#10: Eri Silk: Peace Silk from Thailand

Dec. 22, 2009

It’s almost dusk when we arrive at the Traditional House Museum set in the grounds of Chiang Mai University Art Centre. We've come to attend The Living Seeds Festival, hosted by Pun Pun, a sustainable living centre located outside the city. It has brought together organic farmers, mud house builders, musicians and educators to celebrate and teach about sustainable living.

Under one of the traditional teak houses raised on posts, we find Thitichai, a 45-year-old Thai textile designer, surrounded by some of his naturally dyed textiles. We browse through the scarves hanging on a twine line and find an unusual, highly textured piece. We know it's not traditional mulberry silk, yet it is different from other natural fibres we've seen here. It turns out to be handspun Eri silk, which was introduced into Thailand a few years ago. [See our blog entry of Feb.3, 2008 on Eri silk.] Thitichai tells us that Eri slk is now created in 16 villages around Thailand, thanks to trainings done by Fai Gaem Mai, Knowledge and Technology Center for Northern Textile at Chiang Mai University.

We're fascinated to see the Eri silkworms spinning their white cocoons in a makeshift cocoon house on top of a table. It's made from a cardboard box which has been refashioned with cardboard dividers to create 2 by 2 inch "rooms" in which lie small, plump white silkworms and the beginnings of their cocoons. Next to their home sits a small bamboo basket of fresh green leaves. These small worms are very different from the huge Eri silkworms we saw in Ban Panasawan. We wonder if the difference in size is due to the different leaves they are fed here. We ask Thitichai if he eats the pupa and he assures us that no worms are killed in the production of this particular Eri silk (unlike the village we visited, where the pupae are eaten as an important source of protein). Like some Tussah silks from India, this Eri silk can be called "peace silk" or "vegetarian silk."

I'm drawn back again and again to this scarf, with its bands of dove gray created from ebony fruit alternating with the softer very pale, creamy gray of the undyed silk. The texture is marvelous. The warp (lengthwise) yarns are long, thin slivers. They have been painstakingly spun on the special spinning wheel introduced into Thailand by Fai Gaem Mai. The weft (crosswise) yarns show off the slubs -- thick, then thin sections -- that are a trademark of good Eri silk spinning. Together, they give the illusion of great depth and intricate weaving, created by the use of alternating rows of 2 colours of weft yarns.

The scarf is costly, due to the work of spinning these special yarns. I love the look and feel, so I buy it for myself. We talk with Thitichai about the possibility of returning on Monday to discuss an order for more. He seems reluctant at first, but then agrees to weave a small order of 10 scarves for us that will be ready in 2 months. Can we wait? Yes, of course. It takes the time it takes. "Slow fashion" indeed!

On Monday afternoon we return to the house where we now find Thitichai sitting upstairs on the porch that wraps around 2 sides of the building. We learn more about him over the course of a couple of hours and decide that, although we usually buy from rural women's weaving groups to give them much-needed income, this is a valuable project to support, as it's helping establish new traditions and artistry for the village weavers, built on the foundation of their age-old skills.

Fascinated by textiles at an early age, Thitichai studied with Mrs. Saeng-da Bunsiddhi, the founder of the Pa Da Cotton Textile Museum. [See our #6 blog entry about her.] He has a workshop just down the road from Pa Da -- a weaving centre with 30 floor looms, now employing 10 weavers, whom he gives creative reign to experiment with their own designs. He has won many international awards for his textile designs in Japan and Europe, including placing in the top 10 at a UNESCO textile competition.

He has also helped many Thai weaving projects. After winning an award from the King of Thailand for this work, he left his textile work behind to enter the monastery, becoming a monk and meditation teacher for 8 years. Now, returning to his passion for textiles, he runs the Living Textile Museum as part of the Traditional House Museum, where he teaches Eri sericulture (the creation of silk yarns), spinning and natural dyeing. He travels too to other parts of Thailand, teaching Eri silk skills as a volunteer. Thitichai's eyes dance and his laughter rings out as he tells his story and lovingly shows us the textiles that drape over every surface of the room next to the porch where we first talk.

