Prae Pan Group: carrying on tradition

At the end of December 2007, we visited Prae Pan Group in the Thailand's Northeast. Two long-standing board members joined us at the Khon Kaen shop and office, assisting with translation, deepening our understanding of the group and helping us train staff to fill orders and ship to Canada, building the group's marketing capacity.

Last year we had the good fortune (and great help of one of their board members who we met again this year) to visit four of the villages where Prae Pan members live and work. Those of you who have attended one of our slide presentations will remember the photos I took of natural dyeing experiments and weaving at traditional looms.

[Note: These photos are part of a 45-minute presentation that tells the story of our visits to women's weaving co-ops in Northeast Thailand. Learn about natural dyeing, the cycle of silk production, fair trade and the benefits of membership for village women. Contact us at if you are interested in this presentation for your group.]

This year we presented a gift of these photos to the group, as well as a hardcover book to tell the visual story of their work (with additional English descriptions of each activity written by Alleson.) Our idea was that this book can be used by the group to give Prae Pan customers a glimpse into the work behind each piece -- especially helpful if they can't speak Thai. As well, we presented them with a 6 minute self-running digital slideshow called Social Fabric which the group can also use to tell their story. Both promotional aids were received with enthusiasm!

A few of the things we learned on this visit:

1. The 18-year-old group has revolving credit pools, pension and medical benefits and an educational fund.
2. The number of members has varied over this period; currently there are about 120 members living in 7 villages in the province.
3. Although the group began with help from the Appropriate Technology Association of Thailand, it met its goal of being self-sufficient more than 10 years ago. This member-run community business now owns its own shop, and staffs it full-time, in the main city in the province. It is able to provide its members a regular income, sufficient for daily consumption, that supplements most members' principal income from rice farming.
4. Staff and members are villagers who have learned a range of new skills and gained confidence over the years through their involvement with the group. They are very proud of their accomplishments.
5. A village-based co-operative brings benefits to weavers' families and other non-members in the communities.
6. One of the biggest challenges the group faces is how to interest the next generation in carrying on the traditions and skills of their mothers. It's important to the leaders of the group to inspire the new generation to preserve and build on artistic, creative cultural traditions and create new ones. By buying from them, we hope to contribute to the sustainability of this group so that younger women will know they can make money at this work and will want to continue it.

We were invited to return to Khon Kaen in early January to attend a monthly committee meeting. We eagerly agreed and joined the 18-person committee for a delicious, Isaan breakfast feast, then we presented our business, the Prae Pan book and digital slideshow CD to board members and village representatives, again to an enthusiastic reception.

As well, we spoke about our offer to help Prae Pan (as volunteers) develop a new, more marketing-focused website with help from American and Thai community development students at Khon Kaen University. On the following day, we attended an initial meeting at KKU, along with 2 Prae Pan staff members and 1 board member, to explore how we can work together on this project. What started a year ago as an offer from us has now moved into its next phase.

And before we left, we placed a large silk order, shipped cotton fabric and table linens home to Canada, and chose samples for a possible new TAMMACHAT customer. Our fair trade relationship with Prae Pan continues to grow.

Ellen/Luk Nok

Bangkok fair

The week before Christmas, we headed for the OTOP fair at a huge trade and convention centre on the outskirts of Bangkok. OTOP -- One Tambon, One Product -- was a program started by a previous government many years ago. It gives star ratings to products that range from foods, to handicrafts to superb textiles, designating products considered outstanding in each district.

OTOP fairs feature products from all over the country, so we thought a visit to the largest one would be a good place to find more weaving groups that use natural dyes with whom we might form ongoing fair trade relationships. We were especially interested in village groups from the Northeast, which has an ancestral artistic tradition of silkworm cultivation, elaborate mutmii patterning and natural indigo dyeing.

