#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)