From Family Business to Variety Handmade Wicker Ware
Bringing modernity to her family’s well-established business in Ban Tawai, Chiang Mai, was Pisuttinee “Som” Sa-gnuanrak main goal. The result was that she created Wicker Thailand, a brand specializing in woven bags and home decorations handmade from natural materials by local people.
“Originally, my parents made furniture combining wood and rattan, as well as different kinds of woven baskets and rattan ware,” said Som. We were based in Ban Tawai, where I grew up surrounded by handmade products, so it all seemed familiar and rather mundane to me when I was a child. I wasn’t much interested in it until I traveled to other countries and began to see how foreigners saw value in handmade products. I began to understand how precious our heritage of hand crafting was. I realized that what I had taken for granted was something important to maintain. I wanted foreigners to know more about it.”
“Foreigners can easily understand that a company with a name like Wicker Thailand makes rattan or woven products that come from Thailand. As a girl, I used to play with baskets, and, since I like woven clothes, it was only natural that our first products would be woven bags with modern designs. After three years of making such products, Wicker Thailand gradually took over from my parents’ original business, which eventually disappeared. Wicker Thailand is now its 7th year in business.”
“Woven bags are Wicker Thailand’s main product. We offer them in variety of designs, forms, sizes and materials. We make them from the fibers of bulrush, water hyacinth, banana tree or rattan. Bulrush is abundant in the south of Thailand, water hyacinth in the center and the north, while banana trees grow well in the center and the east. Fibers from each plant are different in terms of color and characteristics, and the parts used for weaving come in different shapes; fibers from water hyacinth form round strips while bulrush fiber comes in thin bands. We use rattan for home decoration products such as lamps, baskets, plant pots, trash disposers, placemats — that kind of thing.”
“I seek out the people who can make these products myself, though some of them used to work for the old family business. Most live in the North, in Chiang Mai or Phayao, but some live in the South. They are usually members of communities that already make similar products, so we collaborate with them to develop new ones, or sometimes we just adapt the designs of things they are already making. One change we have made to improve product durability is to use ovens to dry materials instead of putting them out in the sun as before. Our products are made of natural materials, so we must control humidity very carefully. If the sun is too strong the material can become brittle. We regularly dry products kept in our store in the ovens, but we recommend customers only avoid keeping them in humid places and occasionally put them out in the sun. When kept continuously in dry places, our products are good for 10-20 years. How long a piece will last depends on how it is used and maintained,” said Som.
“The whole manufacturing process takes 1–2 weeks and begins with villagers drying the plants and making strips, pressing some into thin bands of fiber, taring others into strips. When the weaving is complete, the products are dried and given an antifungal coating before we decorate them. Drying the products in ovens saves a lot of time, especially in the rainy season, or when the weather is unpredictable.”
“Most of our customers are wholesalers who export in large quantities. Our products include both traditional products made by the villagers, those we make to order, and products of our own design that use different colors and details like handmade cotton tassels, which are part of Wicker Thailand’s signature style, and embroidery with raffia.”
Adapting to grow
“The Covid-19 pandemic was a great blow. We had to close the Ban Tawai shop, leaving only one branch open at the Chum Cha Creative Compound at the Craft Fair in San Kamphaeng. Before Covid-19, the Ban Tawai shop dealt solely with the wholesale business, which mainly exported to Europe or the US. For retail business, we set up stores at craft fairs and now we sell online. 70 percent of our customers are foreigners, who mainly contact us online, whether through the website, Facebook, Instagram or craft market platforms such as Etsy and Pinkoi. Like everyone else, we have been facing problems due to increased fuel prices worldwide,” said Som.
“Covid-19 has affected people around the world. Our wholesale customers cannot sell because many of their customers have had to close. Naturally our sales are down too. So now we are focusing on getting more Thai customers. But, with fewer orders coming in, we do have more time to tackle online market and advertise. Though we still have some customers visiting our shop in person, we used to have many more Chinese and Korean customers before travel from their countries became restricted.”
Som says Wicker Thailand will continue to develop new products using natural materials such as the fibers from banana and papyrus trees. We will weave more home decoration products in the brand’s style and focus even more on online marketing.”
The charm of crafts
“Every piece we make at Wicker Thailand’s is unique. Though we have the technology to mass produce, using it would ruin the appeal of handicraft production in which no two products are ever exactly the same.”
“There is a problem preserving these craft skills, however,” said Som. “This is not just in the North. Most skilled crafts people are old, so I would really like to see younger people become more engaged in learning these skills. One reason we use the name “Wicker Thailand” is because we only use materials found in the country and only market products made by Thai artisans, but I wonder how much longer we can keep doing it”
“The skills are important. Not everyone can weave, and not every weaver can achieve a high level of skill. Even the same two products woven by the same weaver will differ in the details. This is what makes handicrafts special. Customers aren’t just buying a product, they are buying something unique, and they are helping keep a tradition alive.”