By Stephanie Rybczyn

There are some things that no amount of research, discussion, or forward-thinking can prepare you for.  No matter how much you think you know what you’re getting into, how confident you are that you’ve got a plan: you don’t. You learn to negotiate your plan within whatever new context you find yourself, but rarely do you end up doing what you thought you’d be doing.  It’s eye-opening, it’s humbling, and it irrevocably changes the course your life will take afterwards, whether you know it or not.


Working with Maechi weavers at the beginning of my stay

When I first got to Warm Heart, I wanted to design products for the recycled fashion line – I’ve made clothing and accessories with recycled materials in the past, and using rice bags seemed like a fun new challenge. I started by working for a short time with our weavers before eventually returning to the rice bag designs and hitting a very important wall: the market.  What’s the point in designing new products if there’s no market for them?  This was the question that I kept coming back to. I wanted to go forward with prototype development, but the reality was that none of our existing stores would sell rice bag products.  Even if I made a good design and put it into production, there wouldn’t be anywhere for it to go. Once I hit this wall, the next step became clear: go to Chiang Mai myself and look for new sales channels.

What other suppliers are doing with the rice sacks but it’sa tough market

I’d never done market research like this before and I was initially unsure of what I needed to do. Josephine, the manager of microenterprise, sent me a list of factors to keep in mind – location, clientele, merchandising mix, price points, management style – when looking at a new potential location.  She also sent me to visit our existing stores so that I would have a better idea of who we currently work with and what these places look like.  Armed with pen, paper and fruit shake, I hit the streets of Chiang Mai, ready for some extreme market research.  Market research is long and hot and usually means walking over 10km in a day.  The only way to do this kind of work is on foot, otherwise you miss things. Each time I went on a research trip, I would spend hours walking up and down streets, looking in every shop window and going down every alley, searching for a good display or the kind of storefront that would mean we might be able to sell there.

Shop front of Khumpoon store, a potential Warm Heart wholesale customer for next winter

The research itself was a really enjoyable experience. Whenever I spotted a place that looked good, I would go in and thoroughly browse everything in the store, looking at tags, touching fabrics, and examining construction. I am obsessed with texture and love touching good, interesting textiles, so this alone was pretty fun for me. Though not all of the shops I visited were viable for us, many of them carried gorgeous, complex, handwoven fabrics, and I would just have to take a minute to open them up and see how they moved and felt and caught the light.

Display case with textiles

Interacting with all of these different fabrics was lovely; sometimes the people making them  – were present which made the experience even more wonderful. I would always try and start casual conversation with the people working in the shops. In the instances where they spoke a good amount of English, I got to learn about their designs and why they loved to create things. I would have these amazing, inspiring conversations, and then move on to the next shop and do it again.  The process never lost its appeal – learning about all these different people was such a fantastic part of the trips.

Attractive store interior of a potential future customer

The research trips ended up being pretty successful, and each time I went, I was able to write a good report on a handful of new potential stores. Some days I didn’t find much of anything, but I was reminded that that’s still useful information – in the future, no one will waste their time looking there. I initially stuck to the areas within the Old City and just outside of Thapae Gate, but it didn’t take me long to exhaust those streets and move on. I went north, south, east, and west of the Old City, almost exclusively on foot, occasionally getting a songtao, and twice deciding to rent a bike and brave the traffic system – which turned out to be far less terrifying than I had expected.

Driving in Chiang Mai is a very unique experience. The expression “go with the flow” has never been more true.  This often means u-turns, lane splitting, weaving, speeding, and driving where you probably shouldn’t. It isn’t as life-threatening as it sounds, I promise. Plus, I was able to cover more ground and see parts of the city I otherwise wouldn’t have reached.

It wasn’t difficult work, but it’s exhausting to walk around all day in the heat – and it’s only gotten hotter since I’ve been here. I did four research trips to Chiang Mai, each spanning a day and a half to two days, and each time the days were hotter than the last. Avoiding dehydration is pretty important, so I’d make sure to drink many, many fruit shakes while I was out, which really wasn’t a terrible thing.

I learned so much from these research trips and had some really special experiences. One conversation I’ll never forget occurred in a little shop selling traditional cloth that had been incorporated into newer garments. I was asking the woman there where all of her products came from and we had an intense conversation about the importance of remembering these old techniques and bringing new life into traditional cloth and garments. We talked about the loss of knowledge and the recent push to regain it, and how important it is for new generations to understand the history embedded in the cloth.  It was one of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had here, and really wonderful to share it with an older Thai woman, a reminder that people all over the world share these values. I love meeting people who are so passionate about textiles.

My time at Warm Heart turned into a lot of things I didn’t expect, and I wouldn’t change a second of it. I’ve learned more than I can possibly put into words. Coming from art school, I didn’t know much about how businesses or NGOs run but now I feel like I’ve at least got the building blocks. Three months has flown by at an impossible speed – but I’m glad to know that I’ve made a meaningful contribution to such a wonderful organization in the little time I’ve had here. Warm Heart does so much good in the community – it would take pages and pages to write about it all – and I’m so happy to have been a part of that.

(Stephanie Rybczyn recently completed a three-month stint at Warm Heart)