Wilai, the founder of Bua Bhat, invited us to her studio nestled in the rice fields on the outskirts of Chiang Mai to learn more about her and the amazing artisan business she has created. The area is home to the Yong hill tribe, who are natural craftsmen and pass down their weaving skills through generations. It’s hot and the sound of an occasional motorbike passing in the background can be heard as we sit together on a wicker lounge set strewn with Bua Bhat’s beautiful signature cushions made from upcycled materials.
Wilai the founder of Bua Bhat.
Wilai is strong, fearless and very warm - an entrepreneurial woman with a fascinating story. Her inspiration stems from her family, nature and her Lanna cultural roots. Her business drive came from her mother and father which she wholly embraced and became somewhat of a pioneer of her time, traveling solo to many countries, starting her own business and breaking traditional Thai norms of that time. Wilai’s passion for Bua Bhat stems from a love for recycled materials and a firm dedication to sustainability.
How did you learn different weaving techniques?
Bua Bhat: I didn't really learn like a student, I just watched people weave. When I was born my father had stopped teaching weaving so he just told me how to weave, so I always say I learnt with my ears. When I grew up I learnt by watching people and trying a little bit. I was afraid I would not do a good job so I just tried a little bit. The most I learnt is from watching.
You talked about traveling after school.
BB: Yes, after school I went traveling. My father prepared me when I was little, he showed me the world map and told me how important foreign languages are, I really like that, it's true. He said I need to learn Chinese because he was Chinese, so he wanted me to learn Chinese. I practiced my English with tourists when I helped my parents in their shop and also learnt English at school. When I travel, what I said was true, I love to see the world. I travelled to many different countries in Asia and also in Europe and America. Just to learn, to see the world, I learnt a lot from traveling.
Bua Bhat's creative decorative pieces.
How do you conquer your fears?
BB: When challenges come up I do the best I can. I conquer my fears by, I think it’s out of my heart, like anything we do our best. There is no need to fear anything when we do our best. Because we do the best already so the result should be good.
What did you learn? I think last time you said you studied weaving in Sri Lanka?
BB: Oh yeah, I love to go on study missions, not just to travel like the other tourists. I want to see the technique of weaving, embroidery, cuttings - everything about fabrics.
What is Bua Bhat named after?
BB: Ahh, Bua Bhat means sunflower, named after my mother. I want to tell you a romantic story about this. My father said he named the shop Bua Bhat, he said to my mother, because of his love for her. It's what he said to my mother and I was the only child that sat there and heard this when I was little. I didn't know what this meant until I grew up. I felt like their love was so very impressive and Bua Bhat became part of my soul, my life, and I named my place Bua Bhat after my father and my mother and the love they shared.
A family portrait with Wilai in the white dress.
When was the moment you decided to start your own business?
BB: I decided to start my own business when I first saw something my father told me about weaving in Sri Lanka on one of my trips. I saw a tool, same as my father gave me, and that inspired me a lot because at that time the weaving quality in Chiang Mai did not have a standard. Sometimes good and sometimes bad. I know how to do quality control with weaving which is what I was concerned about in terms of quality and design and that inspired me and kicked into my heart that I should do it myself. So, when I came back from that trip, it was a long trip, when I came back I searched for a place to have my studio.
So what was the first business you started when you were a child?
BB: When I was little I was doing business by myself because I was born into a business family so I wanted to try too. I didn't play like the other girls. I played with real things. I had so many businesses when the school closed, like summer holidays, I set up a chestnut business, a second-hand book business and also sold so many other things, just for fun, but I think that is the start of my life. I love to do business.
To shop Bhua Bhat's beautiful collection, click here.
What words describe your personality?
BB: My personality!? I don't know. I just like to be original, like normal people. I love to learn, I love to know things. I think this is me and also I love to have peace in my heart. Meditation is one part of my life and being in nature, not like the big town, somewhere like my house now. When I was little my parents always sent me to live with my grandma which was far far away, with no electricity, no water tap. She just lived like old style and I miss those days.
What words describe your work? How would you describe the work that you do here?
BB: I think my work is just something simple, I don't know. Simple, like things that happen in nature, organic shapes, my inspiration for my work is from nature. When I first started my business I really wanted to be different from the market and provide good quality. I wanted to do things differently. Good quality. Sometimes the quality is too good. That's what I want to give to the customers is good quality, design and information.
The heat has been escalating as we try to block out the outside noise, we take a quick break to fan Wilai before continuing with her inspirational story.
When did you start to use upcycled fabric?
BB: I started to use upcycled fabrics when I was little since I lived with my family because we had a lot of leftover fabrics at home so I would play with those fabrics. I really saw the value of leftover things and I am so proud that I can create things, good things, from leftover things which people can’t see the value of, which makes me very proud.
A Yong worker creates a cushion cover out of upcycled fabrics.
When you come up with a new design what’s the process to make it a finished product?
BB: When I get the design I just try straight away on the real thing, I don’t sketch on paper or anything I just try on the products. Sometimes it’s quick but sometimes if it doesn't look as good as I want I may delay it and go back and think about it again and then it takes months.
You mentioned some of the 28 women you employ work from home. What motivated you to provide flexible working arrangements?
BB: When they want to work with me they need to come to me to learn how to make things then after they understand I send the things for them to make at home. But one thing is, people around here they are artisans by blood, you see, then it is easy for them to understand what I want and this is lucky for me, my people are good already! I have a really good team.
You said that you mostly hire women so what are your thoughts on women's empowerment? You're a good example of this traveling by yourself, breaking traditional roles and starting your own business.
BB: I like to empower the women in this area because I'm a woman myself. I want to encourage women to be able to help and support their families, to be able to become leaders when they can get to that point. We're supporting women because in all honesty, women are very smart and we can do anything when given the opportunity and support. Women are 50% of the population of this world so if women are healthy and strong then the country and the world will all be good.To shop Bua Bhat's collection, click here.