Supporting Palaung backstrap weavers

Palaung women in traditional dress
Our December wouldn’t be complete without a day at the Doi Kham Fair in Chiang Mai. At this annual exhibition of the King’s Royal Projects in northern Thailand, we were fortunate this year to meet a group of Palaung weavers. The Palaung (also spelled “Palong’ or, as they call themselves, “Ta’ang”) are the most recent displaced peoples to settle in Thailand from Burma.

In Burma, where they are one of the oldest indigenous peoples, they live primarily in northern Shan State in an area long recognized for tea production. A new report released by Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization estimates that 63% of farming families have lost their land to confiscation by the Burmese military and their cronies, primarily for massive hydroelectric and pipeline development projects. Read more on the Palaung Women's Organization website.

Cotton scarf, naturally dyed
The Palaung women we met live close to the Thai-Burmese border, about 3 hours by bus from Chiang Mai. Their traditional dress, which they were wearing, centres around red fabric but the handwoven scarves we bought from them are naturally dyed. All were woven with thick, cotton yarns on backstrap looms.

The older women we met belong to a 42-women strong weaving group, while the younger women from whom we also bought belong to another group in a nearby village. As with all the women's weaving groups with whom we work, weaving brings important additional income to these communities.

To learn more about the Palaung people, visit Indigenous Peoples of the World. For more information on backstrap weaving, visit Backstrap Basics. And see our post about another backstrap weaving group from last year's Doi Kham Fair.

Cotton scarf, naturally dyed
Cotton scarf, naturally dyed
Cotton scarf, naturally dyed
Cotton scarf, naturally dyed

Cross stitch textiles reduce women's poverty

At the Asia Pacific Feminist Forum, I wasted no time finding the women's craft area. The struggle against the exploitation of migrant labour – domestic and industrial – was a major topic and the products available in the craft area were examples of positive income alternatives.

My eyes went immediately to the needlework of a women’s group from Phayao in northern Thailand. Baan Tho Fan Maetam Group is a social enterprise formed to help earn additional for village women and to provide scholarships to village children who are otherwise easy prey for sexual exploitation.

The group is comprised of an embroidery team of 59 hill tribe women. Mien (i.e., Yao) women are widely known as expert cross stitchers; the beautiful works on display were fine examples. The Maetam Group also includes a sewing team of 7 women who add these decorations onto sturdy cotton bags and pouches.

TAMMACHAT will be selling these wonderfully crafted, fair trade items in the Spring and Summer of 2012, when this group will celebrate their 16th anniversary of providing alternatives to poverty and exploitation.


New photo book showcases Lao weaving

Lao weavers are renowned for their skills in creating exceptional silks. TAMMACHAT's 5th photo book on weaving in Southeast Asia, Mulberries ORGANIC SILK, is now available. It features the work of World Fair Trade Organization member Lao Sericulture Company, a non-profit that sustains rural weavers in Laos and sells under its brand, Mulberries.

Preview the book for free in TAMMACHAT's bookstore on, then order a copy in softcover or hardcover (with paper dust jacket or with image wrap). Also available in iBook format for quick download (for iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) -- only $4.99.

Other TAMMACHAT photo books available (photos by Ellen Agger, text by Alleson Kase):
  • Panmai: Handweaving in Thailand (featuring a women's weaving co-op, specializing in hand-reeled, organic silk and known for their natural dyeing skills)
  • Prae Pan Group: Handweaving in Thailand (featuring a women's weaving co-op that is known for its earth tones in cotton)
  • Weaving Sustainable Communities: Organic Cotton Along the Mekong
  • SILK (a collection of images showing the entire process of creating beautiful silks in Thailand and Laos)

Asia Pacific Feminist Forum brings activists together

We arrive in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand with a splash! We fall into the inaugural Asia Pacific Feminist Forum of the Asia Pacific Forum for Women, Law & Development with 120 delegates from 20 countries.

