When the weaver becomes part of the loom


Proud Karen weaver with her work
Today we attended the Royal Project Fair that celebrates the King of Thailand’s support for sustainable agriculture as well as the hilltribe peoples’ cultures and self-sufficiency. There we found some beautiful phaa ngung gee e-ow. The best news is that it was being sold by the Karen weaver herself with assistance from 2 bilingual (Karen/Thai) young women.

We bought 2 of these pieces in red, constructed in a traditional way with 3 long, narrow pieces sewn together. Each strip was 15” wide and almost 2 yards long. Each finished piece makes a stunning textile that traditionally is wrapped around the hips or simply tailored into a tunic top. These beautiful cotton weavings can also be used as to create contemporary fashions or home décor: wall hangings, table coverings, cushion covers and other upholstery uses.

I’m not fond of going to language classes but I love talking with people at markets – especially with tribal peoples whose mother tongue is not the one we’re speaking – especially when we’re talking about weaving or food.

My “Word of the Day” was gee e-ow. The young woman who taught me gee e-ow apologized that she didn’t know the English translation. So I taught it to her. “Backstrap,” I said pointing to my lower back while saying the Thai word for that body part. Then I fell into another vocabulary void, so I mimed a strap going around my hips.

One of the pieces we bought
While I may not have known the word, I did know that Karen (aka Kariang) women are renowned for their skill at backstrap weaving. The Karen people are often described as a nomadic “hilltribe” people who have migrated from China. This is literally true but many Karen settled in valleys north of Chiang Mai long before it was part of the nation state called Thailand.

While backstrap looms have largely been replaced by stationary floor looms, some traditional cultures still create beautiful textiles with this deceptively simple technology in which the weaver becomes part of the loom.

The huipiles of Guatemala are perhaps the most widely recognized example of backstrap weaving. However, every year the women who excel at this art number fewer as these traditional cultural practices are lost.

Discussing good sizes for handwoven shawls
Today everyone was excited with our purchases, which also included several unbleached cotton scarves with a lovely texture. We told them about our business in Canada and they invited us to visit their village weaving group to learn more and, perhaps, to make a special order. This type of exchange often marks the beginning of a longer, fair trade relationship that is based on mutual benefit, learning and respect.

Until next time,

Indigenous Peoples Textile Art

We've met some fascinating and very supportive artists through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Bonnie Samuel, a textile artist, is one of these. Check her recent blog post about TAMMACHAT's work in Laos.

You can also follow Bonnie on Facebook, visit her website and check Bonnie's new online shop on Meylah.com.

Reconnecting With Mother Earth

We founded TAMMACHAT to help preserve the traditional art and knowledge of rural farmers in Southeast Asia. Reconnecting With Mother Earth, an article published on Dec. 13 in the Bangkok Post, introduces you to one of the grandmothers at the heart of this preservation.

A weaver in Ban Pa Ao, Ubon Ratchathani province, with her annual rice harvest piled behind her.

Featured in Hand/Eye Magazine

TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles' fairtrade work with Laotian weavers is featured in Hand/Eye Magazine -- "Threads of Beauty: Changing Laotian Women Weavers' Lives One Thread at a Time" by Pamela Ravasio.

Hand/Eye Magazine is a fantastic online magazine that "explores the nexus between design and development, culture and commerce, art and craft, and environment and ethics." Check it out.

The Cycle of Life & Our Upcoming Trip

We leave for Thailand and Laos on Nov. 29. It's our busiest season here with holiday shopping coming up soon and we're proud to announce our new website with an expanded online shop.

Life would be a bit easier if we had an 18-month cycle, because 8 months at home is too short. Too short for selling the textiles acquired on the previous trip (2.500 pieces last year!); too short for all the things that make up the richness of our lives -- from our organic vegetable garden to reading, friends and keeping connected here in Canada.

But the cycle for weaving is an annual one. Most of the weavers are farmers (they farm the staple food, rice, and many other crops), so they are busy preparing the fields, planting, growing and harvesting during much of the year. Only when the annual one crop has been harvested -- as most of them can't afford irrigation for a second crop -- do they have time to weave.

Rice field in Northern Laos
Weaving season coincides with our Canadian winter (cool season there, in the 3-season climate that includes cool, hot and rainy season). It begins in December, continuing into hot season. It's difficult to weave silk in sticky, rainy season, so we need to coordinate our visits, orders and buying with the times that work best for the weavers.

Dye materials -- natural ones like leaves, barks, berries, flowers, insect resin and so on -- also vary with the season. Some are only available a short time each year; other materials can be collected, dried or made into dyes for use later.

It's all a cycle that we respect and work with -- and one we learn more and more about during each trip. The artisans are our teachers.

We leave on Nov. 29 and will be travelling throughout Northeast Thailand (known as Isaan), Northern Thailand and Laos for 4 months. We look forward to the trip and to continuing our fair trade relationships with the women artisans with whom we work and from whom we have learned so much. We talk alot about eco-fashion, ethical shopping and conscious consumerism when we're here in Canada. We talk about food, daily life, natural colours, weaving inspirations and lots more when we're there.

It's all part of the larger cycle of life.

10 Qualities of Slow Cloth by Elaine Marie Lipson

Thanks to Elaine Lipson, we share her thoughts on "slow cloth," a term she began using in 2008. These nicely sum up the qualities expressed in the textiles that are produced by the rural artisans in Thailand and Laos with whom TAMMACHAT works. Visit Elaine's blog on Art, Craft, Culture, Sustainability and Slow Cloth for more of her writings. Learn more about these artisans on this blog and on our website.

10 QUALITIES OF SLOW CLOTH (read the full, original piece)

Slow Cloth has the possibility of joy in the process. In other words, the journey matters as much as the destination.

Slow Cloth offers the quality of meditation or contemplation in the process.

Slow Cloth involves skill and has the possibility of mastery.

Slow Cloth acknowledges the rich diversity and multicultural history of textile art.

Slow Cloth honors its teachers and lineage even in its most contemporary expressions.

Slow Cloth is thoughtful in its use of materials and respects their source.

Slow Cloth artists, designers, crafters and artisans want to make things that last and are well-made.

It's in the eye of the beholder, yes, but it's in our nature to reach for beauty and create it where we can.