We spent 3 very long days at the fair; each evening we returned overwhelmed, laden with bags bursting with organic cottons and sumptuous silks, both in finished pieces as well as yardage for the many sewers who requested "more fabric this time." We also responded to Nova Scotians' apparent preference for blues by selecting a large range cotton products dyed with natural indigo.

Highlights and lessons from the OTOP fair:

At the OTOP fair, and since, we have been able to source a wide variety of naturally dyed textiles. We have found brown dyes so deep that they appear black (made from ebony fruit), pale pinks to deep magentas created with lac (an insect resin), and greens from the leaves of lemongrass. As well as these wearable pieces of art, we have expanded our lines to include cotton table runners and tablecloths. We have also included many pieces in the natural creams and butter yellows of undyed, hand-reeled silk.

The palette of soft greens to rich blues created by natural indigo proved so popular at our fall sale in Mahone Bay that we were happy to find some groups that specialize in this form of natural dyeing. Dyeing with natural indigo is a difficult skill to master because mordants cannot be used to make it adhere to the fabric. Instead, a chemical reaction must occur when the fermenting indigo leaf mixture meets the air which causes the dye to bond to the fabric -- if done properly. To create deeper and deeper shades, fabric is dyed repeatedly or "overdyed." This results in some of the dye washing out on the first few washings, but if the dyer uses proper techniques, the indigo dye will not continue to shed upon repeated washings. To check for this, we carefully felt each piece to see if our fingers turned blue!

We bought indigo fabric -- plain and with mutmii tie-dyed patterns; organic whenever we could find it; and handspun, which gives a lovely texture to the cloth. We also bought dozens of scarves and shawls, mostly 100% cotton (but some with rayon warp threads, which make the piece particularly soft), in various shades of indigo blue, soft greens (also from indigo) and a pale apricot colour made from mango. Designs include dynamic, contemporary patterns as well as traditional ones.

We bought several lovely natural colour, 100% organic cotton scarves from a project in the Northeast that creates income for women living along the Lao border. The foundation that facilitates this project has involved a number of communities that each specialize in one part of the production. They seek to preserve their local culture and to preserve traditions in dyeing and weaving that are at risk of being lost as the younger generation migrates to urban centres to find work. We hope to visit them later this trip.

Another group that we found works in a cooler area of Thailand between the North and Northeast. A designer who has been working with this group for 18 years has helped villages develop skills of growing white, tan and brown cotton organically. The nubbly scarves we bought are rich in an array of browns (made from praduu, a bark of Burmese ebony), with accents of natural tan cotton and blues from hom, a leaf that produces a blue similar to indigo. We plan, on a future trip, to accept the invitation to visit the Weaving Natural Dye Group to learn more about their work.

While we were able to find a number of producers working with organic cotton, particularly along the cooler banks of the Mekong River, we learned that there is more demand for organic cotton weaving than can be supplied at this time. There is a small, but growing, market within Thailand for organic cotton. As well, there is a Japanese market and many European Union countries also want cotton that is grown organically.

We think Canadians, with our growing interest in responsible consumption, will be interested in these eco-textiles that are produced in ways that protect both the health of the producer and their environment.

We were pleased also to find a natural dyeing and weaving group from the South of Thailand that specializes in natural dyes using batik and tie dyeing of 100% cotton. After meeting Dim and Ari (who kindly picked a large grasshopper off my shoulder where it appeared from nowhere!), we are hoping in future to add a visit to this community to learn more about their dyeing and weaving work.

The OTOP fair was one place for us to meet village-based weaving groups, but we found mostly for-profit businesses that buy from village weavers. Since attending this fair, we've met a number of women who have worked for decades with weaving groups, such as Prae Pan Group and Panmai (see the Artisans page on our site) -- they have generously helped put us in touch with a number of other groups with whom we can build a fair trade relationship. But we're also discovering that it's difficult to apply the fair trade principles that have been developed for commodities like coffee, sugar and chocolate to the complex production of textiles. More on this in a future blog entry.

Ellen/Luk Nok