged our attention as the dyestuffs that produce these colours are not frequently seen in Chiang Mai. More often you’ll see mor hom -- a blue cotton fabric produced in Prae from a "cousin" of indigo.

Conversely, Sakhon Nakhon province in Isaan (the Northeast) is well-known in Thailand for kram -- the Thai word for authentic indigo. This province is also home to the village dyers and weavers who produce Suchada Cotton's fabrics. Combined with the bark of the mango tree, indigo produces a deep green, also a popular colour for Suchada's many handwoven products. The rich coffee browns, the third in their trio of signature colours, comes from ma-kleu (Diospyros mollis), often referred to in English as Burmese ebony.

Talking later with Suchada in her stall at the Night Market, we learned that she’s from this village herself where the story is similar to the story all over rural Thailand: Most of the middle generation of women leave the village in search of factory work so they can bring a cash income to their families. Left in the village are the grandmothers and younger women with children. [Read our story about the Women's Organic Cotton Group in Ban Kokkabok for another version of this typical story.]

The 10 to 20 older women weavers and dyers in this group are rice farmers who do this work to make extra income after the harvest is brought in. These skills are a critical supplement to the family income, especially in these difficult economic times with the global recession reducing income from factory work while inflation increases prices. And Thailand's current political instability reduces tourism even farther.

The photos that Suchada showed us of women in her village show dyepots simmering over fires, leaves and barks being gathered, older women at looms. We've seen these photos before, in fact we've taken them ourselves and will, we hope, continue to see them despite the increasingly homogenous, global marketplace.

The term "slow fashion" truly describes this process of textiles produced by hand -- from the gathering of natural dyestuffs to the finished handwoven fabric, bags, scarves, placemats and tablecloths that come off the loom 2 months later.

Chiang Mai is a lively market for many goods from other parts of the country. Suchada's husband is from Chiang Mai and this link makes it an ideal place to bring the handwoven textiles as they make their way to new homes in Japan, Europe and Canada -- anywhere that natural fibres and dyes are popular.

Alleson (Pii Plaa)