The Story of the Women Weavers of Wat Toongluang
Phrao looks like Eden. Mountains surround a central valley, rich rice fields line a small river and on the low hills between the valley and the mountains orchards stretch for miles and miles. But not everyone enjoys the fruits of Phrao’s cornucopia. Almost a third of the population owns no land or too little to support a family. During the planting season, these people work for wages on other people’s land; during the dry season, life can be very hard.
In 2005, a small group of landless women went to the most important source of hope in Thailand, the local temple, to ask for guidance. What could they do to support their families? At their temple, Wat Toongluang, a monk by the name of Wa-choom heard their plea and suggested that they form a weaving group that would allow them to farm during the rainy season and earn a decent income in the off-season.
At the first meeting of the group, more than forty women showed up; only seven stuck it out for the three month training period. Those seven are the core of Women Weavers of Wat Toongluang, now twenty two strong. In the beginning, the women made an average 23 baht per day, slightly more than $0.50; today they average almost $3 per day – and with the new arrangement with the Microenterprise Project, their earnings should jump in the next year. (In their first quarter with Warm Heart, the Weavers earned an extra $1,000!)
The leader of the Women Weavers of Wat Toongluang is P’Lah, who is now 45 years old. P’Lah taught all of the other women the art of weaving. She is a short, vivacious woman with a ready laugh and an amazing head for business. Ask her the price of a job – what would 50 pieces of this size, this weave and that thread cost? – and in less than five minutes she will look up from her calculator and tell you!
Supporting P’Lah is a wonderful cast of characters who work together in a friendly, kidding way, sharing stories about their kids, discussing politics and whatever. P’Dow is the landless mother of two who has been weaving for nine years to supplement her income from her small liquor store, Lao Whiskey. P’Pra Pa, 47, supported herself and her paralyzed husband entirely on her earnings from weaving. Her husband died in 2008 and the comradeship at the workshop has been a big help. Then there is Pa Neeam whose husband drives the Phrao-Chiang Mai-Phrao bus and the landless Pah Pat who lives on her earnings from Wat Toongluang. We could go on and on. Why not take a moment to meet more of the Women Weavers of Wat Toongluang personally?
What is remarkable is that these women produce beautiful things in the most unprepossessing workshop. To find it, you drive through the tall red and gilt gate of the Wat into its shaded courtyard. To the left is the temple; to the right is a smaller temple covered with gold and mirrors that glitter in the sun and is protected by fierce snake dragons that rear up at the bottom of the steps. Tucked away in a long enclosed porch is the workshop. You duck slightly to enter a cool, dimly lit space that extends forty feet to the left and right. In front of you are old, glass-fronted shelving units packed with bolts of cloth of every color and texture. To the left and right, a narrow walkway runs between two lines of large, wooden hand looms. Sunlight pokes shafts through the gloom to catch on flashes of brilliant color and tangles of thread, and to make shadow play with the loom’s skeletal forms. Dust motes float everywhere. At each loom a woman looks up to smile, and then goes back to the exacting job of weaving. Often there is no sound but the rhythmic clack-clack of the looms.
To learn more about the traditional textiles of northern Thailand and southeast Asia, visit the Warm Heart Bookstore.