A Finnish touch on Thai handicraft

But a Finnish woman has been lucky enough achieving just that, designer Marianne Javinen working at the Doi Tung Delepment Project in Chiang Rai. Regrettably though she however never got to meet the Princess Mother (the present Thai King’s mother), who started this noteworthy project, even though Marianne was so close to actually seeing Her Royal Highness, while visiting the area for the first time, when the birthday celebration was about to place back in 1994. But of course the present Thai royalties have visited several times since then, sometimes staying in the Royal Villa that the Princess Mother built up on the mountain.
     With 24 years in Thailand working in refugee camps, for the Finnish missionary church, on various handicraft projects, and since more than 10 years on the royal initiative Doi Tung, naturally Marianne has a lot of experience and many stories to tell.
     However we focus on her achievement, as a foreigner in Thailand, in becoming the person in charge of developing the whole handicraft part and staying on the project and gaining such success and ever-increasing attention both locally and abroad.
     Sometimes when she gets some visitors from Scandinavia, they express great surprise: “From Finland? How come you are here?” they say and turn even more surprised when they learn it is a royal project.
     “Even Thais wonder how I got into this,” says Marianne. “It has been an interesting opportunity in the perspective of lots of different visitors coming here; state visits, ministerial visits and delegations from international organizations.”
     As a Finnish person working on handicraft projects within the country she probably was not that hard to find for the directors of the project.
     “Because of my background and my handicraft work in Thailand for a number of years, they thought I would be able to do something with the handicraft. So we started with just these ten ladies, weaving and sewing.”
     From then onwards the project has developed into a handicraft industry with big scale capacity for dying, producing on its maximum capacity – and now about to expand the facilities – employing hundreds and feeding 1,625 persons, including hill tribe people like Lahu, Akha, Thai Yai and others.
     In this northernmost part of the country where the local drinking water brand is called Yellow surprise, opium that used to be the common crop, is now substituted with other produce like Macadamia nuts, coffee, vegetables, flowers and decorative plants. Doi Tung is fairly known for its own coffee brand, but most people probably know where it is if they are told it is part of the Golden Triangle.
     The visit by the royal mother from the sky – “Mae Fah Luang” – back in 1987 changed everything. The people gave the Princess Mother this title since she used to arrive by helicopter to the remote villages in the mountain area, “…like the descent of a divine mother who has been sent from the heavens to ease their troubles.”
     Her Royal Highness decided to reforest the Doi Tung mountain and to build a villa there where she would settle down one day, so then the project was commenced and the Mae Fah Luang Foundation was appointed to run it, with the intention of improving the quality of life for people living on the mountain.
     The result so far is quite impressive with the mountain sides again covered with trees, the Mae Fah Luang Garden, an Arboretum, nursery gardens, agriculture – and then the handicraft centre.
     Marianne came on for phase two of the project that aimed at improving people’s livelihood and increasing the per capita income to a minimum of 30,000 baht in accordance with the royal strategy of “helping them to help themselves”, as well as developing tourism and products that should be internationally competitive.
     “In the beginning I was working with everything. We had some Thai supervisors; we were selecting the materials and training the ladies to weave the different techniques and so on. It was very busy,” she remembers.
     Gradually two sections developed, interior products and fabrics for garments, where traditional use of material, like reed for carpets, have been developed within the design of interior products such as place mats and window blinds. Other raw materials are jute, Thai silk and cotton. Lately also lycra material has been introduced by the young fashion designer Lawana Poopoksakul.
     “In the beginning we brought the hill tribe style into the fabrics, and then matched it with some more unique colour fabrics. Now we are going back to that, but maybe not so strongly ethnic by trying to adapt it to western style,” says Marianne who does not really see any special character to their designs.
     “It does not have the definite hill tribe style, because we use different types of colours and matching.”
     Last year Mae Fah Luang introduced their first ready-to-wear fashion collection and Marianne thinks it has changed tremendously.
     “We were very small from the start so we could not produce the materials and did not have all raw materials and the techniques and the dying, all together the quality was not high enough for this type of products. With the new designers and the colours and patterns, it has changed a lot.”
     From plain, simple Finnish style with even strict colours the designs are since recently including more colourful patterns that also targets younger age groups among the Thais. However the Finnish influence stays on with Marianne.
     “I think there is quite a lot,” Marianne continues laughing. “Sometimes our director says, ‘It looks Finnish. It looks too Scandinavian’. But of course, I think that comes with the designer’s background that it is something in you. Now that we have Thai designers also, it seems to be that their designs are more colourful, mixing with many colours. I prefer to have more of the unique colours, plainer and so on.”
     At the Bangkok International Gift and Houseware Fair in early November, Marianne could present some result of her latest work in line with her own style, and also a piece of design from her latest Finnish student trainee, Erja-Riitta Alander, from Sienäjoki Polytechnic.
     Do you think the Mae Fah Luang fashion collections could be popular in Scandinavia?
     “Yes and no. I do not think in Finland, some would, some not, I think they are too colourful. The Finnish designers go to the big shows in Europe and then they adapt the style a lot to fit into the local taste, which is quite simple.”
     So far no fashion garments have been exported and the project would need to standardize quite a lot, according to Marianne, and label the fabrics to have the compositions of the raw materials.
     The demand has been increasing during the last three to four years and they can not really produce more without expanding the buildings.
     Everything is hand-made and it should be the kind of sophisticated hand-made, explains Marianne, so that people can see and understand the price-difference. She believes their director wants to stick to it because of the Doi Tung Project’s main purpose.
     “The UN people asked us the other day, whether we are going into the semi-automatic or something like that. Then the reply would probably be ‘not’, because that would mean we would need less people to work and the purpose is to give work for the people. As long as we can sell the hand woven products it will stay like this.”
     For Marianne her work still seems to inspire her and she gives no indication of any plans moving back to Finland or going forward to anything else.
     “It has been, at least for me because I started this, interesting and challenging to work here. The variety and freedom to try out and so on, I don’t think many companies give so much freedom to use one’s ability.”
     “I personally would like to do some more of decorative textiles, some unique pieces or something like that, because now that we have two more product designers, they have some knowledge of the weaving and are probably keen to try their ideas or something like that. I would like to spend more time doing more of the few pieces aside, wall and floor rugs, by using specific techniques. We have done some and sell them usually quite quickly.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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