After several years in Southeast Asia, I’ve seen thousands of examples of traditional Northern Thai Tribal clothing and accessories. In every market on any given night, you can find dozens of vendors all hawking what seems to be the same items from the same factory that is likely not at all local.
All while billing it as local handmade traditional Thai tribal crafts in the many local hill tribe styles. Everything from the ubiquitous over the shoulder bags, to the colorful, flowing patterned pants worn by just about everyone who ever visits the region, you can’t help but see it everywhere here.
By the time you’re halfway through any local night bazaar, you will have seen the same garments for sale half a dozen times all by vendors touting them as handmade and local. And you’ll see throngs of tourists buying it up either to wear and feel like a local, or to bring back as gifts to represent their exotic Thailand vacation.
They may look “local” and traditional, but it doesn’t take long to find that there are a lot of low-quality products that likely came off a factory floor in another country to be sold here at local markets to unwitting tourists.
Even after living here several years, it is tough to find high quality, genuinely hand-crafted local crafts and clothing. It’s so difficult that I tend to groan when a visiting friend wants to explore the famous local night markets while on their short trip through Chiang Mai.
Initially I was tricked into visiting Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade for an event by a local fair trade coffee company. Once there, I decided to walk through the showroom and see what this large store had to offer, and was very pleasantly surprised.
The quality of the products here is immediately noticeable. While it’s difficult to show you in writing the differences between the products here and the usual stuff you find on the streets, it’s instantly clear when you visit, and can actually hold the products in your hands.
Everything from the feel and obvious quality of the garments and bags, to the vibrancy of the dyes used in these always-colorful crafts. Just walking into the showroom is like the world suddenly cranked up the saturation. All the vibrant colors!
As an example, the bags I looked at are clearly more durable than the usual stuff. I didn’t try, but I doubt I could tear the material on even a thin area. The cloth is clearly a higher grade than the t-shirt thin stuff they use for the mass-produced bags. On those, you can see light through the material and they do rip easily.
There is more to the quality of these products than just pretty patterns. They are made to last in the rough world of the Northern Thai mountains in addition to being so pretty.
The variety of products is also what stood out to me. From the nicest hammocks I’ve seen yet, traditional style clothing and bags of various sizes, to the things I typically don’t see at all the markets. Things like travel bags, packs, passport holders, and money belts.
Talking with some of the staff there, I learned that they often commission designs from overseas designers who want their product made a certain way, just in the traditional construction and color schemes. It serves not only to make unique designs for smaller designers overseas, but still provides the extra work for the Tribes of Northern Thailand.
And that is ultimately the main goal of Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade. To give the tribal people a way of earning a fair and decent living while also maintaining their traditional way of life. Their mission since 1973 is to provide a way for the tribal people to maintain their traditions while increasing their household income in a sustainable way, and keeping them out of the factory workplaces where much of the mass-produced stuff gets churned out.
Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade provides top-quality, environmentally responsible goods made by actual villagers from several tribes in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
You can easily find them from the maps on their website: the main showroom is just East of the Ping river in Chiang Mai, and they have a second location near Thapae Gate on the East side of the moat.
They work with several shops and cooperative partners which you can also find on their website.