Having written ahead to volunteer, we’re greeted warmly. Ellen’s tasked with tweeting from workshops; I mingle at coffee-breaks gleaning participants’ reactions and suggestions.

The women from Burma are beyond impressive. “We cannot speak of human rights in Myanmar so we speak of human dignity,” one says. This resonates deeply with an Indian women who shares her experience working at the grassroots where people deemed “untouchable” feel excluded from the legal world of “rights,” but understandably long for “dignity.”

Like the other women, we’re thrilled to see light shining in the eyes of the young Cambodian women and sobered by the thoughtful comments of an activist from Fiji who shares her exhaustion. “Four coups are too much for anyone.”

Easing into Asia? Guess not!

Follow APWLD on Twitter: @apwld. To see Feminist Forum tweets: #apff.


Feminists from across the Asia Pacific region enjoy one another

Fair trade underwear & swimwear

If you work for low wages in a garment factory in Thailand and your union president is unjustly fired, what do you do? After years of struggle, a group of unjustly fired garment factory workers in Thailand formed their own cooperative, Try Arm, offering no exploitation, sweatshop-free, fair trade fashion.

I had the good fortune to hear Jitra Cotchadet, the former union president at Triumph, a German-owned factory employing 3,000 workers. She spoke at the first Asia Pacific Feminist Forum, Dec. 12-13, 2011 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

From the Try Arm website:
"The TRY ARM brand originated in the protest camp occupied by Triumph International Thailand Labor Union workers engaged in a months-long struggle against their unlawful dismissal by their employer. After more than 20 years of laboring under exploitative garment factory conditions while serving as a beacon for social movements throughout Thailand, TITLU workers have responded to their employer’s final act of union busting by applying their longstanding commitment to democracy and economic justice to the production process itself.

"Combining extensive manufacturing experience with an unwavering social conscience, Triumph’s former union employees have now begun to produce TRY ARM undergarments and swimwear according to principles of sweat-free labor and workers’ self-management. We hope that you enjoy these high quality products in which each TRY ARM cooperative member has an equal, vital stake."

Learn more about Try Arm at

Modelling Try-Arm underwear at the Feminist Fashion Show, Asia Pacific Feminist Forum, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Dec. 12-14, 2011

Holiday gifts that give thrice!

Until midnight EST, Nov. 30, 2011.. Pick up gifts for the holidays that save you money while you  support rural women artisans in Thailand and Laos. Get 40% off your order at checkout (Coupon Code GIFT-TAM-40) when you buy online from TAMMACHAT's Ethical Ocean shop. (Canada and the US only)

Choose from organic silk scarves, cotton scarves, green gift bags and more. All dyed with natural dyes, sustainably produced and fairly traded.

FREE SHIPPING for orders over $75; $15 flat rate for other orders.

The fine print: This coupon can be used only once per household until midnight EST on Nov. 30, 2011. For larger orders, the coupon will be capped at a $100 maximum. Please be assured that the weavers have already been paid a fair price for their work, set by them.

For every piece you buy, we will gift a child in Laos their 1st book from Big Brother Mouse, a vibrant young Lao publishing company.

Feel free to share this discount code with your friends and all lovers of handwoven textiles and fair trade!

Interested in supporting Thai weavers during this difficult time with Thai floods? Here's a win-win for you and the weavers.

Until midnight, OCT. 31...Early holiday gift shopping! You get 50% off your order at checkout (Coupon Code TAMMACHATNA-EO) when you buy online from TAMMACHAT's Ethical Ocean shop.Choose from organic silk scarves, cotton scarves, green gift bags, & more. All dyed with natural dyes, sustainably produced and fairly traded. For every piece you buy, we will gift a child in Laos their 1st book from Big Brother Mouse, a vibrant young Lao publishing company. One discount code use per customer, to a max. value of $300 ($150 discounted price).

A win-win for you and the weavers.

