Spinning threads of passion, weaving dreams with love:
Cotton Farm tells stories through textiles.
It all began for Koong when she was living in Japan and came across a Thai craft product being sold in a Japanese department store at a price that she thought was good value. This and her personal liking for craftwork got her thinking about whether she could make her hobby into a business when she later returned to Thailand. Since then, Koong Premruedee Kulsu, the founder of Cotton Farm, has been working in the textile industry for more than 25 years.
“My business started with trading – buying and selling. After a good while, I fell in love with weaving as I learnt more about it. Eventually, I got the chance to work with local people in a community, and together we founded the “Cotton Farm” brand. We got the name from my favorite book – Cotton Time. I like to use cotton since there is a great diversity of cotton craft products made by local communities. Cotton Farm, which only uses 100 percent natural fiber in its handwoven textiles, is then a kind of hub for cotton products from different sources,” Koong said.
Steadying the Warp
Koong said she started out by sourcing textiles from local communities and reselling them, but then she began to want to design her own. There were significant communication issues, and weavers were reluctant to try new things they were not used to. So Koong decided to learn to weave herself to better understand the whole process and communicate with the weavers.
“The understanding of a community and its weaving artisans is a vital factor in work. With the right chemistry, work just flows right out. After completing a design, a family sets up the warp threads and together they calculate the design of the motifs. In the north, the motif or pattern isn’t usually too complicated and mostly focuses on changing weft threads. We focus mainly on raw material and fiber selection and then color and color matching. After that, the work is passed to other artisans who check out final procedures to create the design before production begins,” said Koong.
Cotton Farm does not exclusively use cotton, but also works with hemp, rayon, and Tencel, which are derived from natural materials mainly grown in Chiang Mai and Lamphun in northern Thailand. Preparing cotton before weaving takes on average two weeks and weaving roughly another month to get an 80-meter roll of fabric. Cotton Farm’s patterns and motifs are not typically Lanna or northern Thai in style, but they yet remain neatly infused with the local traditions of each community.
“Our small shoulder bag designed together with the Karen community in Lamphun is full of motifs and colors optimized to match market demand, while at the same time maintaining the creative process involving local knowledge. This helps working artisans to be happy and more creative, which in turn generates more motifs and patterns. Through fine craftmanship and use of top-quality material in contemporary new designs that have appealing functionality, our products thrive in the international marketplace,” she said.
Challenging the Weft
In the past, once communication with local artisan communities has been well established, Cotton Farm has connected craftwork admirers to artisan weavers in their communities, greatly increasing the appreciation of the value of their craftwork.
“We must create greater understanding among consumers so that they value craftwork and craftmanship more highly. We aren’t just about turning cotton fabric into products to sell. In our first 10 years, we focused solely on contract manufacturing in a business sense. But when we started working with local communities, we discovered that when an artisan weaver died, there would be no one in their family who could take over the craft. All the young had gone off to work in factories and did not realize that traditional skills could help them make good money. When we saw how serious this issue was, we decided to change Cotton Farm into a conservation-led business that could help pass on these crafts to younger generations. This was an even bigger challenge than marketing,” Koong said.
Stories Between the Threads
Workflow is of two kinds. Design-oriented production begins with design of the product followed by choice of material and fabric needed to make it, while textile-oriented production involves designing products using existing textiles to hand. Cotton Farm offers several collections annually balancing stock inventory and raw materials issues.
With a smile of pride, Koong said she initially designed products by herself, which she says tended to have a more mature style, but a conversation with her daughter revealed the reason why handwoven fabrics did not seem very popular with the younger generation.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t like the feel of such comfortable fabrics; we just didn’t like any of the designs,” her daughter said. So Koong introduced her to artisan communities so that they could work together to design and produce more trendy collections for younger customers.
Cotton Farm has recently taken their handwoven cotton textiles to the international market after being chosen as one of seven businesses participating in the ‘Taproot Thai Textile’ project hosted by the Ministry of Culture. This allows entrepreneurs to work with famous designers like WISHARAWISH, which in Cotton Farm’s case led to their craftworks being introduced to a much wider audience on runways at Tokyo Fashion Week.