Slow Cloth supports community by sharing knowledge and respecting relationships.

Slow Cloth is expressive of individuals and/or cultures. The human creative force is reflected and evident in the work.

Fair Trade in Laos

Check out this YouTube video about Kommaly Chantavong's work with rural weavers and silk farmers in Laos. Her fair trade company, Lao Sericulture Co., is one of TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles' trading partners.

Fair Trade Communities in Laos produced by Moral FairGround

Bonnie Samuel Designs Blog Features TAMMACHAT

I'd like to thank Bonnie Samuel, an artist with a passion for connecting fibre, art, culture and life, for giving me the opportunity to expand on the article I wrote for SAQA Journal (Studio Art Quilters). I posted the article on this blog on April 29, 2010.

You can read Bonnie's questions and my replies on her thoughtful blog in her May 28, 2010 posting.


Weaving Beautiful Cloth -- Fair trade organic silk in Thailand’s Northeast

[First posted online on DaisyGreen Magazine in spring 2010.]

Text and photos by Ellen Agger

As we drive into Nawn Thoong village in Thailand’s northeast province of Khon Kaen, Pii Yai is excited. She has served for many years on the board of directors of Prae Pan Group, a women’s weaving co-operative in Thailand’s northeast, whose staff set up our visits today to three villages where members live and work.

Pii Yai offers Alleson a ripe ebony fruitWe gather across the street at the house of Mae Pit, a long-time Prae Pan member. She and the four other members sit on a mat next to the house, protected from the glaring sun. They’re in their late 50s. These are the silk weavers in the village. Like most of Prae Pan’s members, they are farmers who fit weaving around their farming chores and care for their children, grandchildren and elders. Weaving brings in much needed additional income, used to send their children to trade school or university, for health care and to improve their lives in the village.

By belonging to the co-op they are paid for their work as soon as they deliver it to the group’s shop in Khon Kaen city. Members are proud that the co-op owns this shop, reflecting the group’s goal of being self-sufficient.

One of Prae Pan staff in their Khon Kaen shopCo-op membership gives members the chance to work with customers like TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles which pays 50% in advance for orders. “On our annual visits with groups like Prae Pan, we deepen our relationships,” says TAMMACHAT co-founder Alleson Kase. “This year we are learning more about the group’s capacity to weave organic, naturally dyed silk fabric for the growing eco-textile market. We have also started to collaborate on designing bags for the North American market.”

Prae Pan member at her loomCo-op membership has also given members a market for their weaving well beyond what they would otherwise be able to reach as individuals. They are keen to learn more about the markets in our country, as they don’t often have the chance to meet directly with foreign customers of the co-op.

We ask the women gathered today if they are passing on their skills, learned from their mothers. Now their daughters are going off to earn their livings in the cities or on to further schooling. These skills are at risk of being lost, we’re told again and again on visits like these.

Sometimes younger women do return to their village when their children are small, preferring a quieter life where they have family support networks. “When I was young,” says one of the women, “I went away to work in a factory. Then I came back to my village. At home, you’re free. I can farm and I’m happier.”

Raising silkworms in Northeast ThailandAfter choosing samples of silk yarns of some of the colours they can produce in this village, we thank the women, jump in Pii Yai’s truck and arrive a short time later in Nom Thoom village. We stop at the house of Mae Nung who is feeding organic mulberry leaves to heritage silkworms in baskets her husband has woven. She sits behind blue netting that protects the sensitive silkworms from exposure to diseases and chemicals like cigarette smoke. “Raising silkworms is like raising babies,” she says. The resulting silk yarns, painstakingly reeled by hand, are produced organically, we learn, protecting both the women’s health and their local environment.

We meet with 10 women, ranging in age from mid-forties to over 70. For all the women, this work brings income to the family. For some, it’s more. “If I don’t weave,” says Mae Som, age 49, “I cannot sleep.” Mae Tong Luan tells us, “It’s important to me that I do the whole cycle of production. It’s a circle.”

Handwoven bamboo basket used for raising silkwormsIn neighbouring Suk Som Boon village, Mae Nung practices this full circle. She grows the mulberry bushes to feed the silkworms, hand reels and twists silk yarns, dyes them with natural dyes that she has grown or gathered in the wild, and weaves. It’s time consuming work. It takes 2 months to produce 12 handwoven, naturally dyed silk scarves, 3 months to produce 40 metres of organic silk fabric.

Dyeing silk with local leaves
We watch as Mae Pan cuts the reddish green leaves of “maak yao.” She has a new recipe to create a luminescent green. She dips the silk yarns in the simmering dye bath twice, then gets help from Mae Pet, the president of Prae Pan, to straighten the fine yarns and then they hang them to dry.

Preserving these traditional skills – and bringing income to women in Thailand and Laos’s rural areas – is what’s behind TAMMACHAT’s work. “Fair trade is about much more than paying fairly for the work,” says Alleson. “It’s about respecting the people who do the work, learning from each other and supporting sustainable practices. It makes a real difference in the lives of these women,” she adds.

“Our weavers are very proud when they can weave cloth beautiful enough to attract customers,” Mae Pet tells us. And well they should be.

For more info, visit TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles and Prae Pan Group.

Weaving Women Together

This article was published in the Spring 2010 issue of the SAQA Journal, a publication of Studio Art Quilt Associates. We're happy to support the beautiful work of art quilters through our membership, donations, writing and photography.


By Alleson Kase

Photos by Ellen Agger

mudmee fabric dyed with butterfly peaThere’s nothing quite like the sensuous surface of hand-reeled silk. Its slubs add depth. Its sheen adds warmth. When it’s handwoven, you can see the hand of the maker in the silk, says Jamie Pratt, a quilt artist from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Add to this the subtle golden colour from coconut husks or the sky blue from the flowers of the butterfly pea and you have extraordinary fabrics – art in themselves.

When you take this fabric and transform it into a new piece of art – an art quilt – you can see the hands of many makers in the finished piece. And the making of the new form of art has a richness that goes far beyond each of those makers – a fusion of traditions and contemporary creativity, a way to weave women together.

