Chiang Mai's wealth of weaving

Happy New Year's Eve! We've been here less than a month and have already bought more than 600 pieces! We're focussing this trip on deepening our relationships with the 2 main groups that we have bought naturally dyed silk and cotton textiles from on past trips: Prae Pan Group in Khon Kaen province and Panmai in Surin, Si Saket and Roi Et provinces -- all in Isaan, the Northeast of Thailand. As well, we are seeking out new producer groups with whom we could establish fair trade relationships. (See our page on Fair Trade in the main part of our website for more info on this.) This has proven to be an interesting task. Before we left Canada, we did as much research as possible to help us plan our trip. One stop that we knew would be important for us was to go to the OTOP CITY fair in mid-December in a huge convention/trade centre in Bangkok.

First, let me tell you more about our experiences in Chiang Mai. As well as meeting Fai Gaem Mai (see the first post), we learned about a group of weavers whose families were dealing with HIV/AIDS. We went to find them at the annual Gift Fair 2007 in Chiang Mai. This large event was filled with food, crafts and textiles. The textiles were grouped in several large, open tent areas, perhaps 200 hundred stalls in all. After half a day of wandering (and buying from a couple of other vendors, including a woman with a family business that produces lovely batik hemp table runners), we finally found the Information Desk, as our efforts to find this particular group of weavers were not working. In spite of Alleson's ability to speak some Thai, we were not able to locate them by name or phone number on the pages-long list of vendors we found at the Information Desk. This proved to be the beginning of challenges we continue to face when trying to find specific groups. We finally left the Gift Fair with some , but none from the group we were looking for.Our next search was to the weekly Chiang Mai Sunday Walking Market, a very fun, long-standing outdoor market held each Sunday afternoon and on into the evening. It covers blocks and blocks, and people sell anything from textiles to T-shirts, crafts to paintings. Some are made by local artisans; much has been bought elsewhere. We were looking for a woman we met last year who, with her family, weaves 100% cotton, naturally dyed scarves. The scarves we purchased some from her last year sold quickly so we wanted to find her and talk more with her about who makes the scarves.

The Klong Jing weaving group is a village-based family business, made up of 20 extended family members. They weave from December to February when not busy with rice farming, their main occupation, and again in August during rainy season. They use only natural dyes made from barks and leaves, and weave in 100% cotton (which is a much cheaper investment for the weaver than silk). It takes a day to weave a table runner, but 3-4 loose weave scarves can be woven in a day. We bought many of these scarves, lovely for casual wearing -- they'll look great with jeans!Does this group of weavers fit the standard definition of "fair trade" groups with whom we want to trade? Are we able to learn enough about the ways they set payment for the work to those who produce it and under what conditions? What can we learn about how they work in ways that protect their health and their local environments? We are discovering that there is no single way that weavers organize themselves. Unlike coffee farmers, who have been in the forefront of the fair trade movement, organizing themselves in a farmer-run, co-operative model, we are encountering many types of groups in Thailand.

We have been fortunate to meet a number of women who are part of a strong network of rural women's development workers. They are helping us learn which groups most benefit the members and therefore with which we want to develop long-term trading relationships. As we continue to build our network, we will be working more often with these women to help us make these decisions. We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with these highly skilled, dedicated and fun women.

Our next stop in Chiang Mai was to visit a beautiful centre for the Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Techniques (known as SUPPORT). From the Mahidol University website:

"SUPPORT was established in 1976 under Her Majesty's royal patronage, partly through funds supplied by Her Majesty and partly with public donations. SUPPORT's primary objective is to set up women's groups and provide rural Thai women with equipment, materials, and training in cottage industries. The latter include some 18 traditional crafts which Her Majesty felt were worthy of being promoted on both local and world markets..."Although we weren't buying from a weaving co-op directly, we liked the approach and bought many naturally dyed, loosely woven, cotton scarves, along with a wonderful array of reverse applique pieces. I am particularly drawn to the tiny stitches and interesting, often geometric shapes used in this work. Although not naturally dyed, I know that many quilters and sewers will appreciate and find uses for these beautiful pieces.

