Olivia Liu Most of us in Chiang Mai must have driven by this sophisticated little store so many times and yet probably never noticed it. Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade has been standing there on the side of the road and quietly doing amazing work for half a century; and now, on February 11th, 2023, it welcomes its 50th birthday after the long-lasting efforts put in by three generations, holding on to the organisation’s original aspirations without a break during challenges and difficult times.
Founded in 1973 by a group of American missionaries, Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade’s priority has been to raise awareness about tribal cultures over making sales; and their mission has been and will always be to offer job opportunities for tribal families and to pass on northern-Thai tribal heritage and culture to the world’s younger generations. Compared to 30 to 40 years ago when tribal communities weren’t even allowed to travel, the situation has improved a lot and yet, there’s still a lot of space for improvement solely because there isn’t enough awareness or education in today’s society for the importance of keeping tribal cultures alive. In order to change that situation for the better, Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade is the beginning of a long path, where new ideas bloom everyday, coming from connecting with future generations who will carry and continue tribal cultures. (For more details on the mission and support: https://www.ttcrafts.co.th/support.html)
Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade started small, only with Karen and Lahu tribes at first when the American missionaries sought markets for tribal women who were skillful in handicrafts and also in need of financial assistance for their families; with the lack of a domestic market in northern Thailand, the tribal crafts were exported to overseas, and that’s when the organisation started to grow and later involved more and more tribes, now 50 years later, the organisation has helped and connected over 800 artists from more than 50 villages with overseas and domestic markets for their exquisite craft products. (For more details on the background and history: https://ttcrafts.co.th/ttc_story.html)
However, what is a fair trade? According to Elias Maung, the managing director of Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade, a fair trade is a trading partnership that collaborates and create long-term trading partnerships between the producers and buyers, based on mutual understanding, transparency and respect; and create sustainable economic growth especially for economically disadvantaged producers. Thus, here at Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade, the tribes and small community artisans are directly involved in the trading process and financially benefit from their own products to the maximum.
Same as almost every other small businesses and organizations, Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade went through an extremely difficult time during Covid. To survive in the first year, the employees took voluntary leaves few days per month in order to reduce the expenses and start making face masks which they never made before and promoted them online in order to increase income, at least enough to cover the costs. The people in Chiang Mai and other parts of Thailand showed a lot of support at that time by purchasing batches of face masks to give out in their neighborhoods. In the second year though, a shortage of funds almost brought the whole place down since the organisation mainly relied on tourists; some overseas Fair Trade companies who had been partners with Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade had placed early orders to help the organisation survive, which now has led to unsold stocks of products that are preventing further purchases. All that being said, even if the chapter of Covid has now officially closed, the impacts will last longer still, especially for non-profit organizations such as Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade itself.
After five decades of developing, Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade is now more connected and open to the public than ever. There have been collaborations with university students from Japan and the Philippines in the past few years, who helped the organisation create new design ideas and brought technology into the spreading of tribal cultures. There are also the one-and-only authentic weaving lessons available in town at the fair trade center, where hill tribe master weavers teach basic to advanced weaving techniques to customers from 9am to 12pm, and from 1pm to 4pm with appointments only; the price of a 3-hour weaving lesson is 1,200 baht per person, and customers get to bring home the women fabric they make during the class as a tangible memory their experience. Furthermore, Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade also offers Fair Trade Tour – Meet the Makers program, where customers get to go to the villages they work with and closely feel the edification of handicraft art and tribal cultures; the tour is only organized by requests, starting from 6,000 bath for two people, all activities, transportation, and lunch included.
Moreover, on the 50th anniversary on February 11th, there will be a celebration and a fundraiser in the morning, 50 to 100 guests will be expected (sign-ups only). All products will be 10% off on the day and it will be open house in the afternoon. A limited edition of tote bags (size S-250 baht, size L-350 baht) are for sale only for the anniversary, free domestic delivery and overseas delivery available too. You can make any amount of donations to support the organisation and tribal communities as well, and the funds will be used directly for product development and artisan training for village weavers and sewist communities in Chiang Mai.
Don’t miss the chance to be part of the history, the future and survival of tribal cultures depend on and are written by each and every one of us.
Anniversary day schedule:
For more information:
Weaving Class: https://www.facebook.com/HillTribeWeaving