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