I have admired women’s weavings since my first visit to Guatemala 30 years ago. In the intervening decades I’ve learned that handwoven cloth is an important source of income for many rural women in the developing world; a vital part of what sustains them, their families and their communities, while sustaining their cultural heritage.

Several years ago, my friend Ellen and I visited PraePan, a women’s weaving co-op in Khon Kaen, Thailand. PraePan’s members, like other women in Northeast Thailand and much of Laos, weave in their homes on foot-treadle floor looms made from hardwood and bamboo. Without metal heddles, the warp yarns are usually raised with patterning strings and/or bamboo strips. The weft yarns are thrown by hand in a slender "boat" shuttle, carved from local hardwood, stained dark and worn smooth by years of use.

raising silk worms without the use of chemicals to create organic silk yarnsBefore warps are strung or bobbins filled, women spend months preparing the yarns. Many raise silkworms, boil cocoons and reel silk threads. Some spin their own cotton, after removing the seeds and fluffing the boll into a cloud of fiber. Almost all dye their own yarns, using natural materials they have grown or gathered close to their homes.

The women distill a wonderful array of nature’s colors from leaves, husks, wood chips, barks, berries, fruits and flowers. Slate blues, peony pinks, herbal greens, and spicy browns: all their colors seem to have a third dimension not captured on a color chart and rarely duplicated.

tie-dyeing yarns to create a mudmee design when yarns are wovenMany tie-dye the yarns before weaving with a traditional technique that they call "mudmee," and which we in the West usually refer to as ikat. [Described in a travelogue by Karen Maru in SAQA Journal, Spring 2008] When the mudmee yarns are woven, an elaborate geometric pattern emerges and repeats. If the artist is especially expert, as well as diligent, the pattern can continue for 20 meters!

During a village visit, we saw that their artistry is matched by their practicality. They have adopted fuel efficient stoves for their dye pots, and abandoned heavy metal mordants that pollute village streams. Membership in the co-op gives women access to trainings and appropriate technologies from local rural development groups. These let them improve their products and decrease their costs, while they protect their health and the health of their communities.

Members sell their weaving to the group, receiving payment when pieces are finished rather than when they’re sold to a customer. During our first visit, however, we learned that PraePan had been forced to decline recent requests for new membership because their members were already creating more products than the co-op was selling. On the spot, we decided to buy a portion of the group’s inventory to bring home to Nova Scotia, Canada.

Weaving international links

We realized that a one-time purchase was not going to address PraePan’s marketing problem, so the next year we returned to discuss possible strategies that might lead to a long-term increase in sales. Our first suggestion was to connect them to the Internet, as well as develop a website and shopping cart for them. In dialogue with PraePan staff, we came to understand how impractical this was: the women do not read or write English, so they could not respond to email enquiries that a website would generate.

More crucial is the fact that there are more than 70 million web sites and millions of online shopping carts. Customers must be driven to web sites; given the competitive nature of online marketing, they must also be convinced that artistry, fair trade and environmental stewardship override other concerns of price, availability, and selection. This task is a formidable one that would leave weavers no time to weave, even if they had the skill and resources to take it on.

weaver at her traditional loom made from bamboo and tropical hardwoodConsequently, we formed a social enterprise to market their artwork. We call it TAMMACHAT, which is Thai for "natural." Each year we travel to Thailand and Laos to visit PraePan and other similar groups of village weavers who we meet through their networks. We support these artisans and their communities by choosing quality pieces that are produced with environmentally and socially sustainable practices, by paying fair prices set by the artisan groups themselves, and by returning to the same groups each year with the intent of increasing their income stability through long-term trading relationships.

Some of our customers care about these factors as much as we do; others only need to see the unique beauty of the textiles to appreciate them. Either way, the makers and their methods of production are supported and encouraged. Fiber artists of all sorts seem the most appreciative of our message and these products. Who would better understand the intricate ways that fibers weave us all together?

Un-natural fibers

Silk, cotton and bamboo are all "natural fibers" but they are seldom produced naturally. Most silk is produced in factories that rely on heavy doses of toxic sanitizers and, consequently, are unhealthy workplaces. [See footnote 1 at end of this blog post.] Most cotton is grown with large inputs of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and unsustainable quantities of irrigation, so much so that an entire sea has been drained dry to produce "affordable" cotton clothing. ["Disappearance of the Aral Sea," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, May 01, 2006.] Bamboo, the latest green-washed fiber, grows quickly and naturally in the wild but is an extruded yarn produced by an industrial chemical process with toxic effluents like most other rayon.

The weaving groups we work with create silk fabrics that are 100% organic: the silk they weave is raised and reeled in villages; the mulberry leaves fed to the silkworms are free from pesticides; their remarkably dynamic colors are created with natural dyes that are wild crafted or organically raised.

weaver at her loomThese weavers live in areas too dry to support cotton production without irrigation, which they don’t have. This means that, while they do their own dyeing, they usually purchase their cotton yarns. On the other hand, we spent two weeks last year with a group that grows heritage varieties of cotton on the banks of the Mekong River without toxic chemicals or unsustainable irrigation. Together we designed two indigo cotton jackets and a line of decorative pillows. This year we will return there, as well as look for more organic cotton production on the Lao side of the Mekong.

Joint projects

Because quilting is not a traditional style of handwork in this part of Thailand, we initially had some trouble explaining to Thai weavers how their silks might be used by fiber artists in the West. Knowing that a "picture is worth a thousand words," we went online with the technology of a cell phone and a laptop computer to introduce staff members of another weaving co-op, PanMai, to the artwork of Laurie Swim and Valerie Hearder – women we know in Nova Scotia who are also internationally known quilt artists, authors, and instructors.

With that shared understanding, and the weavers’ help and artistic advice, we have produced a unique line of silk squares in four different palettes -- each package containing one mudmee design and four solid colors. We’d gotten the initial idea from Val Hearder, who suggested that we might want to bring silk squares to the bi‑annual Quilt Canada conference. Three months later, we did just that and found that Val was right.

During our next visit, we will discuss with these groups the growing demand in the West for ethically-sourced clothing and share the good news that their extraordinary silk scarves and fabrics are now eco-fashionable.

