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.

Spinning Understanding -- More about Silk

Hand-reeling silk in NE Thailand
Occasionally people ask us whether silkworms are killed to produce silk. Our answer is “no, but…”

Killing the worm, which is actually a caterpillar, would defeat the purpose. Caterpillars spin the cocoons that provide the filaments which comprise silk thread. But cocoons contain pupae and, when cocoons are boiled to loosen the gum that holds the filaments together, the pupae are cooked much the same as an egg is boiled. And, just as a boiled egg will never become a chicken, a boiled pupa will never become a moth.

Also like a boiled egg, a boiled pupa is an excellent source of nutrition. So much so that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promotes the nutrition available from silk pupae, especially in the rice-growing regions in Southeast Asia where the rural poor are frequently deficient in proteins and other nutrients whether or not they have enough carbohydrates.

Silkworm pupae are full of protein. They also contain essential amino acids, potassium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, zinc, phosphorus, selenium and other trace elements as well as vitamins A, E, B1, B2 and carotene -- all of which are vital to the human body.

The 1st Eri silk group we worked with
TAMMACHAT buys its silk from rural weaving groups in Thailand and Laos where women often raise silk caterpillars in their homes. These are Bombyx mori, sometimes called mulberry silkworms. During village visits, we’ve seen the boiled pupae relished as a traditional food.

At TAMMACHAT, we put great importance on respecting the cultures in which we work. This often means leaving our judgments at home and, instead, trying to better understand the people who create the beautiful weavings we sell. So, when we were offered fried pupae, Ellen diplomatically tasted one. Later, I was delighted to see an FAO information booth at a fair in Vientiane, Laos, promoting the nutritional value of silk pupae and other insects.

Fried pupae with sticky rice & fish
In India, there is another tradition of making silk from the remnants of cocoons made by Samia ricini, the Eri silkworm. Unlike Bombyx mori, the cocoons made by Eri caterpillars are not comprised of a continuous filament, so they are spun into a yarn rather than reeled as thread. Because of this difference, spinners can allow pupae to develop into moths that leave their cocoons. When the Eri silkworm was introduced into Thailand, however, women boiled the pupae anyway and added it to their families’ diets, maintaining tradition while providing nutrition.

With this knowledge, I continue to wear silk just as I continue to eat eggs. In either case I ask: Were the beings that provided these things for me treated cruelly? Was the environment destroyed or depleted in the process? And most importantly, did the people who laboured to provide me these natural goods endure unhealthy or unjust conditions, or were they treated with respect and appropriately paid?

Handwoven vegan silk scarf coloured with ebony fruit
We ask these same questions at TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles where our goal is to sustain cultures, communities and the environment rather than market what is sometimes called “peace silk,” “vegetarian silk,” “no-kill silk” or “cruelty-free silk.” We buy handwoven, heritage-quality silks coloured with traditional natural dyes. Our ethical fashion accessories and fabrics do not come from sweatshops or any other factory. Most of it is organic mulberry silk. We have found only one producer in Thailand who allows the Eri moth to develop and leave the cocoons naturally, so his work is available in very limited editions. If you’d like to see these or our mulberry silks and learn more about how they’re made, we invite you to visit

More blog posts about Eri silk:


TAMMACHAT featured in A Distinctive Style Magazine

TAMMACHAT's fair trade eco-textiles featured in the Winter 2011 edition of A Distinctive Style Magazine: Weaving Beautiful Cloth: Fair trade organic silk in Northeast Thailand. Text and photos by Ellen Agger. Check out all the inspiring stories.

How to get around Thailand

We've received several requests for contact information for the driver and interpreter we employ to visit rural weaving groups in Thailand. Our answer is always “Sorry, no can do.” Here are 6 reasons why.

1. Buses and songthaews

Bus service in Thailand is extremely good. Buses are fast, cheap and go almost everywhere. But navigating one’s way through the thousands of available buses can be challenging. Reading place names in Thai script is the first hurdle. Alleson can read a bit of Thai and speaks more than that. She also understands how place names are organized and how to interpret addresses.

Even more confusing are the various types of buses and the number of bus stations in a given place. In a big city, there are often 3 bus stations – air-con, 2nd class and intra-provincial. But there are always exceptions: for example, our recent trip from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani -- It’s a 12-hour overnight journey so we chose to spend a bit more for tickets on a VIP bus with 24 seats rather than the usual 40+. However, while our friend was waiting to pick us up at the air-con bus station, we arrived at the 2nd class station. Alleson’s Thai got us a clarification of where we were and my essential cell phone allowed me to tell our friend where to find us.

BTW, a songthaew is a type of pickup truck with a full canopy and 2 bench seats that often has a designated route for intra-provincial travel.

2. Trains

We like train travel in Thailand. It's slower and more expensive than bus travel but it’s relaxing and less claustrophobic, especially for long trips. But it’s not as enjoyable or safe as it used to be. The older cars haven’t been kept up and most of the reserved seating fan cars are being replaced by hermetically sealed air-con ones that are more expensive and less romantic. More the issue, though, is they don’t reach most of the places we need to go.

3. Cars and Trucks

Sometimes we join our friend Pii Yai, rural development worker extraordinaire, in her bucket of a truck. Piled in the back are her sleeping bag, pop-up mosquito net and other basic tools for daily living as she spends most of her time visiting projects throughout NE Thailand. There’s also stuff she's gotten from one project to share with others; such as water-filters, fuel efficient stoves, plant cuttings, etc. We're grateful to her and her 15 year-old Mazda that keeps on trucking and we’re always happy to pay to fill her tank with bio-diesel.

