We make a point to visit all manufacturers of Levenger products, but for several years, our silk Thai Pad, those traditional Thai silk pillows handmade in Thailand, had been an exception. We always met with our supplier at their offices in Bangkok.
“Oh, they are made so very far away, in the country,” we were told when we asked about visiting the factory. “And there’s really nothing to see. Plus there are no hotels up there.”
But we’re insistent on this matter, for several reasons. First, we want to assure ourselves that the people making products for us and for you are working in safe conditions. Second, we almost always come away with ideas for how to improve our designs, as we understand what their strengths and limitations are. Finally, we want to get a feeling for the human beings, for how they live, for what their neighborhoods are like, their schools and their libraries.
So when my older son, Cal, was embarking on a job interviewing swing through Asia, I asked him to take the time to fly from Bangkok up to the remote area where our Thai pillows are made and let us know what he saw. Below is his report.
The tiny village of Yasothon, Thailand, sits unobtrusively near the Cambodian border. Last May I journeyed there to learn more about the community that provides Levenger with these vibrantly colored silk pillows so many customers have come to love—the Thai Pad.
From the air, Yasothon is barely visible amid endless greenery. The town and its environs seem to be nothing more than a quilt of rice patties and verdant forest. Soon after touching down, I met Aoh, a pretty woman in her forties who runs the small trading company that helps Levenger source Thai pillows. After greeting each other with a bow and some pleasantries, we climbed into her truck and began the hour-long drive to the village where Thai Pads are born. The community I found there, and the circumstances of production, were like nothing I could have imagined.
On past trips to Levenger’s vendors, it had been customary to tour the factory with management before sitting down to talk. From the start I could see that this visit would be different. There was no factory to tour. There were no big machines to admire. Instead of a factory, there were only handsome two-story homes with wide verandas facing a well-worn dirt road. In place of machinery, there were small groups of women sitting together stitching silk panels together.
In the shade of one porch, six women sat on a low table, sewing and chatting. A couple of dogs dozed beneath them, and the sounds of a children’s television show could be heard inside the house. Although these women were making the silken pillows I recognized from the Levenger catalog, it was hard to imagine that their products would ever leave rural Yasothon, let alone cross the Pacific and reach American hands.
I had expected to see something industrial that day. I had expected to see sewing machines, at least. Instead, what I found in Yasothon was traditional and familial. These women work with their hands while their children play nearby. There is no need to choose between family and career. Both are located on the steps of their homes.
Women’s lovely work
After viewing production with Aoh and two of her young assistants, it was time for lunch. A selection of local dishes was placed before us on a low table, just like the one I had seen the women sitting on while they worked. There were no stools or chairs. Local tradition, I learned, is to sit on the table. After taking off my shoes, I joined Aoh and her assistants on the table. Over lunch I learned more about their village.
Tourists seldom visit Yasothon, Aoh told me. Local incomes and the local diet both depend upon the cultivation of rice. During the spring and autumn, women work in the rice fields alongside the men, but during the rainy summer months, when there is little agricultural work to do, they earn extra income by stitching and stuffing traditional Thai pillows.
For centuries the women of Yasothon have crafted vibrantly colored pillows and mattresses, and it is easy to see why they still make them today. The silken furniture makes even hardwood floors cozy and inviting. Local ties to this traditional product remain so strong that the town’s bus stop is sheltered by an oversized, brightly painted plaster “pillow.”
Serendipity, scaled down
It is a happy accident that Thailand’s traditional pillows make an ideal home for a hardcover book or tablet computer. At Levenger we discovered that a scaled-down version of Yasothon’s ancient pillows could support both your handheld device and your hands with comfort and grace.
Ours is a traditional product, made in the traditional way. There is no factory. There are no heavy machines. It is simply Thai silk, stitched into pillows by Thai hands.
From holding books to upholding literacy
While our Thai Pad has become a helpful tool for many of our customers, it’s also helped us launch a special arm of our Partnering for Good initiative called Upholding Literacy. Through our foundation, Levenger is contributing to an international literacy group, the International Reading Association, which reaches remote communities in Thailand such as Yasothon.
We’re making a similar contribution to a literacy group that supports outpost communities in India, where our first Fair Trade Federation product, the India Cloud Book Pillow, was handcrafted.
It’s one more way that Levenger (and by extension, our customers) can do good in the world, helping to support literacy-based program.
We’re searching for more such opportunities. If you know of artisan groups—in other countries or our own—whom we might be able to work with, I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).