Friday, August 10, 2012

Trip Report, Part 19: The Grass Weaving Workshop

Woven mats await trimming and finishing in a small local plant outside of Chantaburi

[This is part 19 of a series that may or may not ever find its way to a proper conclusion. It has to do with my latest trip to Thailand, and the people, places and things I encountered along the way. You can find the rest of the series by clicking here on Trip Reports.]

You've probably seen items made from different reeds and grasses in import stores in your home country - Cost Plus and Pier 1 Imports are big here on the West Coast of the USA - and you probably even have examples of some woven items in your own home.

A finished set of place mats and coasters that many might buy to bring home on a first or second visit. 

The grass as it looks while alive
We're not talking wicker or woven bamboo here, although naturally the idea is the same; the materials used in these are finer in size and texture, and tend to be much more pliable.

Something along the lines of a grass or reed, if you will, and not wood-like like grape vine, wicker or, again, bamboo. Heavier baskets are made throughout Asia, of course, and are quite common in Thailand, too; baskets for carrying heavier items, such as produce, crops and the likes, but what we're talking about today are made from reeds or grasses.

While my friend called them "kog" (in a short, low tone, sounding almost like "gog") the closest I can find for them after doing some research is that they're a part of the wide Cyperaceae family of grasses, which includes sedge. Being bog plants they're a natural for the wetlands that also grow rice, the staple of both the Thai diet and economy. It's a self-seeding weed, actually, and about as easy to grow as one could ask for.

Drying rods at the small plant we visited near Chantaburi

My private showroom: I was
the sole customer that day
There are areas in the Southern part of Thailand where almost every family has a field of it growing, and casual cooperatives aren't uncommon; dried grasses brought in to one central location to be turned into souvenirs and more commonly used mats and items for local use. Not just for local Asian use, either: a couple of weeks ago I saw rolled up beach mats of a similar reed being carried to the beaches of Hawaii by people going to roast themselves in the sun, but that's off topic, slightly.

When we were in Chantaburi it wasn't anywhere near harvest season for the raw materials, and I was sort of sorry it wasn't. My friend said that when it is, folks dye the dried bundles of grass and hang them along their fences to dry, making a ride through the area a rather colorful sight.

When I mentioned how "You wouldn't dare do that back home," my friend (who has studied a few years here in the USA) agreed they might disappear in the night in some parts of my homeland. "Here it's your neighbors, friends and many times family doing the same thing," he said, "it's rare to hear of stealing." "Same-same, but different!" I joked, and he again agreed.

Dried, bundled and ready to be woven

He stopped to ask a girl on a bicycle where we might find a place that was actively in operation at this time of year, and she directed us to a small factory where we were able to see a bit of how the things were made. There was only one family there, rolling and wrapping floor mats in plastic wrap at a leisurely pace, but it was too nice a day to rush, I suppose. Might have taken all the sanuk out of it.

There were four people we saw there that day: a father, mother and their small son, and who I figured was the grandmother.  While the grandmother sat in the small shop selling purses, place mat sets, tissue box holders, sandals, floor mats and the likes, the other three were rolling floor mats up, tying them up and wrapping them with plastic film, sealing them with tape into items ready to ship for sale.

Seeing a couple of items I hadn't seen a thousand times before I bought a couple of things inside the shop, along with the table setting set you saw earlier in today's post.  A friend had asked specifically for a set in green, and what better place to buy it for them than right at the source?

The cost there vs here is astounding, of course. Should memory serve the set pictured above was less than five dollars.  Here in the USA they go from a wholesale of $7-$10 per set (if you want to buy 100 sets), up to around $25 per set.  Maybe next time I should use my extended suitcase allowance to bring back 50 sets or so and sell them on Amazon.  Oh, wait... that's most likely already been done!

Hopefully today's post will create a bit of an itch to get out of the city on your first (or next) trip to Thailand.  Ask a Thai friend - old or new - to help you out, or, better yet, accompany you and strike out into the countryside. There's so much to see, and most visitors miss it.

Everyone helps when the family is working


Justin Meyers said...

Beautiful work...I see some of this for sale in BKK, will have to make a trip South sometime and check it out at the source....

khunbaobao said...

Thank you for stopping by, Justin. It's honest work, and some time I'd like to see it in full swing - things were nearly at a stand-still the day we were there.