President and committee member of Prae Pan Group,
a women's weaving co-op in NE Thailand
Cotton weaver, member of Prae Pan Group
Trainee at Houey Hong Vocational
Training Centre for Women in Laos

Guest blog at StyleSubstanceSoul

Dyeing "that perfect shade of green" with local leaves

I'm happy to share the story of one of our visits with Prae Pan Group in an article entitled "The Women Who Weave" as a guest blogger at StyleSubstanceSoul. Prae Pan is the first group we began working with way back when -- a women's weaving co-operative that's now more than 20 years old.

Organic silks come alive

It's one thing to see a scarf hanging in a store. But TAMMACHAT's fairly traded organic silk scarves really come alive when you see them on real women -- just like you.

Thanks to my friends, Terrie and Carmel, for the fun photo shoot on the waterfront in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. You look gorgeous!

Photo Essay: Big Brother Mouse Brings Fun & Educational Books to Kids in Laos

Imagine you're a child in a small village in Laos and your school loses its only teacher, so you don't go to school anymore. Imagine you have only ever read a textbook or seen writing on a blackboard. Imagine you've never owned a book so you don't know that you'll find more story if you turn the page. Now imagine...know... that this can change.

Big Brother Mouse, a young Lao-owned and Lao-staffed publishing venture, is now making creative books available in Laos, one of Southeast Asia's poorest and least developed countries. It publishes books in the Lao language (the language of schooling, but not the language of families in thousands of Lao villages). It also publishes bilingual books to help young people who want to learn English.

Young readers gobbling up their new books.

Big Brother Mouse is fostering a love of reading by making fun and educational books -- filled with fantastic drawings, paintings and photographs -- available to young readers of all ages. And now it's publishing more and more educational books for older readers too: books on women's health, taking care of your baby, inventions of the world, to name a few.

Because rural families can't afford to buy books for their children, Big Brother Mouse gives its books to kids for free. Printing and distribution are made possible by donors, including individuals, businesses and foundations.

TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles is happy to be one of these. For every textile you buy, we give a child in Laos their very first book, published by Big Brother Mouse. This is especially important to us because it gives girls -- who can't attend monastery schools in the larger towns in Laos -- a leg up on their education.

In February, we had the chance to travel with a 10-person book party team from Big Brother Mouse from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, along with 9 donors/supporters/volunteers from Canada, Australia and the US. It was a cycling trip too -- we shared 7 bikes among 17 people, swapping off as we cycled up, up, up, down, down, down through spectacular mountainous countryside along one of northeast Laos's better roads.

This photo essay gives a glimpse into our week with Big Brother Mouse. Fun? You bet! And we were very happy to help get more books into kids' hands.

The views were spectacular but the roads to small villages are few.

Noh, book designer, encourages volunteer and author Jane as they ride on a rough, dusty road.

Much more than just a cycling tour, this trip was a chance for Big Brother Mouse to hold book parties in schools along the way and to hold spontaneous "read alouds" in small villages en route.

Touy, driver and book party staff, tells a story from one of the books with great animation at a "read aloud" in a small village on the main road.

Showing the pictures, telling the story...each child was given her or his own book after this reading.

Sypai (writer and book party leader), Vanneled (writer) and Kongsy (photographer) were also researching and photographing any and every thing that tells the story of life in this part of Laos for future books. Villagers gathering and preparing grasses to make brooms. A blacksmith fashioning tools from scrap metal. Rice fields grown up around bomb craters, a legacy of America's bombing of Laos in the '60s and '70s. Weavers creating silk yarns coloured with natural dyes and weaving them into stunning silk scarves.

A woman preparing wild grasses to sell for broom making.

We learn more about weaving at Lao Sericulture's farm.

We had sponsored and attended 2 book parties in the past, and this year, we donated 794 books to schools in Luang Prabang province through 4 book parties, thanks to sales of TAMMACHAT's textiles in 2011.

Learn more at Donate directly, sponsor a book party yourself or the printing of a new book. Buy handwoven textiles from TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles. All are ways you can support this important work.

A few of the many young Big Brother Mouse staff ham it up along the route. Four Big Brother Mouse book party teams visit 2 schools a day in rural Laos, bringing books to kids.