We hope that increased public awareness of the impacts that textile production has on people and the planet will prompt people to embrace these "slow fashions" as they have "slow food." We hope that groups like PraePan and Panmai can hang on a little longer while the world catches up to their traditional ways, so that they can better sustain what they have learned from their grandmothers and are now preserving for their granddaughters.


Alleson Kase and Ellen Agger live most of the year in Nova Scotia, Canada. Together they have created TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles, a social enterprise that imports handwoven silks and cottons from Thailand and Laos. They market these at fair trade textile events that they create, as well as online at www.tammachat.com.

1. Chlorine, formalin, lime and anti-fungus drugs are used to reduce disease among intensively raised hybrid silkworms. Many women find that they are allergic, or worse, to these chemicals. Symptoms include headaches, eye pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, fainting, dyspnoea, coughing, numbness, skin rashes, itching and eye swelling. From “Gender and Natural Resource Management: Livelihoods, Mobility and Interventions.”

#13: Organic Silk in Laos

[This is our last post from our 2009-2010 trip.]

Laos — a small, landlocked, mountainous country wedged between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma — was once home to some of the best weavers in the world, masters of discontinuous supplementary weft, as detailed and ornate as European tapestry.

house in rural Laos

However, during the "Vietnam" war, American B52s rained cluster bombs over Laos — more bombs per capita than in any other conflict until the 2003 bombing of Baghdad. Lao people were forced to flee their homes and their villages, often taking refuge in caves for years while the war raged on. Understandably, much was lost, materially and culturally.

At the close of the war in 1975, life expectancy, literacy and per capita GNP in Laos were ranked some of the lowest in the world. In the last 20 years, with much international assistance, Laos has slowly climbed to 133 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index of 182 countries.

In an effort to support women and rural communities in these changes, we ride 11 long and crowded hours on a 2nd class bus through the mountains of Central Laos.

Kommaly Chantavong, founder of Lao Sericulture Company

When we arrive tired but safely in Xieng Khuang, we are warmly greeted by Kommaly Chanthavong, visionary and founder of Lao Sericulture Company. Two years ago we purchased some beautiful scarves made by them. This year we have made a special order, rather than purchase stock on hand at their shop in Vientiane, so we’ve come to see for ourselves where and how it will be made.

"We work for our producers," Kommaly tells us early in our 3-day visit. As the visit unfolds, the importance of this simple statement becomes clear. This fair trade enterprise works with hundreds of families in this and neighbouring provinces.

Sǔan Món – Mulberry Farm – becomes our home base. It’s a demonstration organic farm and a centre for research and training. It’s also home to a large but low-tech sericulture facility where silkworms are raised, new varieties are bred and silk yarns created. The farm also includes a weaving and dyeing centre, where most of Lao Sericulture’s natural dyeing takes place.

organic mulberry field
Acres of mulberry bushes, heavily but carefully pruned, now fill fields where once only sugar cane grew. Mulberry leaves are the natural diet of silkworms, which only eat them fresh. We walk through the fields, nibbling not leaves but fresh mulberries, which are also used to make a range of purple dyes. Lao Sericulture is also developing mulberry wine as a new product. Not surprisingly, Lao Sericulture silk scarves are marketed under the brand name Mulberries.

Lao Sericulture has a long-term lease on the land from the local government. In fact, the government invited Kommaly here to work with local village groups to reduce poverty by providing training and markets for sericulture, natural dyeing and weaving. When villagers come to the farm for training, they are taught the entire cycle of silk creation as it is practiced organically and sustainably by Lao Sericulture.

The scope of the operation impresses us both. We begin our visit with the cows, whose manure is a main component of the rich compost that feeds the mulberry plants. "This is where it all starts," Kommaly tells us as she explains that many of the villagers receive a cow, as well as training, and later return a calf to the farm so that the practice can be sustained.

making compost at Lao Sericulture Company organic farmKommaly goes on to tell us that 21 people will have their hands in the production of each of the silk scarves we’ve ordered. It’s easy to believe, as we visit a herd of cows, a large composting operation, and fields and fields of mulberry bushes: all of which are cared for by people rather than machines. We also go into the silk rearing houses where 4 different kinds of silkworms are carefully raised – without chemicals. During our visit they sit empty, however, as winters on the plateau of Xieng Khuang, although pleasantly cool for us Canadians, are too chilly for Bombyx mori – the cultivated silkworm – which prefer a consistent, warm temperature around 28˚.

In one workshop, we watch the reeling and finishing of silk yarns. In another, we see dye pots filled with mulberry fruits, indigo, stick lac insect resin, leaves of all sorts, even mud. All of them simmer away on custom-made, fuel-efficient stoves that burn coarse sawdust from a nearby mill that processes hardwood timber.

Kommaly Chantavong on Lao Sericulture Company's organic farm
At the end of the first day, we visit the workshop where skilled weavers realize captivating designs based on traditional patterns as well as the images and colours that occur to Kommaly as she gazes at her favourite view. "My studio," she says, as she sweeps her hand towards the expanse of fields rising to distant mountains.

weavers at Lao Sericulture Company's organic farm
This is impressive and important work, especially on the scale in which it’s undertaken, but what strikes us most is what we see the next day when we travel to 2 of the villages that are also part of the Lao Sericulture network. Villages like these are where the scarves we’ve ordered will begin life, as they’ll be woven with traditional Lao silk raised in small village households. Unlike the weaving groups in Thailand with whom we work, these households most often participate in only 1 step of the process – in this case, the production of silk yarns.

villagers talk with Kommaly ChantavongWe drive 2 hours – more than half of the time on an unusually narrow and badly fissured, unpaved road. Before it was built a few years ago, Kommaly and her husband walked 5 to 6 hours along a dirt path to visit these villagers. While travel is much easier now, it’s still true that silk is an ideal cash crop for remote villagers, as it has a high value relative to its weight or volume. It can also be stored, waiting for transportation or customers, without spoiling.

sand water filter that helps improve villagers' health
As well as providing income within this village, Lao Sericulture has helped the villagers build sand and rock water filters and better toilets. Together these projects have greatly improved health in the village. But despite the new road and activities like those of Lao Sericulture, we see deep poverty throughout the area. Most people in Laos are subsistence farmers but here we see bomb craters in what are now fields. We also see green onions and mint planted in bomb casings that recall the haunting exhibit we saw in Vientiane at the office of COPE (the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise.) Obviously, it’s a long road to recovery when you’ve been bombed back to the Stone Age, as some have said of Laos.


organic silk scarf from Lao Sericulture Company
A week later we pick up our order at Mulberries’ shop in Vientiane. The traditional Lao silk gives the scarves a nubbly texture similar to the feel of linen but richer – a bit like the way lanolin makes wool so different from cotton. The colours we’ve chosen for the 2 designs in this year’s collection are gorgeous: pearled blue, eggplant, ruby red, sapphire, thatch, leaf green. We’re fascinated that each group with whom we work produces such a different palette, based on the plants that grow well in their region, and their own traditions and skills in creating natural dyes.

