Grandmother Power in Rural Thailand

We're excited to see the Kokkabok Group featured in the 2012 book by Paola Gianturco, GRANDMOTHER POWER: A Global Phenomenon. Paola contacted us to help her contact this grandmothers' weaving group after reading the article below. We were happy to help facilitate her visit in 2010. TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles works with many artisan groups made up of amazing grandmothers -- working to sustain their traditions, cultures, families and communities.

After Paola's visit, we were interested to see that the empowerment of grandmothers in the small, rural village in Northeast Thailand led to new organizing among the women a decade later. By initially forming themselves into a cotton producing group -- reclaiming their local heritage of cotton growing, spinning and weaving -- they were empowered to take on new challenges to their neighbours' health and local environment.

Paola writes:
The 43 members of the Kokkabok Group of Housewives Spinning Local Cotton, all grandmothers, are determined to stop the gold mining that has poisoned the air, water and earth, and made people sick on the other side of the mountain where they live in Northeastern Thailand. Committed to helping neighboring weavers, they designate a portion of their own income to them, then go to Bangkok to express their concerns to national officials. Local weaver grandmothers tell the whole story in GRANDMOTHER POWER.

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Kokkabok Women's Cotton Group:
Organic Cotton Improves Village Life

Story by Ellen Agger and Alleson Kase.

In 2001, a group of women in Ban Kokkabok, a village in Loei province, began to grow, spin and weave organic cotton. With the help of the Loei Development Foundation (LDF), they formed the Kokkabok Women's Cotton Group. This group shares resources, knowledge and support – and has made a real difference in the lives of its many members.

How do members participate?
Each group member does what she enjoys most. Members of the group:
  • grow organic cotton and indigo (a plant whose leaves produce a lovely, natural blue dye, believed to have healing qualities)
  • spin cotton fiber into thread
  • dye cotton thread with indigo
  • weave the cotton thread into towels, handkerchiefs and fabric for shirts and other clothing
  • weave especially fine fabric for a line of organic cotton baby clothes produced by Panmai (a women's weaving cooperative in Isaan), marketed by Green Net

Together, members set fair prices for their work, set goals for the group and establish quality control. They sell their processed cotton thread to the group; members also buy thread from the group’s inventory to weave into various products. This is part of quality control, as well as a way for members to avoid tying up their capital. The group also recognized that it needs its own capital, so members have developed a savings plan (equivalent to 1/3 of every month's production) that can be paid in cash, cotton or indigo.

Why establish a cotton group?

The women wanted to improve their lives as well as preserve the quality of life in their village. After a visit to a women's group in Sakhorn Nakhorn, whose members dyed cotton but had no source for cotton yarn, the women in Kokkabok said, "Why don't we grow cotton?" After several years developing their skills at growing and processing cotton into thread, they have successfully revived a dying cotton industry in Loei, growing it in the traditional way without the use of chemicals.

"I am very happy because I can bring back the tradition of my parents and make them alive again. My children and grandchildren can learn about the process and do it as well." ~ Mae 'Oon, a group member

Why go organic?

The group members use traditional seed varieties of short-fiber cotton, in 3 natural colours, because these varieties are:
  • easier to grow and spin than the previously popular hybridized varieties
  • better suited for dry conditions
  • more resistant to pests

The women save seed for the next year's planting to reduce their costs as well as to ensure that they continue to have a supply of traditional varieties. The group works with the village's Organic Farming Group to learn how to enrich the soil using herbal hormones and fertilizers, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

"I feel good in my body and spirit about growing and spinning organic cotton because I can wear shirts and clothes that are free of chemicals." ~ Mae Paeng, president of Kokkabok Women's Cotton Group

"By not using chemicals, the river in our village stays clean. There used to be lots of fish in the rivers, but after using chemicals the fish weren't there like before." ~ Mae 'Oon

Has the Kokkabok Women's Cotton Group been successful?

Yes! The group and its members take great satisfaction from their accomplishments:

The Kokkabok Women's Cotton Group is the pride of the annual Loei Cotton Blossom Festival (Dok Fai Ban).The group was the only local cotton-producing group to be part of the annual Loei cotton festival in 2004. It received the support of Loei's governor, who approved funds that helped the group bring cotton seeds to 40 other villages. The group will return to the festival in 2007 for the third time.

The group is growing. The group now includes women from a nearby village and has 44 members. In 2005, members of the group taught their cotton skills to women in 8 other villages and shared seeds. These villages now send their cotton to Kokkabok for weaving.

The market for the group's organic cotton products continues to grow.
Customers in Bangkok buy the organic cotton products from Green Net at the monthly ThaiCraft Fairs or at the Lemon Farm shops. International customers from Japan and elsewhere make large wholesale orders.

They are teaching the younger generation.

"The first and second graders can do all the steps. They competed in spinning. They learned from us and we're very proud. The teachers also praise this work and the students wear organic shirts every Tuesday to school. We're all proud." ~ Mae 'Oon

The members now have money of their own. Most of the group's members are farmers and supplement their income with the cotton work. Each member can earn as much as she has time to produce, giving the women an important source of money of their own. Many members say they are happy that they no longer have to ask their children for money to make offerings to the temple.

The group has built a healthy savings account. With group savings of over 100,000 Baht, the group has money for expenses such as equipment, training and travel expenses to visit other groups so they can continue learning and sharing their knowledge.

The group promises its customers high quality, organic goods. The group recognizes that people who buy their work need to be confident about the organic standards of their products. Although the group has not yet had its products certified organic by a recognized body (an expensive and lengthy process), a committee sets standards to ensure that members produce high quality, organic goods.

The group hosted a successful Organic Cotton Tour in 2006. With the help of Green Net and the LDF, members of the Kokkabok Women's Cotton Group opened their homes and their village to 33 visitors for a weekend of fun and learning in December 2006. They introduced the visitors (mostly from Bangkok) to the work behind the production of their cotton products. They welcomed them into their homes; demonstrated and taught how to pick, spin, dye and weave cotton; and shared their pride in their cotton work.

"I'm proud and happy that people come -- like this tour -- to see the work we're doing." ~ Mae Paeng

What are the challenges ahead?

Making cotton fabric is very labour intensive. It takes 10 days to produce 1 kilo of yarn. 5 kilos of yarn produces about 22 meters of fabric and it takes 12 kilos of yarn to make 40 towels.

The supply does not yet meet the demand. Many urban dwellers are concerned about health problems related to the use of chemicals. This is creating a growing demand for organic cotton products.

"There is more demand that we can meet. We can't produce as many products as ordered. But this isn't a factory -- there are many steps involved." ~ Mae Paeng

The younger generation may not continue the tradition. Most of the group members are in their 60s and 70s. Are their daughters – and granddaughters – interested in carrying on this revived tradition?

"They're interested and when they are free, they help. But they are busy making money selling lottery tickets. The granddaughters help when they can too, but they are busy studying. I want this to continue, but I don't know if the next generation will carry on with this." ~ Mae Paeng

In spite of these challenges, the Kokkabok Women's Cotton Group continues to grow and prosper.