This is the first village in Xieng Khuang province where we stopped to hold a book party.

The village school sits up the hill from the river.

A teacher reads aloud from the book about the frog -- he's never full!

Children respond to a book reading, designed to engage young minds and show that reading can be fun.

A boy listens to a story with rapt attention.

 Video: Sypai sings the Big Brother Mouse song that kids learn at the book parties -- all about the fun of reading!

Games are part of the fun at Big Brother Mouse book parties.

Listen, do, laugh. Games engage young minds and bodies. Just ask Daoheung, book party staff.

At the end of the book party, every child receives a book of her or his very own!

These girls are engrossed in their very first book, given to them by Big Brother Mouse, thanks to supporters like TAMMACHAT and many others from around the world.

" I can read!" And what a fun story!

"What happens next?"

Peek inside our weaving books!

Come along with us on a virtual tour of Isaan weaving villages in Northeast Thailand! We created 3 PHOTO BOOKS that showcase some of the Thai silk and cotton weaving groups with whom we work. Each book gives a behind-the-scenes look at the making of extraordinary handwoven textiles. From creating the natural fibres to natural dyeing to readying the loom, these books tell stories that bring these textiles and the women who create them to life.

You can look inside our books for FREE. If you want to buy a copy for your craft library, they are available either from our website (hardcover only) or from TAMMACHAT's Blurb Bookstore (hardcover and softcover).

With these books, you will go on a virtual tour of Isaan with TAMMACHAT to visit:
  • members of the silk weaving group Panmai
  • members of the silk and cotton weaving group Prae Pan
  • organic cotton farmers, natural dyers and weavers who live along the Mekong River, and are weaving sustainable communities

We're proud that each group featured uses the books themselves to illustrate their traditional practices to their own customers. We also use them extensively at our own eco-textile events to demonstrate weaving and dyeing techniques, and to introduce some of the artisans. Enjoy!

    Hmong Story Cloths Handstitched in Laos

    While TAMMACHAT focuses on supporting rural weavers in Thailand and Laos, we couldn't resist the Hmong story cloths (called "Paj Ntaub Tib Neeg" in Hmong) on display in Luang Prabang, Laos. These colourful cloths showcase the traditional embroidery skills of Hmong women, often seen stitching in villages and markets, especially in northern Laos. The cloths we purchased depict life in Hmong villages and surrounding forests. Others tell stories of war and hardship.

    We bought these story cloths from Ms Boonsong, a woman we met who comes from a small village about 60 km from Luang Prabang. The embroidery is particularly detailed and beautiful. Each carefully stitched piece, about 10" square, takes about 5 days to complete. They can be incorporated into larger quilt pieces or enjoyed as they are.

    For a fascinating and lengthy discussion of Hmong stitchery, we recommend Geraldine Craig's recent investigation of Hmong textiles entitled, "Patterns of change: transitions in Hmong textile language" which was published in the Jan. 2010 edition of The Hmong Studies Journal. Ms Craig discusses the transition in Hmong needlework from abstract and symbolic geometric patterning to a "new pictorial embroidered textile language." Her paper concludes with a compelling list of references. The paper is freely available online.

    The Cycles of Nature: When Black is Brown

    Whenever we visit our weaving partners in Thailand and Laos, we’re struck by the cyclical nature of this work. There is a season for everything. Dye in rainy season and cool season. Weave in cool season. Rest in hot season. Begin again. And throughout, grow rice. Plant. Tend. Harvest.

    For us too, there is a season. We spend 4 months here each year during weaving season. We make orders, choose textiles already woven, visit the dyers and weavers in their town shops and, sometimes, in their villages.

    For the weavers, their constant is growing rice, the crop and food that underpins life in this part of the world. Our constant is learning – about the lives of these women, their techniques, their skills, their capacities, their interests in working together. And, always, we learn more about the effects of natural and its cycles.