Lao Sericulture is proud of its work and its recognition as a fair trade enterprise by the World Fair Trade Organization. Kommaly has received international awards for her designs and she was one of the 1000 peacewomen nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. But we sense that most important to her is the reward of helping reduce poverty in northeast Laos while reviving traditional skills that were almost lost. We’re pleased to play a small part in that recovery, and proud to bring these artisanal and sustainable fashions to the West.

Ellen & Alleson

Slow Fashion: An Opportunity to Celebrate

We're thrilled to post this article about the philosophy of Slow Fashion and its connection to the Slow Food movement by guest blogger Pam Johnston. Pam is a recent graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a bachelor of fine arts (major in textiles and minor in fashion). She is an active member of the Clothing and Textile Action Group at Nova Scotia's Ecology Action Centre. Photos by TAMMACHAT's co-founder, Ellen Agger. [Citations at the end of this article.]



The summer of 2005 was a turning point in my life. During a trip to Vietnam I saw something beautiful that was missing from my experience of Canadian urban and suburban culture.

Each morning, before 5 a.m. farmers from surrounding regions brought fresh produce to the city center of Ha Noi to be sold at markets. Each day locals went to the market to select goods for their day’s meals. The market was filled with herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruits, eggs, meats, and fish I had never seen before. And the people used everything well.

banana tree
For example, every part of banana trees was used. Banana fruit was eaten, banana leaves were used to wrap steamed sticky rice, and banana tree trunks were sliced thinly and used as garnish for hot dishes. The foods there were fresh, local, traditional and unique to their country—and the flavour was out of this world!

fresh market in Southeast Asia
Market vendor in neighbouring Thailand

It was after returning to Nova Scotia from Vietnam that I experienced a fresh hunger to know what types of produce and traditional recipes were unique to Nova Scotia. I wanted to know who grew and prepared the food I was consuming, and to feel as connected to the place I lived as the people in Vietnam appeared to be.

farmers market in CanadaMy trip to Vietnam and many subsequent trips to the farmer’s market have taught me that getting the most out of my dollar does not necessarily mean getting more items faster. Sometimes it means getting more quality. Bess Nielson once said, "true luxury is that which gives as much to one’s spirit as it does to one’s material needs" (Selvedge 79). Buying food from Superstore does something to fill my material needs. But buying goods from the farmer’s market allows me the opportunity to support local businesses, enjoy the creativity of local, independent artisans and meet them face-to-face. This meets my material needs as well as my spiritual needs for community, connection and contribution.

Recently the Slow Food movement has gained recognition and influence across the globe. In the mid-1980s Slow Food was born in opposition to the proliferation of "identical, repeated, predictable" fast food (Sterling 112). Alice Waters, in her foreword to Carlo Petrini’s book Slow Food: The Case for Taste, poignantly summarizes the key principles held up by the movement, and the impact they can have on one’s thinking and everyday experience:

sharing a meal with weavers
Under Carlo’s remarkable leadership, Slow Food has become a standard bearer against the fast-food values that threaten to homogenize and industrialize our food heritage. Slow Food reminds us that our natural resources are limited, and that we must resist the ethic of disposability that is reflected everywhere in our culture. Slow food reminds us that food is more than fuel to be consumed as quickly as possible and that, like anything worth doing, eating takes time. Slow Food reminds us of the importance of knowing where our food comes from. When we understand the connection between the food on our table and the fields where it grows, our everyday meals can anchor us to nature and the place where we live. And Slow Food reminds us that cooking a meal at home can feed our imaginations and educate our senses. For the ritual of cooking and eating together constitutes the basic element of family and community life (Petrini ix-x).

The principles described here—preservation of cultural diversity, wise use of natural resources, allowing time for creation and enjoyment, connecting product with raw material and producer, and working in community—have deep relevance to patterns of production and consumption of all objects, including clothing.

In this essay I compare "fast fashion" to fast food, and examine how conventional fast fashion practices today have led us to a critical point of decision. The damaging effects of wasteful consumption on Earth, and the uniformity that globalizes fast fashion produces leave us yearning for an approach to fashion that has more integrity, endurance, and meaning. In the same way that Slow Food arose to build sustainable alternatives to careless, frenzied eating habits, the Slow Fashion movement provides viable alternatives to cheap, speedy, image-based fashion. It calls us to give care, attention and intention to our fashion purchases. It calls us to be creative and work within limited resources, leaving behind the attitude that more and bigger are always better.

The Problem of Fast Fashion

When you think "fast fashion" you can think disposable, short-lived and cheap; seasonal change, image glorification, and mass marketing; mass production, quantity, standardization, and identical product; mediocre quality, lack of meaning and value; and international acceptance and global homogenization. These are the qualities that characterize fast fashion, and for many North Americans it is the only type of fashion they know.

mass-produced blue jeans
Fast fashion has been made possible in our generation by a number of factors. According to Sarah Scatturo, one of the main factors is "the perfection of networked technological systems streamlining the design, manufacturing, and consumption of clothing" (Scaturro 469-88). Also, the development of man-made fibres and genetically modified fibre crops have enabled textile producers to push the limits of the land’s natural capacity as well as bypass more labour-intensive, time-consuming natural fibre processing procedures in order to meet growing demands for clothing. In addition, the lifting of import quotas in January of 2005 (in accordance with the World Trade Organizations Agreement on Textiles and Clothing) allows inexpensive foreign imports to flood once-protected markets in Canada and the US, in turn increasing competitiveness among manufacturers (Industry Canada 4). Advancements in global communications have made way for fast, effective global marketing strategies, resulting in fleeting fashion images and trends being disseminated to all ends of the earth.

