Fairtrade organic cotton along the Mekong

Stuffed elephant cushions, bags, table cloths, jackets,bucket hats, zippered pouches – these are a few of the handwoven cotton products made with cloth created by women in Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani province.

organic cotton elephants stuffed with organic kapok!

They make many of these products from handspun, organic cotton, grown along the banks of the Mekong River that divides Thailand from Laos, when the river levels are low in cool and dry seasons, revealing fertile land. It is perfect for growing the cotton, its companion plant indigo – the leaves of which yield the well-known, deep blue indigo dye – and vegetable crops ranging from leaf lettuces, green onions and cilantro to animal feed crops like corn.

organic cotton on the banks of the Mekong River

In 2009, we spent 2 weeks with Aew, who worked with village groups of organic cotton farmers, spinners, dyers and weavers for more than 15 years. We documented and celebrated the Pattanarak Foundation's Organic Cotton Project in a photo book, Weaving Sustainable Communities: Organic Cotton Along the Mekong. (Preview it free online.)

The project ended but Aew, deeply rooted with these artisan groups, started a small, fair trade social enterprise, Napafai, to continue to offer them markets in nearby urban centres, such as Ubon.

Alleson and Aew from Napafai

We met up with Aew in her hometown of Ubon, where she also works for another Thai non-governmental organization, to learn more about her ongoing work with these artisans. She now works as a volunteer board member for the Nong Peun Noi Product Training Centre, where the skilled artisans taught us how they gin and fluff cotton, spin it by hand, dye it with local natural dyes, tie-dye their mudmee (ikat) patterns and weave cloth on traditional floor looms.

tyeing the pattern before dyeing

the tie-dyed indigo mudmee

At this centre, the area artisans receive training – such as the 3-day training in sewing bags that was going on during our visit with Aew – and train school groups and other artisan groups in their centre, passing along their skills.

Nong Peun Noi Product Training Centre

We love the stuffed elephants (sold here as cushions, but equally delightful as sweatshop-free toys) and ordered them in a variety of colours, including bold checks and stripes! (Who says all elephants are grey?) We were excited to find 4 pieces of mudmee cloth in intense indigo blue, woven with a handspun organic cotton weft (crossways yarns) and we ordered small zippered pouched in a finer indigo mudmee cloth.

mudmee zippered pouches --
perfect for notions, change, iPod or phone
a finely patterned mudmee cotton cloth

A quilt with organic cotton batting intrigued us too. Cloth made from fine cotton yarns was loosely woven then 2 layers were stuffed with cotton after its seeds were removed using a handcarved, hand-cranked, traditional cotton gin and fluffed with another traditional tool.

removing seeds with traditional wooden cotton gin

fluffing cotton before spinning it

organic cotton batting in a handwoven quilt cover

We look forward to visiting Napafai's new shop – in the planning stages – and seeing continued opportunities for these artisans to market their work, especially important for the middle-aged and older women whose work with cloth brings much-needed income to their families.