Thitichai's work now is to promote "living textiles," helping spread new sericulture, spinning, dyeing and weaving techniques -- creating new ways for village weavers to earn income. He loves working with Fai Gaem Mai, he tells us, and we're happy to support his work, even on a small scale with our small order, which he insists on spinning and weaving himself to ensure the highest quality. We suspect we'll see, in future, more of this kind of Eri silk here, as the weavers' skills grow and the weaving itself evolves with visions of creative new designs.

Ellen (Nok Noi)

#9: Suchada Cotton: Hearing the Story Again

Dec. 18, 2009

The colour indigo -- painstakingly made from the leaves of the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) -- conjures a depth of blue that can't be achieved with chemical dyes. Repeated dippings of cotton yarns, sometimes more than 20 times, can produce a blue so deep that it appears black. More importantly, traditional cultures on every continent have attached significance to indigo beyond a colouring agent.

We first met Suchada Cotton at the Sunday Walking Market in Chiang Mai last year. Their placemats in deep blues and rich browns snagged our attention as the dyestuffs that produce these colours are not frequently seen in Chiang Mai. More often you’ll see mor hom -- a blue cotton fabric produced in Prae from a "cousin" of indigo.

Conversely, Sakhon Nakhon province in Isaan (the Northeast) is well-known in Thailand for kram -- the Thai word for authentic indigo. This province is also home to the village dyers and weavers who produce Suchada Cotton's fabrics. Combined with the bark of the mango tree, indigo produces a deep green, also a popular colour for Suchada's many handwoven products. The rich coffee browns, the third in their trio of signature colours, comes from ma-kleu (Diospyros mollis), often referred to in English as Burmese ebony.

Talking later with Suchada in her stall at the Night Market, we learned that she’s from this village herself where the story is similar to the story all over rural Thailand: Most of the middle generation of women leave the village in search of factory work so they can bring a cash income to their families. Left in the village are the grandmothers and younger women with children. [Read our story about the Women's Organic Cotton Group in Ban Kokkabok for another version of this typical story.]

The 10 to 20 older women weavers and dyers in this group are rice farmers who do this work to make extra income after the harvest is brought in. These skills are a critical supplement to the family income, especially in these difficult economic times with the global recession reducing income from factory work while inflation increases prices. And Thailand's current political instability reduces tourism even farther.

The photos that Suchada showed us of women in her village show dyepots simmering over fires, leaves and barks being gathered, older women at looms. We've seen these photos before, in fact we've taken them ourselves and will, we hope, continue to see them despite the increasingly homogenous, global marketplace.

The term "slow fashion" truly describes this process of textiles produced by hand -- from the gathering of natural dyestuffs to the finished handwoven fabric, bags, scarves, placemats and tablecloths that come off the loom 2 months later.

Chiang Mai is a lively market for many goods from other parts of the country. Suchada's husband is from Chiang Mai and this link makes it an ideal place to bring the handwoven textiles as they make their way to new homes in Japan, Europe and Canada -- anywhere that natural fibres and dyes are popular.

Alleson (Pii Plaa)

#8: Hmong Flower Cloths

Dec. 15, 2009

From Chiang Mai we headed north by bus to Chiang Rai province to meet with a group of White Hmong sewers. Our plan was to make an order for several dozen "pa'ndau" -- pronounced "pan-dow" and often translated as "flower cloth" -- a style of reverse applique that decorates many items used by traditional Hmong families.

Having no written language, Hmong rituals and artistry have been vital in keeping their unique culture alive. Extraordinary needlework has long been a large part of that culture; Hmong girls traditionally begin to learn the stitches for pa'ndau embroidery as young as 5 years old.

The last few years, we've bought many flower cloths through the Queen of Thailand’s SUPPORT Project -- a handicraft development program designed to boost farm families’ welfare, provide women with an important source of income and preserve cultural artistry. The SUPPORT Project was launched in conjunction with The Thai Royal Project Foundation initiated by the King of Thailand in 1969 to encourage hilltribe villagers to switch from the cultivation of opium poppies to alternative crops.