As a result, much of the Western world has an increasingly insatiable lust and ability to buy more clothing than ever before. According to Sandy Black’s investigation into this issue, "Relative to income, clothes are now far cheaper than they were a few decades ago. Clothing sales have increased by 60 percent in the last ten years. We now consume one third more clothing than even four years ago…and discard it after wearing just a few times or indeed, even once" (Black 14).

In the same way problematic fast-food values are manifested in the North American obesity pandemic, the consequences of fast fashion gluttony are becoming increasingly evident. For example, in the UK, 30 kilograms of textile and clothing waste per person is dumped in the landfill each year! (Collet 18). There are also the problems of sickness and death resulting from the use of pesticides on conventional cotton crops, water pollution and damaged ecosystems from textile manufacture waste, and a great deal of energy and water used to make and care for an overabundance of clothing (Scatturo 469-88).

growing organic cotton
Farmers in Thailand grow organic cotton
along the banks of the Mekong River

In addition to the burden on the planet and the resulting illnesses for those in polluted areas, fast fashion takes a toll on the factory workers who must meet high demands for output. We have all heard sad stories of workers being extremely underpaid and overworked to meet the demands of massive global retailers. Thanks to trade liberalization, this pressure is now not only felt by overseas workers but also by Canadian manufacturers, as they struggle to compete in the global manufacture market (Industry Canada 5). The Earth and its people are groaning under this weight of injustice and greed.

An Opportunity to Celebrate

Situations like this inevitably dampen our spirits. However, there are two kinds of sorrow: one that leads to death, and one that leads to repentance. The first type despairs, seeing no future, no hope and no opportunity for change. The second type acknowledges what is wrong and turns around to walk in the other direction, celebrating the opportunity to change, and looking beyond the situation towards the potential.

Slow Fashion is like the brave soul who leaves the masses on their wide, smooth dead-end highway to march steadily along a narrow, difficult path to a bright future. In Grace Cochrane’s article "Australia and New Zealand: Design and the Handmade" she states that businesses working on a smaller scale have the option of "offer[ing] something that is of higher value and produced in smaller runs that reach a particular discerning market both at home and elsewhere". She goes on to say that while the "game is hard", it is also "often rewarding and distinctive" (Alfoldy 64). Many advocates of Slow Fashion are small enterprises and, though their position is tough in light of powerful and vast retailers, I am convinced that they have an essential and influential role to play. The success of the Slow Food movement gives us hope, and at this point I would like to parallel the two movements by adapting the principles quoted earlier:

Under the leadership of brave designers, Slow Fashion has become a standard bearer against the fast-fashion values that threaten to homogenize and industrialize our fashion heritage. Slow Fashion reminds us that our natural resources are limited, and that we must resist the ethic of disposability that is reflected everywhere in our culture. Slow Fashion reminds us that fashion is more than image to be consumed and changed as quickly as possible and that, like anything worth doing, creating valuable vestments takes time. Slow Fashion reminds us of the importance of knowing where our clothes come from. When we understand the connection between the clothes on our backs and the fields where fibre grows and the studios where fabric is shaped and embellished, our everyday clothing anchors us to nature and the place where we live. And Slow Fashion reminds us that participation in the design process can feed our imaginations and educate our senses (author’s adaptation of Alice Water’s foreword in Petrini ix-x).

Slow Fashion responds to the problems of fast fashion by offering an alternative approach to design, production and consumption. When you think Slow Fashion, you can think value, quality, and craftsmanship; creativity within limitations, versatility, and personalization; staying power, heirloom quality, and extended life span; transparent production systems, regional and traditional craft skills, and collaboration.

weaver at her loom
Various designers exemplify these values in differing ways. Some extend the lifecycle of existing damaged or unloved garments by redesigning or custom fitting. Others make use of localized cooperatives that offer high-quality handwork and innovative applications of traditional craft skills. Some incorporate recycled or reclaimed fabrics into couture-type designs, while others use new materials to create long-lasting garments that can be worn in different ways by people of varying sizes and genders. Some work in collaboration with the end user by personalizing designs through colour or fabric choice, unique embellishments or perfect fitting. Sandy Black sums up the ethos simply: "buying long-lasting craftsmanship, highest quality and unique items means they will be treasured for a long time, becoming heirlooms of the future, and contributing to a lower rate of consumption" (Black 79).

handwoven, organic silk scarf
If you are like me, you might still ask yourself how this type of business could actually survive—and could it thrive? —in today’s consumerist society. If the success of the Slow Food movement is any indicator, then Slow Fashion will survive and grow through tenacious, innovative designers networking to share knowledge, to infiltrate conventional fashion institutions and to educate others. Because of the very nature of Slow Fashion, the businesses that adhere to its principles will not grow to become massive global retailers. As Bruce Sterling put it in his article "The Revenge of the Slow", a local product with "irreducible rarity" can only be sold to a select few across the globe, and not to the masses, as its production cannot be scaled up (Sterling 114-116). Slow Fashion designers instead need to unite their disparate niches through cultural networking (Sterling 116). The Internet is a valuable tool in this regard. It is also a way designer-makers can educate the public, provide transparency about their production methods, allow consumers to collaborate, and sell directly to consumers without the mediation of retailers.


slow fashion
Slow Fashion is a baby movement, having been born of the Slow Design movement just within this decade. Its growth hinges on a shifting of heart and attitude towards the way we consume clothing—from an attitude of carelessness, ignorance and waste to one of stewardship, intention and pleasure in simple, valuable everyday experiences. This shift will take time and effort, but through steadfast commitment on the part of designer-makers and educators awareness will grow. My hope is that people will be so enamored with the beauty and virtue of Slow Fashion’s principles and product that they will forget about the less satisfying alternative of fast fashion.


Works Cited

Alfoldy, Sandra, ed. NeoCraft: Modernity and the Crafts. Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2007.

Black, Sandy. Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox. London, UK: Black Dog Publishing, 2008.

Clark, Hazel. "Slow + Fashion—an Oxymoron—or a Promise for the Future…?" Fashion Theory. Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 427-446. December 2008.