All Cotton Farm products are produced in environmentally friendly processes following a zero-waste policy. Fabric scraps from big to small are all used, whether to make larger bags or smaller items like coasters and keychains. This helps create more product diversity and potential interest in Cotton Farm’s products.
In the past, Cotton Farm ran a roadshow in domestic and international trade events to meet mainly international customers, especially those from Japan and the UK. Their products are both exported and sold in local outlets to Thai customers and tourists.
Motifs of Change
“During COVID 19 everyone was badly impacted, but luckily some clients were kind enough to give us work and hold online meetings with us to resolve design issues. We began using more online channels and adjusted our marketing activities via social media. We participated in discussions on online platforms to sell both our craftworks and handicrafts from different sources to sell and market together. We also revived plans and ideas that we had considered before but had not had time to execute, particularly on using new fibers and raw materials to create different products. Among many, we experimented with fibers of galangal, lemongrass and pandan leaves using a simple local process of sun drying before weaving them together with cotton. These rendered fabrics with new textures and feel that we incorporated into decorative products. These have since become quite popular.”
Koong added that Cotton Farm plans to add more product lines for kids items that use organic cotton, which she thinks will appeal to parents concerned with quality and safety.
Cotton Farm’s shop is on Thaphae Road, a longstanding commercial street leading to Chiang Mai’s old city. This shop frequently holds workshops cooperating with Sa’lahmade, formerly known as Handmade Chiang Mai. The project aims to increase value for local entrepreneurs by showcasing crafting processes, offering additional experience beyond sales to potential customers.
Koong said: “Travelling abroad and being able to attend workshops felt great to me, and we thought international visitors might want a similar experience here. Accordingly, we offer 1, 3 and 7–day to one month-long workshops in tie-dyeing, natural dyeing and traditional weaving, potentially taking customers to the point where they can acquire sufficient skills to continue by themselves. On longer courses, the students go to study and practice with local communities and learn their folkways. Holding these workshops helps us communicate directly with customers while helping them understand the processes and the value of traditional community knowledge. Aside from the financial gain, the benefit of gaining greater public attention is invaluable.”
“Our workshop participants are mostly international visitors, who often ask to go on ‘textile tours’ once they grasp the value of our crafts. This was pretty much how I felt when I was abroad, though I think it may have less appeal for Thais. I now understand that craftwork business and traditional local wisdom must walk hand in hand, since one cannot exist without the other. We have to preserve local know-how, but traditional or contemporary products must also answer to the needs of modern lifestyles.”
Weaving with Local Wisdom
“Some consider craftwork merely as manual labor, but I think it comes from the soul, from the heart, from being determined to maintain the accumulated wisdom passed down to us. To me, this is like a genuine treasure waiting to be harnessed and infused with creativity. Craftwork is rooted in culture and quintessentially defines identity. Some craftworks will arouse feelings or bring back old memories one cannot get from an industrially manufactured item, particularly a textile. Motifs from places like ours and from countries like Bhutan, Laos and Cambodia represent national identities and come with their own histories.”
Conservation and the preservation of local wisdom are Koong’s main aims. She wants to enhance accessibility to artisans and their communities and is studying the potential to train new generations of artisans to inherit local skills, whether the apprentices are local youths from the communities or others who are strongly interested in the value of craftwork. She hopes to pair creative young people who lack weaving skills with artisans, who lack knowledge in design and marketing, thereby matching traditional knowledge with youthful creativity in her efforts to keep craftmanship alive and realize the potential of local traditions. She hopes that private enterprises like Cotton Farm, educational establishments, public organizations and communities will increasingly cooperate with each other to support and developing this diminishing heritage and reinvigorate it with creativity once more.
“The more craftworks are used in everyday life, the more relevant to contemporary life craftwork will be, and the longer craftmanship and craftwork will continue to exist.”