Panmai Group: silk art!

Our next visit was to Panmai Group, another women's weaving group in Isaan (Northeast Thailand) that has been organized for almost 20 years. Like Prae Pan Group, it was started to help women earn income so they could stay in their villages, continue traditional work that they learned from their mothers and grandmothers, and supplement their income from rice farming.

Panmai has members in villages spread throughout 3 provinces in Northeast Thailand, close to the border of Cambodia: Roi Et, Surin and Si Saket. We arrived at their office tucked away in a small market town of Roi Et province and settled in for 3 days of work together.

Our goal: to learn what Panmai needs from us to be able to receive orders from us in Canada, and to help them build their capacity to handle international orders, such as ours, by learning how to ship to Canada. (Each country has its own requirements and we are their first Canadian wholesale customer.) Our training included how to fill in the appropriate forms needed by Canadian postal and customs authorities. We did this training, amidst much laughter and language exchanges, with the help of a new staff person who has been hired to work with international customers. At the same time, they taught us how to order in ways that make it most beneficial to the group: we learned the minimum and maximum numbers of scarves to order, for example, which will allow a weaver to most efficiently "warp" the loom (i.e., string the lengthwise threads onto the loom) so that she might make the ideal number of pieces.

We also learned more about the group and its work. We knew they were respected, even renowned, for both their subtle and dynamic natural dyeing of silk, but we also learned that:
- all the silk they use is hand-reeled in member villages (or in other villages in Surin province if Panmai members cannot produce enough at a particular time)
- all mulberry leaves fed to the silkworms are organic and all natural dye materials are organic, so all the Panmai silk is 100% organic!
- members (250 at present) weave 11 months of the year, but are unable to continue the work during the heaviest of the rainy season months
- about 100 members weave in silk and about 50 members raise silkworms and hand-reel the silk, a process called sericulture; they are hoping to expand their capacity to do sericulture in future
- an annual dividend is paid to all members

Most exciting was a new product that we developed with the help of staff and members of Panmai: silk squares for art quilters!

With their help and artistic advice, we developed an attractive package of silk squares in 4 colour combinations, each package containing 4 solid colours and 1 mutmii square (mutmii is a traditional technique involving tie-dying thread to create a beautiful pattern that appears during weaving). We hope that this new product -- which we describe as "100% SILK. 100% ART." -- will be perfect for art quilters who want to incorporate these unique, hand-reeled, naturally dyed, handwoven pieces of silk into their quilts.

Because quilting is not a traditional form of handwork in this part of Thailand, we initially had some trouble explaining what the squares were for. Following the adage that a "picture is worth a thousand words," we went online and introduced the staff to the work of 2 internationally known quilters from our area in Nova Scotia, Canada -- Laurie Swim and Valerie Hearder. The Thai staff members were fascinated by the quilts that we showed them, which we described as "painting with silk," as this was a new art form that they had never seen before.

We plan to return next year with reports on how these pieces of 'silk art' were received by art quilters in Canada, after their debut this June at the 2008 Quilt Canada conference to be held in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Although Panmai also creates beautiful handwoven cottons, our visit with them was a silk extravaganza! Our time together ended with the packing of several boxes of silk squares, scarves, shawls and fabric in the gray-blues of a flower called anchan, magentas and pinks from krang (an insect resin), greens from (lemongrass), oranges and golds from the wood of kanoon (jack fruit trees) and more.

It was an enriching visit for all of us, and we hope that introducing their art to Canada will be as well!

Ellen (Luk Nok)
Alleson (Pii Tem)