Collet, Carole. "The Next Textile Revolution". Responsive Textile Environments. Ed. Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine Macy. Halifax: TUNS Press, 2007.

Industry Canada. A Canadian Approach to the Apparel Global Value Chain. Prepared by Milstein & Co Consulting Inc. March 2008.

Petrini, Carlo. Slow Food: The Case for Taste. Trans. William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Scaturro, Sarah. "Eco-Tech Fashion: Rationalizing Technology in Sustainable Fashion". Fashion Theory. Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 469-88. December 2008.

Sterling, Bruce. "Revenge of the Slow". Metropolis. Vol. 27, No. 8, pp. 112-116. March 2008.

#12: Panmai Group's silk magic

Jan. 13, 2010

This is our 4th visit in as many years to Panmai Group’s shop in a small market town in Isaan (Thailand’s Northeast region) that’s central to the villages where Panmai members live and work. Upon arrival, we’re warmly greeted by office manager Malee and her assistant Oom. Pun, a former staff member, is also there; she’s made a special trip from Bangkok to facilitate our order. We present gifts of dried strawberries from Chiang Mai and a card of Nova Scotia art quilter Laurie Swim’s work. Malee and Oom know Laurie’s work from a previous visit when we took them to her website to show them why we cut their precious silks into small squares – for art quilting! [Have a look inside our photo book about Panmai.]

We immediately notice that their stock is lower than last year. Oom has recently returned from a colossal handicraft and food fair just outside Bangkok. Much to our surprise, we learn that sales were good – a refreshingly different story than what we’ve been hearing from other weaving groups this trip with the effects of the global recession apparent.

Most noticeable is the small amount of silk fabric in stock. We learn that this is not a coincidence but a choice: the co-op is no longer stocking large amounts of fabric, which makes good sense in tighter economic times. It also makes sense when one considers the supply and demand of the village-raised silk yarns that Panmai members weave.

The limited fabric selection concerns us, though, as we had planned to this year to stock up on our 100% Silk. 100% Art. silk square packages. We share our concern with Malee and Oom, as well as our plans to have a TAMMACHAT booth at Quilt Canada 2012 to be held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, just an hour from where we live. At Quilt Canada 2008 in Newfoundland, these silk squares were extremely popular and our plan was to feature a new selection of patterns and palettes in 2012.

Through our discussions, they agree to put aside for us a metre or 2 of any fabrics woven for special orders in the coming years. This should provide us with the variety we need without creating problems for the group, as they won’t need to set up their looms to weave the small quantities we need.

A group of Panmai members who dropped off their weavings
at the shop while we were visiting.

Our 3 days with Panmai are busy days filled with making orders for silk scarves in their always popular colours of deep cranberry, rust and eggplant, plus new colours and designs that we develop together. Our orders are a mass of details that require a myriad of decisions. Just a few:
  • Colour
    Can they make turquoise? No. Lavender? Of a sort. Can they make this year’s “must have” colour – i.e., grey? Yes, of course. At this time of year? Yes, but not the particular shade that comes from butterfly pea flowers, dok anchan, which are now setting seed.
  • Size
    Which designs come in standard sizes because of the set-up of the loom? Most of them. Which can we play with? In width, only a few. In length, most.
  • Weight of silk
    Is the yarn made from the inner, middle or outer filaments of the cocoon, or a combination of 2 of these?
  • Stiffness of the handwoven silk scarf
    Is it made with 1- or 2-ply yarns? The 2-ply yarns are preferred by Thai buyers but yield a stiffer scarf.
These detailed discussions are part of our learning each visit – this year we focus on the information we need to make custom orders for our new lines of silk scarves, along with custom orders of silk fabric. We tell Panmai about the growing interest in “eco fashion” and they teach us how best to order fabric by the metre for emerging “eco designers.”

Ideally, we should give the co-op plenty of notice of large orders so they can ensure an adequate supply of organic mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms. The co-op now has only a handful of members who raise silkworms and hand-reel the silk (i.e., sericulture), but they have a practice and a system to buy yarn from neighbouring villages. Nonetheless, hand-reeled, village-raised silk yarns are becoming more and more difficult to obtain, as the market is flooded with less expensive, factory-produced silk yarns (or silk “look-alikes”) from Vietnam and China.

On the 3rd and last day, I discover, quite by accident, several bags of tangled silk yarns – in regal purple, soft gold, vibrant raspberry, deep rust, fresh leaf green, coffee bean brown. We learn that the Panmai’s members who live and work in Khmer villages are particularly skilled at creating the vibrant colours that draw us to Panmai’s silks.

With Pun and Malee, I spend my last few hours in Kaset Wisai teasing apart silk yarns to create 3 sample cards of these extraordinary naturally dyed silk yarns: one for Panmai’s shop, one to send to the weaver to match a particular colour request and one for TAMMACHAT. I’m in heaven!

Ellen (Nok Noi)

#11: Prae Pan Group: Back to Our Roots

Jan. 6, 2010

TAMMACHAT was born after our second visit to Prae Pan Group in the northeastern Thai city of Khon Kaen. So we have a particular fondness for this women's weaving group and always look forward to our annual visit. This year was no exception.

As we pull up in front of the shop, which houses the office, storeroom and sleeping quarters for staff, I marvel that this women’s co-operative managed to buy this building and maintain it for 22 years. This was part of the co-op’s plan from the beginning: to develop a self-sufficient community business run by village women. [You can read more of the Prae Pan story on their own blog, created last year by a volunteer from the Philippines.]

I look at the row of shoes outside to see if I can tell if our friends Pii Yai and Bo are there yet, slip mine off and enter the shop.

Bo and I greet each other warmly. She’s a long-standing volunteer with the co-op who’s currently helping staff to re-organize and create new systems since the passing last year of Wanee, the shop’s long-time manager. We learn from Bo that co op staff is working to sell down existing inventory at last year’s prices. New inventory will be priced higher to meet the growing expenses of running the shop and to pay the weavers fairly. Co-op policy to buy work outright from members has not changed.

