Spinning a yarn, Surin style
In business, being authentic is often identified with being able to carve out a niche for oneself; in a small silk spinning village in the northeastern province of Surin, locals have learned just that: that being true to their craft can allow them to command a higher price for their wares while keeping the pulse of traditional culture beating.
A woman from the Ban Sa female group boils cocoons.
Ban Sa rarely makes it on to the tourist map but it is a thriving silk producing community run by a group of housewives.
Many households in the village start their day with a routine of boiling silk cocoons over clay stoves, an activity that is all too familiar to local women. They then unspool the thread -- from a single cocoon, up to 350 metres of delicate yellow silk can be produced.
Not far from the cocoon boiling and unwinding stations, another group of women busily work the looms, assiduously and rhythmically.
Before the silk cloth is woven, the thread required must be prepared up to two weeks in advance. That might seem like a long time, but with silk fetching 3,000 baht per kilogramme, this preparation time is well worth the effort.
The time and energy expended in producing the threads are not the only drivers of price. Authenticity is crucial, both in protecting the reputation of the weavers and boosting the price.
Ban Sa is the first village that began making hand-made silk that complied with the strict specifications of the "Isan Indigenous Thai Silk Yarn" Geographical Indication (GI) and certified as a location-specific, authentic northeastern Thai silk product by the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture (QSDS) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
This achievement has been supported by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the FAO regional project for the Promotion of Rural Development through the Development of Geographical Indications at the regional level, funded by the French Development Agency and in cooperation with the Department of Intellectual Property under the Ministry of Commerce and the QSDS.
The GI system offers protection, through national and transnational intellectual property rights registration, to products that have specific qualities associated with their origin and that promote the local wisdom required to produce them.
This protects small farmers and local producers from foreign imitations and helps improve their livelihoods.
The GI system also pays close attention to products that support biodiversity and rural women and their important role in GI production.
Distinctive features of the northeastern GI-certified silk are bright golden colours and the unique consistency of the silk threads.
A fixed number of cocoons are used to produce silk fabric of a certain length. The cocoons are boiled using time-honoured methodology before they are hand-reeled into fine silk threads, according to Kinnaree Raekcharoen, who works at the QSDS Northeast Centre. She specialises in GI standards and promotion in Surin province.
The GI certification has pushed up the price of Ban Sa silk. This level of authenticity has made the silk much sought-after. A standard sized village silk cloth retails for 3,000 baht, up from between 1,000 and 2,200 before the certification stamp was given.
The GI certificate is awarded also to food and handicrafts, helping augment global recognition of their intrinsic quality.
The certification is also useful in spreading the word about the local traditions and wisdom that go into making the products, she said.
Internationally, one of the most famous examples of GI recognition is that given to Champagne, a sparkling wine produced in the region of the namesake in France.
The life cycle of silkworms is on display at the learning centre at the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture in Surin province.
For Thailand, it is Doi Chang coffee or khao hom mali thung kula rong hai (jasmine rice from a northeastern plateau). These products are GI-recognised before they eventually became intellectually protected in international markets such as the European Union.
"GI certification has improved security not only for our mothers and aunts [who produce silk], but also the younger generation of producers like me. We have been able to earn a living from silk, appreciate the local wisdom and preserve the traditional sericulture for generations to come," said Jira Rospoon, head of Ban Sa GI-certified silk-weaving group.
To earn GI certification, quality control at every step of silk yarn production is vital. Mulberry leaves for feeding silkworm must not be grown near animal farms to ensure that the leaves are truly organic.
The reeling, spinning, re-reeling and finishing processes are all done by hand, which holds the key to the Ban Sa silk yarn retaining its refined texture. The finer the silk yarn, the more pliable the fabric will be, Ms Jira said.
The delicate and meticulous work consumes much time. Each woman can produce only 3-4 kilos of GI-certified silk yarn a month.
Ms Jira has years of experience in the quality control section of a food factory. She has applied her expertise and sharp eye in sifting through the threads sent in by the various households for quality control.
The coding system of the GI process allows her to identify the yarn producers by the special characteristics of their threads.
About 40 women in the village in their 40s and 60s have joined in the Ban Sa silk weaving group. Many of them are also full-time farmers who spin silk thread on the side.
Orders flood in from buyers in nearby districts who seek the high-quality GI-certified yarns to weave silk fabric. A silk cloth woven from the Ban Sa threads can fetch prices ranging from several thousand baht to over a million baht, depending on how complex the dying work and weaving patterns are.
Nothing in the yarn-making business is thrown away. Left-over cocoons and silkworm pupa are also prized commodities. The pupae are edible and can be sold for 150 baht per kg.
The women's group also learns how to isolate the sericin protein found in cocoons for use as a base ingredient in producing cosmetics, soap and lotion to be sold under the One Tambon One Product brand.
Silk bearing this local pattern is considered the best in Surin province.
Like most farming households in Thailand, the Ban Sa residents grow rice as their main occupation. They make silk yarns to supplement their income, which sometimes outstrips what they earn from selling rice. The GI-certified yarns generate on average 10,000-15,000 baht per month for a family.
The yarns may not be their principal source of income but they allow the families to better manage their finances.
They can buy new clothes, shoes and allow family members to eat out from time to time. If the families have a little money left, they usually donate it to religious and community activities.
"We are able to earn our own income these days and don't have to ask for money from our children, thanks to the silk-making knowledge passed from my grandmother and my mother to me," said Tanyawan Ngerdkratoke, one of GI-certified silk yarn makers.
The total market value silk produced across Thailand is estimated at about 6 billion baht a year as demand for it remains robust.
The QSDS has been inspecting silk yarn quality at other villages and is trying to spread the word about the GI certification to silk yarn producers in the Northeast.
The certification will motivate people in the industry to lift and maintain the exceptional quality of the Isan indigenous silk yarns, as domestic and international demand flourishes for light, soft and distinct Thai silk.
Arthorn Sangsomvong, newly elected president of the Isan Indigenous Thai Silk Yarn Association, said his plan is to work with the private sector and state authorities to enhance production capacity and productivity of local silk yarn-making and weaving communities.
Building a silk learning centre in Surin is also part of his project. Surin and many other northeastern provinces are the focal points for silk production.
A learning centre would allow women's groups from nearby provinces to exchange yarn-making techniques and ideas.
He also wants to promote the centre and the village as a cultural tourism site to boost the local economy.
Moreover, the younger generation of residents will also be educated in sericulture to ensure they preserve the time-honoured silk yarn practices rooted in local wisdom.
"Thai silk, with its creative designs, has made a name for Thailand in the international market. GI recognition and certification can help us take it to next level through the improvement of our products, and also pay homage to the wisdom inherited by the new generation of people," Mr Arthorn said.
A member of the Ban Sa female group hand reels Isan indigenous Thai silk yarn.
Tanyawan Ngerdkratoke, left, and Kwanla Nachom check their silkworm caterpillars to ensure they are healthy. It's possible that they can be infected with diseases if not properly cared for.
Surin silk can sell for thousands of baht to over a million depending on the tie-dyeing and weaving techniques involved. All processes start with high-quality fine silk threads.
The Ban Sa female group in Surin receives GI certification for Isan indigenous Thai silk yarn from the Department of Intellectual Property with support from the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture. (Photos by Apiradee Treerutkuarkul)