Crafting Change: Passawee T. Kodaka

A social entrepreneur creates a sustainable movement by bringing traditional crafts to the mainstream


Author: Zoya Khanday

At the age of 38, Passawee T. Kodaka has returned to her childhood home, running a business venture driven by her passion for craft. What began as a modest project with only four weavers is now a thriving enterprise, providing part-time employment to nearly 40 women.

Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday
Social Entrepreneur Passawee Kodaka at the Folkcharm studio in Bangkok. Photo credit: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

In north-eastern Thailand, the traditional art of dying cloth has made a resurgence in the lives of the people of Loei. The district is primarily agricultural, but women have tapped into a new source of income through the revival of the once-forgotten practice of hand weaving and using natural dyes on cotton. Passawee is contributing to this revival, and her commitment to sustainable fashion for urban consumers has given rise to Folkcharm—a social enterprise with a mission to promote awareness of folk crafts and share the inspiring stories of the skilled artisans behind the creations.

Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday
Folkcharm’s weavers in Kokkabok district, Loei province. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

Growing up, Passawee remembers feeling "boyish”, and she reflects, saying, "it always felt like the boys did whatever they wanted, and I was the same. There were too many rules for girls." During her childhood, the family moved to Japan for her father's job, and Passawee witnessed the impact this had on her mother, in particular the isolation and crisis of self-confidence it brought on. This experience shaped her belief that women’s empowerment requires flexible avenues to achieve financial independence.

Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday
Passawee in the backyard of the Folkcharm studio in Bangkok. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

Partly supported by UN Women (then UNIFEM), Passawee pursued a master's degree [2008-2010], which included research on the social and economic empowerment of home-based women workers. Her research brought to light glaring gender inequalities within supply chains, and she began to see how social enterprises could empower women.

Her idea for Folkcharm began to take shape following a serendipitous encounter with women artisans in Loei. The business model of Folkcharm challenges the notion that weaving is an unsustainable livelihood and instead provides an opportunity for women to re-skill, earn an income on their own terms and work flexibly from their homes.

In the Kokkabok district, Folkcharm employs a group of 35 part-time weavers, all of whom are over the age of 50.

Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday
Weavers in the Kokkabok district use their home looms to create organic cotton spools. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

Khun Yor, a trans woman, exemplified the transformative impact of Folkcharm's initiative. After her dream of opening a salon was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, she found solace and financial security in weaving. Beyond personal benefits, Khun Yor's work also brought a sense of pride to her village, where weaving is now regarded as a respectable source of employment.

The older women in the group find weaving to be not only a source of income but also a means of staying connected to and engaged in their community. The weaving group provides opportunities to socialize and helps them to maintain their physical and mental well-being, especially as most of their family members have migrated to the city.

For many of these women, working for Folkcharm has been their first experience as employees. This shift from informal work to commercial weaving has given them financial independence that they had not previously experienced, empowering them to have a say in their families’ financial decisions in the latter half of their lives.

One of the significant hurdles Passawee faced was motivating the weavers to recognize the value of their craft and build their confidence, as their work had long gone unnoticed and unappreciated.

Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday
Khun Yor working with her loomin Kokkabok, Loei. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

“When women build systems, it is personal”, Passawee adds. She understands the emotional investment women put into their creations, often overlooked due to societal undervaluation, leading to a lack of confidence in their work.

The inclusion of social enterprises, such as Passawee’s Folkcharm, in supply chains is of paramount importance. Such enterprises not only promote ethical and sustainable practices but also contribute to empowering marginalized communities, especially women. By incorporating gender-responsive initiatives, these ventures address historical gender inequalities within supply chains and create opportunities for women to participate actively in economic activities.

While Folkcharm has empowered the group of weavers in the Kokkabok and Phulang districts, Passawee’s broader mission is to ensure that urban audiences appreciate and pay the right price for ethically produced, long-lasting clothes. Her unique designs offer not only versatility but also encourage consumers to invest in clothing that offers durability and sustainability instead of cheaper alternatives that exploit the environment and the labour of marginalized workers.

Marketing Folkcharm’s products is vital, and Passawee has an innovative approach to reaching potential customers. She organizes trips to the weavers’ districts, where people from urban centres can interact with the artisans, participate in weaving and natural dyeing classes, and immerse themselves in village life. By experiencing first-hand the time and effort that goes into crafting each piece of clothing, customers become more conscious of their choices.

Social enterprises like Folkcharm are a win-win for businesses and society alike. By supporting and partnering with these ventures, companies can access unique and authentic products that resonate with consumers seeking ethically made, sustainable and socially responsible goods. At the same time, social enterprises play a crucial role in advancing gender equality and social development.

Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday
Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday
Details in the Folkcharm office space and studio in Bangkok. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

Folkcharm's studio in Bangkok is a hidden oasis, nestled in urban surroundings with natural boundaries formed by a canal, cotton stems and mango trees. Inside the studio, the various stages of cloth development are on display, along with Passawee's designs. Pictures of the weavers grace the walls, serving as reminders of her passion and purpose.

This story was funded in part by the Government of Australia through the WE RISE Together programme implemented by UN Women.