Pii Yai, a rural development worker and another long-term volunteer advisor to Prae Pan (and now good friend of ours), arrives soon after we do and, after much excitement, the 7 of us settle down to work, including the 3 staff people we’ve met on previous visits: Mae Ooan, Mon and Fon, who is growing into the role of manager.

Our time together is a jumble of languages. Bo pulls out her English from her long-ago university days. Pii Yai always surprises us with her rapid-fire speech in both languages. Fon can understand some English, but none of the staff speak it. Alleson’s Thai holds her in good stead, especially when she and Fon speak one-on-one, but she always wishes she spoke better and understood more. And I listen intently, understanding more and more Thai, trying to put sentences together as best and as often as I can with my limited vocabulary. It’s fun, sometimes confusing and always remarkable as we cross cultures and learn from each other.

We present our gift to the group: a hand-felted wool wall hanging made by our friend Bea Schuler, a spirited Nova Scotian artist, farmer, mother and more. It’s a representation of life by the ocean in our province, a textile offering. They are thrilled and pore over it, removing and replacing the small wool figures in little window pockets that grace the lighthouse, before giving it a special place on the wall. I try to explain that it’s made from sheep’s wool. But my tones are wrong and instead, as I learn many hours later, I have instead said that it was made from the hair of an old person! Laughter follows us throughout the entire 5 day visit as I continue to practice saying “wool” and “old person.” I love this kind of enriching exchange that connects us on a very human level.

This visit is filled with orders for silk scarves – our passion – along with cotton scarves and bags, woven in part with handspun cotton for an interesting texture. But, as always, we also build in mutual learning. This year, our offering is 3-fold:
  • computer and internet training (email and the web) for Bo and Pii Yai, who both got laptops for the first time this past year and struggle with many of the English commands,
  • advising on shop displays and signage, rewriting the English side of Prae Pan’s shopping bag and hangtag, and
  • suggesting specific ways to reach Thai and foreign visitors to Khon Kaen with a presence on the city’s tourist map and brochures at the region’s tourism offices.

Mae Ouan, one of the staff, is the shop’s dye expert and an accomplished silk weaver. We eagerly open the glass doors on the silk cupboard in the back of the shop and begin to pull out silk scarves in soft blues, vivid greens, dove greys and gentle pinks. Where do all these colours come from? The next day, we get to see for ourselves when we visit 3 of the villages where Prae Pan members live.

Behind one house, we see the vine bai beuak winding up a tree. Its leaves are used to create the sky blues and soft, pewter greys that you can see in these scarves. The weavers in Mae Ouan’s village, Nawn Thoong tell us that the mature leaves give the most beautiful colours in October and November, after the rainy season has fed the leaves.

We’re familiar with krang, an insect resin that looks like black knot, a hard, knarly mass that can kill our plum trees in Nova Scotia and loves wild choke cherries. Both are created by insects that suck on the sap of the tree and spread their waste along small branches. These small branches – of the rain tree and sekay tree – are later carefully cut, the resin removed and boiled to produce a huge range of pinks, raspberries and purples. Sustainable care of the trees and other dye materials sources is part of Prae Pan’s approach to natural dyeing.

All kinds of leaves yield greens; barks offer browns and tans; both can be made all year round. The weavers – who also dye their own cotton and silk yarns – tell us that these are easy colours to make.

Pii Yai is particularly excited about ebony fruit. We stop at the base of a 30-foot tree and watch as a neighbour fetches a 20-foot bamboo pole and slices off a cluster of fruits with a sickle-shaped knife attached to the end of the pole. We inspect the ripe fruit and Alleson is urged to taste this fruit-of-many-uses – from dyes to food to medicine. Pii Yai, who set up our visits to 3 silk weaving villages, translates as the group of weavers/dyers tell us about ebony:
  • when used fresh, it gives a green colour
  • add lime and it gives an “old green”
  • when ripe fruits are used, a grey colour is produced
  • dye yarns repeatedly with ripe fruits and eventually they’ll appear black
We’re always impressed with their knowledge of local plants that can produce natural dyes. Mud (the best we can translate the Thai word din) is also used, along with the iron from village pumps, coconuts (both young and old) and various other substances. We hope that our excitement about the popularity of the colour turquoise will spur on new experimentation, as the women tell us they might be able to create it by playing with different fixatives for bai beuak leaves.

In each village we meet with a cluster of weavers. Some raise silkworms and hand-reel the silk from the cocoons into fine yarns, a complex process of sericulture. Others are expert at dyeing particular colours. All the women weave, although most prefer to weave cotton as it’s easier and less fussy than silk, which becomes sticky during rainy season.

I’m fascinated by sericulture and lift the sheeting that encloses one woman’s “silk house.” She quickly folds back the cloth cover used to protect the sensitive worms as they feed on mulberry leaves 3 times a day. Although she can make silk all year, she explains that it’s best made after rainy season as the silkworms are more productive in December and January and the silk more beautiful. We confirm that Prae Pan’s silk is organic – as with all village-raised silk, no chemicals are used at any step in the process of creating the silk yarns. If members do not have enough silk yarns, they buy them from other local villages where they are also created organically.

In Ban Suk Som Boon, we meet with Mae Pet (the president of Prae Pan), Mae Oorai (who is also on the Prae Pan governing committee, made up of representatives from each village and is the group secretary in this village) and Mae Pan (pictured on the cover of our book about Prae Pan). Most of the active members in this village work on repeat custom orders for hemp/cotton fabric for a Japanese customer. They tell us they like this long-term, consistent relationship, going for 4 years now, and are happy to be building a long-term relationship with TAMMACHAT, which they hope will eventually yield larger orders. One of the benefits for us of working with group’s like Prae Pan is that they can manage large orders, assigning the work to the weavers who are best able to fill them.

In each village, we ask what the weavers like to weave. The answer comes quickly: “whatever we can sell.” Some of the weavers express interest in weaving fabric by the metre, especially after we explain about the growing interest in “eco fashion.” They have few opportunities to meet customers directly, so they appreciate learning more about international markets from us.

The village visits end with a shared meal, more stories and more laughter. So too ends our busy time at the Prae Pan shop, as we plan our return in a few weeks to follow up on some new designs we’ve created together. Our relationship with Prae Pan embodies one of the principles of fair trade we cherish.

Ellen (Nok Noi)