Delving deeper into the opportunities Chiang Mai has to offer, we were delighted to discover and attend His Majesty the King's Doi Kham Royal Projects Fair, where we bought many scarves produced by village groups in the North of Thailand. Again, we didn't buy directly from the weavers, but as we weren't able to visit these weavers directly, we wanted to support their work and found some lovely textiles. The King's Royal Projects have helped hilltribe groups in the North replace opium crops with other income-producing crops and crafts. You can learn more here, if you're interested:

Our next stop: 3 days at the OTOP CITY fair in Bangkok. Alleson will post her entry about the Eri silk group visit soon and we'll take you to Khon Kaen on our 3-day visit and training with Prae Pan Group. Drop by again for these and other postings.

Ellen/Luk Nok

Eri silk

Greetings from Northeast Thailand! We are well into what has already turned out to be a very busy trip and finally have found a bit of time to recount some of our adventures and learnings.

Thailand has twice the population of Canada, yet would fit into a space the size of Atlantic Canada. Like we find at home, however, it's a "small world"-- and as we travel, we continue to hear of and meet up with now familiar names of people who work with weaving groups in community development here.

Nancy Peters, a Nova Scotian who has worked in Thailand for periods over the last 18 years, is one such person. She has been extremely helpful to us, introducing us (on our second day in the country!) to the Cotton and Silk Project, "Fai Gaem Mai," a project that has been running out of Chiang Mai University's Institute for Science and Technology Research and Development (IST) since 2001. Their most recent initiative, in partnership with the EU-Thailand Economic Co-operation Small Projects Facility, is to develop and market eco-friendly Thai textiles for the home in European Union countries to EU standards. This fits in nicely with Tammachat's priorities, so we are thrilled to be able to make this connection.

We met with FGM staff on day 4 of our trip -- and after a whirlwind of meetings and buying sessions -- we have only had our first few days off since arriving 3 weeks ago. We'll tell you more about these in future blog postings.

FGM works with 17 weaving networks in Northern Thailand -- 190 village-based groups in all. Creating the products in the Thai Home Textiles line -- table runners, placemats, napkins, cushions and more -- often involves more than 1 group. For example, 1 group may produce organic cotton thread; another may dye it with natural dyes made from locally grown or foraged, chemical-free dye materials; a third may weave the cloth; and a fourth may sew it into a finished product -- thus bringing income to a large number of people.

FGM co-ordinates this process, as well as running trainings for network groups members, and has provided us with prices and timelines for ordering. So we're expanding into home textiles to build on the lines we already offer -- handwoven, naturally dyed scarves, shawls and fabrics.

We were kindly given a copy of FGM's excellent video about the Thai Home Textile project which we will be able to show in Canada. And we learned about a new, 1-year-old project to create a new kind of silk in Thailand called Eri silk. Eri silk is not only beautiful (as we soon were to see for ourselves), but is as "warm as wool," we were told. Perfect for the Canadian climate.

Traditionally, Thai silk has been made from a variety of silkworm that eats mulberry leaves. As those of you who attended 1 of our slideshow presentations last fall may remember, village-based groups use a traditional variety of this kind of silkworm. Eri silkworms, on the other hand, eat cassava (tapioca) leaves, which are grown year-round for their roots. This gives the potential for a longer season than mulberry sericulture -- the cycle of raising silkworms and "reeling" the silk off cocoons boiling in water to produce fine silk threads. Since these women derive their income first from farming, it remains to be seen how this new kind of sericulture will fit into their existing work cycle. It does, however, have the potential to be done year-round. And some of our internet research is showing that Eri silk is "set to take the fashion world by storm"!

At our meeting with FGM in Chiang Mai, we showed them the book that we made for Prae Pan Group, the weaving co-operative in Khon Kaen province. We created this book as a gift for Prae Pan to use to show their customers, at fairs and in their shop in the city of Khon Kaen, a glimpse "behind the scenes" of how they create their beautiful textiles, with a focus on natural dyeing and weaving. The book's photographs (taken by me during our visits last year to 4 of the 7 villages involved with Prae Pan Group) are accompanied by text (written by Alleson) that describes not only how the textiles are made, but also talks about the benefits for members of belonging to a weaving co-operative.

After seeing this book, FGM invited us to create one about Eri silk to help them market it, so a visit was quickly set up for us to go to a village in Nakhon Sawan province in Central Thailand, where we could learn about and photograph all steps in the creation of Eri silk weavings. We jumped on this opportunity and 2 weeks after we arrived in Thailand, we made the visit.

More on this visit soon from Alleson.

- Ellen (otherwise known as Luk nok, my Thai nickname, which means "baby bird," a name I have just been given by my Thai friend Pim)