#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)