The flower cloths we've brought to Canada are often mounted on a piece of hemp about 12" square, as hemp has traditionally been retted and woven by Hmong women as well. The squares have been very popular at our events, especially with fibre artists. Last year we paired flower cloth squares with organic cotton from the Pattanarak Foundation to make cushion covers, which were just as popular.

Last year Ellen also set herself the task of finding a Hmong sewing group from which we could buy flower cloths directly to assure ourselves that the women were paid fairly for their work. Several dead-ends later, she found Patricia Solar of Izara Arts, who was able to put us in contact with a group of Hmong sewers.

With the help of Izara Arts' production manager Muay -- and her truck -- we travelled several hours into the "Golden Triangle" where Thailand meets Burma and Laos. Once we reached the White Hmong village, we also had the help of Kamonnit (the daughter of the head of the sewing group, Mai Li), whose job in the group is communications, sales and accounts. In addition to Hmong, Kamonnit is fluent and literate in Thai, and reads and writes enough English to use email.

A small crowd of us gathered around a rickety tin table in front of a tiny house -- Ellen and I, Muay and the mother of another Izara staff person, Mai Li, Kamonnit, the 5 older Hmong sewers and a passing neighbour. There we all were, almost blocking the street of the overgrown hamlet which was once a refugee settlement, speaking 3 languages while we poured over some samples we had brought with us. We learned from the sewers which elements of the designs were easier to sew, and which would take  more time and therefore cost more. We also learned that no one in the area made hemp fabric, which we had suspected might be the case.

As we talked, Mai Li quickly folded a piece of paper and cut into it the shapes of one of the samples we had brought: a paper pattern that these skilled sewers could transform into a finished flower cloth. So this is how they make them so symmetrical, we realized. Ellen and I were both reminded of making paper snowflakes as children.

With the sewers' input, we settled on 2 designs that could be fairly made within our budget. We chose 3 colour combinations for each design and explained their complex details to Kamonnit, who carefully wrote out the 6 variations. We would buy the hemp backing cloth in Chiang Mai, where it was more readily available; they would provide the coloured cloth for the designs, as well as the accent threads, which we selected from a large plastic bag filled with a tangle of dozens of coloured threads. For extra clarity, we stapled to each colour of cloth 2 corresponding thread colours, while the sewers nodded their approval of this communication technique.

We made a 50% cash deposit, our usual fair trade practice, and took banking information to transfer the final payment directly into the group's bank account, once the order was finished. We promised to email the address where they would send the finished pieces by bus so they could be transformed into cushion covers by the Pattanarak Foundation, a non-governmental organization working on Thailand's other border with Laos, also along the Mekong.

A new challenge will be to find handwoven hemp cloth in Laos, home to many Hmong and other ethnic minorities who still  live isolated rural lives in the upland areas of that mountainous country.

Alleson (Pii Plaa)

#7: The Lessons of Ban Yahu

Dec. 14, 2009

Two things these trips remind us:
  1. It's good to be flexible because we cannot predict, well enough control, the situations we find ourselves in, and
  2. Our primary purpose is to put money into women's hands, especially poor rural women's hands -- regardless of our policies about production methods and group structures.

We were reminded of these lessons on our trip to Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand when, on the spur of the moment, our plans were changed for us. One minute we were spending what was left of the afternoon attending to some bookkeeping and blog writing, and the next we were in the back of a pick-up truck heading up a mountain. After one hour, the truck stopped in a remote village where pigs and toddlers shared a rutted dirt path that ran between a dozen or so buildings.

We climbed down from the truck and up a rickety ladder to a rustic home made from bamboo. Its porch was crowded with women of one of the local ethnic minorities, each clutching a well-used plastic bag.

Inside the plastic bags were loads of beautifully coloured shoulder bags woven from industrial fibres coloured with chemical dyes. Likely the yarns had been bought pre-dyed at one of the many textile shops adjacent to the market in most large towns in Thailand. But the colours were very pleasing, if not natural, the designs were unique and the weaving, done the hard way on a back strap loom, was very competent. Most importantly, right now we were right here and it was clear to us both that there was nowhere that our money could be better spent.

So if you attend one of our shows back in Canada and you see a collection of shoulder bags that look like nothing else in the room, you'll know that they are much more than bags; you'll know that they were our lesson to put those women's needs before our preferences.

