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Improving sustainability and profitability in Thai textiles

An international research project identifying how locally sourced, sustainable raw materials can be more effectively and profitably utilised in Thai rural craft weaving has received a second portion of funding from the Royal College of Art’s quality-related (QR) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) development fund.

Led by RCA Reader in Material Culture Dr Peter Oakley, the Thai Textiles Project is an international collaboration between the RCA and Thammasat University, Thailand. As principal investigator Dr Oakley is working with Thai academics, including co-investigator Dr Wuthigrai Siriphon, who has a PhD and an MA in Textiles from the RCA.

Thai craft weaver at a loom
Thai craft weaver
Photographer: Dr Peter Oakley
Dr Oakley commented: ‘Weaving is an important activity in many parts of rural Thailand. As well as providing one of the few secure employment opportunities for many local women it is also a fundamental part of their community’s heritage. This project is a chance to reconnect rural craft weaving with local agricultural production, helping Thai weavers and farmers to develop more environmentally sustainable, as well as economically viable, practices and products.’

‘This funding will enable us to create a new material resource, consisting of woven samples of locally sourced, organic yarns that have been farmed and processed in Thailand and dyed using natural materials from the region. As well as being used in future development workshops with Thai rural craft weavers, the samples will become a teaching resource for Textile students at Thammasat University. A duplicate collection will be housed in the Colour Reference Library Collection at the RCA, enabling our students to also directly benefit from the research.’

So far, the research project has provided the opportunity to make new academic and professional contacts, for Dr Oakley to visit field sites and textile collections in Thailand and for Dr Siriphon to visit specialist museum holdings in the UK.

Discussing the Thai Textiles research project Dr Siriphon commented: ‘As co-investigator I am leading the research activities in Thailand, including collecting the materials for weaving and dyeing, dyeing the yarn, preparing yarns and looms, producing samples and analysing the results. Craft is a crucial part of the social, cultural and economic life of people all over the world, including my country. Looking at the ways to push the craft forward with sustainable design can offer a viable way to create responsible practices, which will be useful for a wide range of practitioners.’

A Thai weaver sits at a loom
Thai Master Weaver
Photographer: Dr Peter Oakley

Dr Oakley is a specialist in material culture, with a specific interest in making and manufacturing, including ethical material sourcing initiatives and contemporary uses of traditional craft techniques. His recent research projects include Industrial Heritage in Shanghai (2019) – a pilot study exploring the re-purposing of industrial buildings for cultural institutions in Shanghai and Jingdezhen, and Art Fair Innovations (2019) – an Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project that identified opportunities and unpacked issues relating to the delivery of Shanghai’s West Bund Art & Design Fair.

Dr Siriphon’s research at the RCA, supervised by Dr Oakley, proposed a framework for collaboration between Thai designers and Thai hand weavers in order to preserve local knowledge in traditional textiles production. He has also received funding from the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, organised by the British Museum, to conduct research into wooden reed making (an important part of traditional looms) in the same local area where he carried out his PhD fieldwork.