Highland crafts for a sustainable community
Doi Tung is a social enterprise operated by the Doi Tung Royal Development Project. Its goal is to be a business changing the world for the better by bridging the social gap between upland and lowland communities, lessening harmful environmental impacts and fostering responsibility and concern in young leaders for long-term collective benefits.
The true product of Doi Tung is none other than a better quality of life for people in the community, whether it be through better access to necessities, quality education, dignity of labor or well-being and happiness.
Doi Tung products are divided into five subcategories: coffee and macadamia nuts, handicrafts, Doi Tung Café, tourism and agriculture.
Lifestyle for Livelihood
“Doi Tung has been opeating for 15 years with the purpose of helping highland people and communities produce and distribute their own handicraft products under the Doi Tung brand,” said Pheera Tanthian, Executive Assistant to the CEO of Mae Fah Luang Foundation under royal patronage.
“The production of handicrafts started with the goal to eliminate opium cultivation. Under the ‘lifestyle for livelihood’ concept and the mission to create job opportunities and better sources of income than opium growing, the first products of the brand were woven fabrics. We had already promoted the cultivation of macadamia and coffee among villagers and had noticed that female villagers wove and made cloth. We then set up a weaving factory for them to develop their skills and revive local wisdom while weaving cloth to sell. We invited experts from several countries to teach them about design and improving weaving techniques. We changed out the small looms to larger ones that allowed weaving of wider fabrics. They were taught about costume patterns and woven patterns and learned computer-aided textile design, and we extended the product line to include ready-made clothing. Other handicraft products include rice paper products, ceramics and woven tufted carpets. Doi Tung hand crafts are lifestyle products that are designed to be both functional and decorative.”
Most of Doi Tung’s clients are passionate about handmade products. In the past, customers who purchased handicrafts were mostly middle-aged, but these days Doi Tung products are trendier and priced to appeal to a wider age group.
“When we started to develop the brand, one of the challenges we faced was to change people’s mindsets and attitudes. In the past, the Mae Fah Luang area used to be involved in arms trading, and villagers earned their living from opium cultivation. We had to convince people to turn to reforestation and plant macadamia and coffee. As for weaving and working with fabrics, these crafts must be of high quality, which takes time.”
Contemporaneity with authenticity
Combining contemporary design and Doi Tung’s DNA
Textile designer Choke Supachoke Ketpanich of Doi Tung’s design team said he has worked with the brand for 6 years, starting as an on-the-job trainee while a student in the Textile Design Program, Faculty of Industrial Design, Khon Kaen University.
“I was so excited when I first came here,” said Choke. “Doi Tung had an amazing number of designs and products as well as diverse materials to work with. Working here has been eye-opening. It’s like being in a treasure trove for designers. I’ve been involved with every step of production from threading warps, heddles and the reed to weaving itself. I worked like a full-time staff member learning the actual processes. After graduation, I got a job at Doi Tung in the department making household items. I started as an assistant, selecting materials and matching colors. I gradually absorbed the working methods of Doi Tung, which are meticulous, and community based.”
Talking about the linkage between design and Doi Tung’s handicraft products, Choke said: “The essence of Doi Tung has been reflected in our brand and products. Our woven textiles are refined and intricate products since fineness is part of Doi Tung’s DNA. In earlier stages, most of our products related to the stories of the ethnic groups who created them, but we have since expanded our interpretation. We are inclined to see things from other points of view and blend more technology into the production process of our handicrafts. Our products have become more modern, but the look and feel of “Doi-Tung” is still instantly recognizable. Cotton bags still function as cotton bags, but now they are trendier. Young people want to use them as they are easy to mix and match.”
Pheera explained how the direction of Doi Tung handcrafts is more environmentally tuned, saying that they have adopted the idea of the circular economy by repurposing used materials until they can no longer be exploited, citing the use of plastic fibers to weave fabric as an example.
“The used coffee cups from our cafe are recycled to make A4 paper, or they are mixed with tissue paper for packaging. We used to make our rice (Saa) paper from pure plant tissue, but now we use a mix of cardboard and office paper as raw material. Doi Tung has a good waste management system. We don’t use a single landfill as we can handle all kinds of waste using our own garbage separation center,” said Pheera.
Doi Tung launches two collections a year: the Spring-Summer collection in April and the Autumn-Winter one in October. Other collections for target markets like Gen Z, new graduates and young professionals are launched in intervals between as part of its marketing strategy to attract the young adult segment using an affordable pricing strategy.
“Doi Tung also collaborates with other brands,” said Pheera “We have produced items for other brands like Ikea, and we have also collaborated with shoe brands like Onitsuka, Tiger and Converse. This collaboration became a phenomenon and products sold out very quickly. We have also started the Doi Tung & Friends project. We believe that collaboration with other brands allows us to share and exchange knowledge and will start another collaboration project soon. Doi Tung’s products have received internationally acclaim for our creative designs, garnering many awards such as the PM Award, Gmark and Dmark.”
Growing with the community
Using their community-based approach, Pheera said that more than 70 percent of Doi Tung’s staff comes from local villages in the area. The woven patterns of Doi Tung handcrafts are based on the traditional patterns of six ethnic groups, each ethic group expressing itself in Doi Tung products. Production is distributed to the villages nearby and, where necessary, training is given to villagers either onsite or as outreach programs. This helps assure quality and the ability to assess levels of skill so that the right tasks are assigned to the right people.
“Constant training gradually changes patterns of work. Villagers feel more confident handling change. We adjust both villagers’ mindsets and our marketing strategies. Doi Tung doesn’t target the mass market. We want customers who understand the concept of hand crafting, who appreciate its intricacy and recognize the value of our products,” said Pheera
“A craft” must be more than a body of knowledge passed down the generations that helps local people make practical things by hand. To move craftwork forward requires more than preserving it; it requires making it contemporary.”
“A craft must be about ideas and concepts as well as making things by hand. We need to look for innovation that can be derived from our local wisdom. It is also about community involvement. I want to see craft communities in the north connect and collaborate with each other to create a movement that creates jobs and sustainable incomes for communities. Collaboration is the key. It is far better than working alone.”