Many thanks to Patricia Solar of Izara Arts, who works with village women's groups like this one in the north of Thailand, and who whisked us off in her truck for an ascent to this mountain village. Her work with hilltribe women like these helps them sustain their families. Please visit Izara Arts to learn more about their work.

Alleson (Pii Plaa)

#6: Pa Da Cotton Textile Museum

Dec. 12, 2009

En route to visit Mai in Ban Tan in the North of Thailand, we stop at the Pa Da Cotton Textile Museum in Baan Rai Pai Ngarm, 70 km south of Chiang Mai. We turn off the highway into a straight gravel lane that's lined on either side with towering bamboo. Ahead, in the sunlight that filters through the dense clumps, slivers of dry leaves drift towards earth like a strange fall of snowflakes inside a green cathedral. I stop the bike so that Ellen can dismount and go ahead on foot with her camera at the ready.

Several hundred meters farther on there's a beautiful teak building shaded by large trees and surrounded by mature flowering shrubs. Like many traditionally styled wooden houses in the North, it sits on sturdy posts -- tree trunks really -- about 3 meters tall. This provides room below for a wide range of activities that are protected from the glaring sun of hot season and the heavy downpours of rainy season. Here the space is used as a weaving studio.

Above is the museum, which we visited last year. It's filled with traditional handlooms and other weaving and dyeing equipment, as well as photographs from earlier times. The museum celebrates and preserves the essential traditions of local cotton textile production, including the cultivation of native species of cotton and the use of natural dyes (tree barks, roots, leaves and berries). The museum is also a tribute to its founder, Mrs. Saeng-da Bunsiddhi.

Mrs. Saeng-da was born in 1919. Like most Thai and Lao weavers, she learned the traditional skills of dyeing and weaving from her grandmother. She learned additional techniques from the ethnic minorities who live in the area, an area rich in cotton textile traditions. Like most women of the time, she wove fabrics for her family's use -- including the khaki fabric needed for her husband's uniforms during World War II.

After the war, she began collecting weaving equipment and started growing native cotton plants. Together with other local women, she started the Housewives’ Union to increase income and employment opportunities, to preserve traditional dyeing and weaving techniques and to promote handicraft production. Initially, the women wove outside harvest season (as is often still the case) but the spinning, dyeing and weaving eventually grew to employ 40 of Mrs. Saeng-da's neighbours. Decades later, on the day we visited, we saw only 4 women at spinning wheels and 2 at looms.

We greet Mrs. Saeng-da's elderly daughter, who now runs the centre. As she leads us to the textile shop that sits behind the museum, she shows no sign of remembering us: this is not unexpected, given the number of foreigners who might visit during a year but it is unusual, as most Thais do remember us even if they’ve only met us once.

We place an order for 72 placemats in the same colours and pattern that we purchased last year. The colours -- intense indigo blues, rich greens and deep purples – are stronger than we usually find and the nubbly texture of the handspun cotton adds to their charm. The combination was popular last year and we expect it will be this year too.

We are lucky enough to pick up a few scarves in the same colour palette. All these pieces -- like the museum and weaving centre -- are unique to Baan Rai Pai Ngarm. They are also testaments to the hard work of Mrs. Saeng-da, who in the 1980's was declared a National Folkcraft Artist in Thailand. We're happy to recognize and help preserve these traditional practices through our purchases.

Alleson (Pii Plaa)

[Ellen's note: Thanks to Bhothong Keowsuddhi, Director of the Northern Industrial Promotion Centre, for background information, presented in a brochure distributed at the centre.]

#5: Visiting Mai at Junhom Bantan

Dec 12, 2009

It's a lovely day of driving to visit Junhom Bantan, a social enterprise that works with cotton weavers in 2 small villages 100 kms south of Chiang Mai. Mindful of our carbon footprint, we usually travel by public transit when we can't go by rented motorbike. However, cotton products are bulky as well as heavy (not great on a motorbike) and the village is 20 kms beyond the junction where the bus stops, so we rent a car for the day. This allows us to also stop along the way at the Pa Da Cotton Textile Museum (to be covered in the next blog entry).