    An example: This year Panmai Group in Northeast Thailand told us that it’s a bumper year for ebony in their region. The fruits of this tall tree yield browns that, when dyed again and again, produce a deep, rich espresso black. Delighted with the news, we immediately placed an order with Panmai for a dozen ebony black scarves. In the process we learned that, unlike other colours, they dye only finished scarves with ebony as the dye makes the fine silk threads too sticky to handle in skeins.

    We also ordered black scarves from Lao Sericulture Co., which works with hundreds of families in Northeast Laos. Their black is achieved using other dye materials available in their area. But black – in any region – is difficult to produce with natural dyes. It depends on both the skills of the dyer and, more unpredictably, the weather.

    This year, when we saw our first samples in Laos, the “black” scarves were definitely brown – and a pale brown, at that. Tactfully, they offered to re-dye the organic silk yarns. We gratefully accepted their offer and hoped for a deeper, chocolate brown next time. Today, the second samples arrived: the colours are beautiful – one style a lovely chocolate brown and the other a deep espresso brown – so we eagerly await the completion of the order. Yes, these “blacks” are browns, but they’re beautiful and this is what nature offers us right now.

    This is handwork that shows the hand of the maker. It also shows the hand of nature, yielding colours that can only be achieved by knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation, coupled with experimentation and trainings in methods that will improve colour fastness and colour depth, even new colours. There will always be variation.

    What’s important to us at TAMMACHAT is that, whatever the result of our order, each piece is unique. Each respects nature. Each supports rural women. What could be better?

    New from TAMMACHAT: Sweatshop-free Clothing

    For years we’ve been looking for a tailoring group in Thailand – one that could make clothing with the handwoven cotton and silk cloth that we buy from weaving groups in Northern and Northeast Thailand. At the end of last year’s trip, at a special juried craft fair, we met Kumpor, whose name means “sufficiency.” We loved their unique, “fusion” designs, so we bought a few pieces and found these sold quickly in Canada at our Fair Trade Textile events.

    It came as no surprise that we found this group in Chiang Mai. This large and vibrant northern Thai city is home to many highly skilled tailors, dressmakers and small factories that sew the many garments produced in the area. But we wanted to find a group that shares TAMMACHAT’s values of offering fair wages and benefits to the sewers, as well as protecting the environment. This worker-owned co-op fit the bill!

    So, this year we looked for their retail outlet. There we were able to make arrangements to visit Kumpor’s headquarters and workshop. Once we had the address, we had no trouble finding it, as it’s based in the community where Alleson first lived in Thailand 20 years ago.

    Our visit to their headquarters allowed us to learn about the group as well as see their designs. Unlike the other groups with whom TAMMACHAT works, Kumpor colours its cloth with low impact chemical dyes from Germany and the UK that are certified “environmentally friendly.” This year, they received “Green Product” certification from the Thai Department of Environmental Quality Promotion, one that’s available only to small textile producers that use environmentally responsible processes.

    Kumpor co-operative includes:
    • 6-7 pattern-makers and sewers who work at the community workshop
    • 28 home-based sewers who work with Homenet Thailand's support and oversight
    • a group of 26 dyers and 18 handweavers, living in a community about 2 hours away, where they  produce the cloth Kumpor uses for its garments. They are in the process of adding local farmers to the group to grow heritage varieties of cotton. This will allow Kumpor to add new designs that will feature handspun, handwoven, indigo-dyed fabric.
    Most of the indigo cloth we have found comes from Sakhon Nakhon in Northeast Thailand. Interestingly, the indigo Kumpor will use for its handspun cotton clothing grows wild in the north of Chiang Mai province. Karen people (one of the “hilltribe” groups in the North) gather it and make dried dye cakes that the co-op will buy and send to the dyeing/weaving group.

    This year our visit resulted in an order for cotton blouses and jackets in 3 distinctively different styles and 3 appealing colour ranges, using designs and cloth produced by co-op members. These will be available in spring 2011 when we return to Canada.

    We look forward to working with Kumpor on future projects. We hope you look forward to seeing their unique line of sweatshop-free clothing.