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)