Alleson recollects that the turn off the main highway is trickier than it appears on the map and, indeed, it is but we negotiate the further junction and head out the tertiary road through a dry scrub forest and look closely for the side road to the village. The turn-off is several kilometres further than we remember so we make a note for next time. Along this fourth road, stunted fruit trees are interspersed with stands of bamboo. The land is dry and rises gently towards one of the 5 chains of mountains that run north-south through Northern Thailand. It appears not well suited for rice farming despite the harvested fields that we also see.

Four kilometres along, and well past the small corner store where we asked for directions last time, we pull up alongside a wall covered in vines, unsure where to go next. Happily, Mai appears out of a driveway to greet us; we've arrived despite feeling lost!

We met Mai 2 visits ago and we've become more and more fond of each other with each visit. Her mother was one of the original members of the weaving group from which Junhom Bantan has evolved. The group was started 15 years ago with help from the government and the local branch of Homenet, an international organization that works with home-based workers. Mai now co-ordinates the re-conceived social enterprise. She develops new designs, manages finances and production and, most importantly, provides an important link to international markets that the group would otherwise be unable to reach.

Like many Thai women of her generation, Mai was able to go to university, studying marketing; this was a feat for her parents, who, as farmers, struggled to raise enough money to supplement her small scholarship, with help from the income generated by the weaving and dyeing. As many studies have shown, when women, in particular, are able make money beyond a subsistence level, they put it towards their children's nutrition and education. Although she did go to university, and clearly has skills to show for it, Mai tells us that she prefers to live in the village where she grew up -- unlike many of her peers.

During our visit she tells us that her father is a master dyer and that, in Ban Tan and the neighboring village, men do much of the heavy work of dyeing the cotton yarns, while a group of 40 women do the weaving. Our order of 124 pieces in 5 designs will take them 2 months to produce. This is "slow fashion" -- from the time needed for careful, handmade production to the timeless designs and the quality of the work that will help these pieces last.

Mai tells us the same story about the cotton yarns that we've heard from others: She wants to provide more organic cotton products, especially for her international customers, but there is not enough organic cotton grown in Thailand to meet the demand. Last year, she made the decision to invest in 1,000 kg of handspun cotton from a local Karen village, grown without chemicals. (She explained that she doesn't use the term "organic" because of the proximity of heavily sprayed fruit trees near the cotton fields.)

At the same time, most weavers prefer to use factory-produced cotton yarns for the warp (lengthwise yarns on the loom) because they are thinner yet stronger than handspun cotton yarns. This means that they are both easier to thread through the weaving comb as well as less likely to break during weaving. Each type of yarn has its own advantage. Handspun cotton yarns are very likely chemical-free and produce uniquely rich textures while machine spun cotton yarns are ideal for intricate patterns and can result in an especially lovely drape. Both have their place, and as our principal objective is to provide rural women with much-needed income, we purchase both.

All the dyes used by Junhom Bantan are made from locally gathered dye materials: barks are boiled to give soft tans, deeper browns and even yellows; leaves colour the yarns in various shades of green; krang (insect resin) yields pinks, magentas and pale purples; and the leaves of the indigo shrub, through an alchemy all their own, provide a wide range of blues. Some of these dyestuffs are purpose-grown; others grow wild in the district and are gathered sustainably to ensure they will continue to be available to the dyers' pots. (Those of you who have bought our wrap pants in the past have seen some of these beautiful colours, as these pants come from this group.)

I asked Alleson to compare her ability to speak Thai with Mai's ability to speak English. She tells me that they are probably on par, although Alleson is practicing her Thai on a daily basis now, while Mai only has intermittent opportunities to practice. We were quite able to communicate, complimenting their spoken language with drawings and samples put together in small piles. I also photographed several scarves to keep a visual record of our order.

As we left, after spending the afternoon together discussing designs, placing our order, sharing stories about our countries, laughing and eating bananas that Mai brought from her garden, she invited us to stay with her in her village on our next trip. She will introduce us to some of the weavers and dyers, which we always love as this helps us tell their story better.

Also, we'll take the bus next time, as Mai has offered to have us picked up at the junction. We can't wait!

Ellen (Nok Noi)