During a trip I took to Thailand last year, I visited Studio Naenna Textiles Gallery, where we learned about the local Thai weaving culture, its role for the local women, and dived in and got our hands dirty(literally) as we designed our own signature tie-dye scarf. The experience was fun, and the owner and founder Patricia Cheesman was inspiring as she taught us about the role of textiles in the local communities. Though the pieces in the shop blew me away with their intricate designs, and high-quality material—I did leave with two gorgeous scarves in hand—what really hit me was the impact that this studio has on the local women.
It’s a story about women helping other women. A story about how one woman with the means and education to help, dove right in to help the local women provide a better life for themselves.
What I learned during this immersive experience is that the Thai women are the main breadwinners of the family. Men tend to take farming jobs, and if they have a bad crop, they lose money. Oftentimes, the men have to go work in the fields in order to make a living, leaving the women and their children behind. Cheesman, who was a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, and was researching her next book, was traveling around the local villages and meeting the local women when she realized she wanted to help them sell their products.
“Their courage and skills impressed me. They were doing most of the family chores, bringing up children and growing vegetables and rice for the table. And still they had time to weave,” said Cheesman during our visit. “Their skills were passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. They needed help in selling their products at a price that was fair to them.
“I feel that Studio Naenna has given a large number of women the opportunity to be the main bread winners in their families, thus raising their status in their communities. Most women are from farming families and their weaving has become a reliable source of income when crops failed and climate conditions changed,” said Cheesman.
Cheesman currently has three shops throughout Thailand to help the local women sell their goods and earn a living for their families. In addition, Cheesman helps these women work with local designers who come to town to get weaving done for their pieces.
“The weavers had the weaving skills but needed design, management and marketing to bring their beautiful textiles into a wider market,” said Cheesman. “Although my background was in ceramics I was able to guide them in a direction that was sustainable and suitable for their cultural and social heritage. This meant that they could participate in the traditional ceremonies and village events, as well as make a good income from weaving on a piece work basis rather than a salary. Furthermore, they did not need a large capital to be part of the group.”
During our lesson, Cheesman told us she wants to keep the company small, as the women are paid by a piece work wage and not a salary. They’ve even declined working with big name stores such as Neiman Marcus “because it’ll add too much stress and make it too big” she told us. This structure allows the women to choose when they want to work because in the Thai community, the women have to be an active part of the family, go to temple, and help with the village activities. If they don’t, they risk being ostracized from their community.
“Chiang Mai has many different craftspeople and the women are the weavers in Thai tradition. Lack of weaving work in the village was bringing women into the cities, sometimes falling into less desirable circumstances,” says Cheesman. “In order to preserve their traditions not only of weaving, but also of social and cultural activities, I was inspired to create work in the villages.
“At first I started very small and then as things grew organically I decided to open the Studio Naenna Gallery as an outlet for their textiles. I encouraged the weavers to create the Weavers For the Environment group (WFE). The members are aware and responsible towards the environment in dye and material choices that are safe, and dispose of wastes using safe methods,” she added.
The women are paid instantly for their work, whether it’s winding thread, or completing a scarf. They have no investment on their part as the shop provides the materials they need, and they use dyes made from natural dye plants. Cheesman also works with the women so their designs fit the appeal of an overseas market.
At the time of our tour in June 2019, Studio Naenna was working with 20 weavers and embroiders—“about 100 people are relying on the shop to sell these products when you think of the families these women are supporting,” noted Cheesman. She added, “They need us and we need them.”
After learning about the Studio and how it supports the local women, we picked a design for our scarf as Cheesman worked with us to make sure we were wrapping the cloths correctly. Then it was out to the garden where we plunged our white scarves in the indigo dye various times, then hung them to dry as we sipped tea.
“Our goal is for our guests to receive a joyful experience and connect with the rhythm of nature. We hope that guests will have a deeper appreciation of crafts and encourage support of these dying arts,” added Lamorna Cheesman, managing director and Patricia’s daughter who helps her run the Studio.
This scarf we each got to take home will forever be a reminder of the hard work the local women put into their handicraft, and the inspiration and support Cheesman and the Studio provides them.
Studio Naenna offers guests experiences that last a few hours, a half-day, or a full 2-day immersion. Our experience was the 2-3-hour Natural Indigo Tie-Dye Workshop. This experience is priced at $127 for up to two guests, and $320 for a group ranging from three to 20. Commission is not included in the price, but can be added. There is also an Advance Natural Dye Workshop that takes place over two half-day sessions, priced at $383 for up to four guests. And the Full Day Introduction to the Textiles of Thailand and Hands-On Tie Dye Workshop starts at $320 for up to four guests; lunch can be included.
When asked how the travel industry can help support local women during their travels, Larmona says, “The travel industry can better support local women by supporting small businesses and workshops such as Studio Naenna, hiring female guides and asking them to seek out female-owned businesses.”