4. Motorcycles

When bicycle travel waned here, scooters and small motorbikes (100-125 cc) became the standard for personal local transportation. We rent them when available, i.e., when we're in places where lots of other foreigners go. However, monster trucks and SUVs now crowd the road (and put their owners deep in debt) so riding on 2 wheels seems increasingly dangerous. Like most places, drinking and driving is a huge problem.

Nonetheless, put Alleson on a motorbike and she’s all smiles. When she lived here, she toured to every changwat (province) over the course of 8 years, putting 50,000 km. on her 250cc imported Honda. We use motorbikes just for daytrips, though.

I’ve learned to drive a scooter. I'm too much of a bicycle rider to get the hang of the different set-up for the brakes on the geared motorbikes! I can drive myself, but not the 2 of us, so I'm usually sitting behind Alleson, often carrying bags, baskets and other large objects in the typical Asian way!

5. Air travel

This year we flew directly to Chiang Mai after arriving in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, to avoid travelling into the city only to leave again the next day. It was a good decision but in general we prefer to keep our carbon footprint low by taking ground transportation. It also saves us a lot of money.

6. Walking

Of course, our most common form of transportation is walking. Like our other means of travel, it allows us to meet Thais face to face without the isolation of a private car or the insulation of an interpreter. Walking across town or riding a songthaew to an outlying village provides opportunities for chance meetings and serendipitous discoveries that enrich our experience and broaden our understanding.

In short, we’re not keeping our driver and translator to ourselves; rather, we ourselves are our drivers and interpreters.

Photo essay: Cotton Weaving in Northern Thailand

Junhom Bantan is a Northern Thai weaving group that specializes in eco-friendly, natural dyes and handweaving. They weave with handspun cotton, as well as stronger, unbleached cotton yarns. TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles has been working with this group since 2007, building a fair trade relationship. On Christmas Day, 2011, we began a 2-day visit to the small villages where group members live and work. These cultural traditions are still alive and well, thanks to the efforts of Mai, the woman who acts as the group's manager,and whose mother started the group many years ago. A keen interest in natural fibres and natural dyes in Japan, as well as other countries, continues to provide a market for their eco-textiles.

[Photos and text copyright Ellen Agger 2011. Please ask for permission to use them.]

Mai, who manages Junhom Bantan now, stands in front of the small village shop with her mother who started the village natural dyeing/weaving group many years ago. Most customers, like TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles, now visit the village to make special orders.

A sampling of cotton threads show some of the natural colours available from leaves, barks and insect resin. This group specializes in earth tones in interesting combinations.

Juhom Bantan's breezy cotton scarf in shades of blue is available from TAMMACHAT's online shop.

The dyeing area, in the shade for comfort and protection for the dyers, houses dye materials, a chopping machine for dye materials, yarns, dye pots that simmer over fires, 2 spin dryers to wring out the dyed yarn, and a drying area out of the sun.      

Mai's paa (father) and sister do most of the group's dyeing now.  

The fruit of the ebony plant creates a rich, dark brown.

This machine chops bark into small pieces so it can be used multiple times to create dyes. The chips are later composted.

Unbleached cotton yarns steep in a dye bath, soaking up a tan colour from bark of a local tree.

Unbleached cotton is lightly dyed and hung to dry.

The blue dye is created from hom, a leaf in the same family as the more famous indigo plant. It has been collected in the wild in Northern Thailand, made into cakes and used in Ban Tan to dye cotton yarns a medium and dark blue.

A typical floor loom in Northern Thailand. This one is set up with a trigger shuttle and a "rocking" seat. It's under the house, easily accessed when the weaver has some time to weave.

Women weave when they have time. Some use it as a main source of income when they are not growing and harvesting rice, their staple crop. Others use it to supplement their income. Some tell us they simply love to weave.

This 83-year-old woman is one of the weaving group's original members.
This is the second year that this group has received the Green Products certification from the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion, given to small textile producers.

Alleson and Mai enjoy getting to know each other in Ban Tan. Mai told us she values being friends with her customers. We share this value and also feel it's important that the weavers enjoy their work. This is "slow fashion" -- creating cloth that takes time, patience, care and love.

TAMMACHAT's eco-textiles go to Ottawa

Organic silk scarf

Ottawa region people: TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles wants to bring our handwoven, eco-friendly, fair trade scarves, bags, clothing & more to Canada's capital in April/May 2011.

Can you help? We're looking for...

PEOPLE: local champions to help us spread the word about fair trade/eco-textiles/eco-fashion, tap into their networks for promotion, reach the local and national media, or who'd like to host a home party for their friends and colleagues.

SPACE: a light-filled, accessible space to rent for a show or 2 or 3, or an organization/business/gallery that might like to host a fair trade, eco-textile show.

ASSOCIATIONS/ORGANIZATIONS: interested in hosting a slideshow/talk plus sale.

Please let us know if you can help: ask(at) Learn more about TAMMACHAT, fair trade and the artisans at


Weaving naturally dyed cotton in Northern Thailand

Cotton weaving in Northern Thailand - Ban Tan visit

You can now see a set of photos that I took in Ban Tan on Dec. 25 and 26, 2010 while visiting Junhom Bantan, a cotton weaving group in Northern Thailand. Alleson will post later to this blog with highlights and impressions from this visit. For now, I'll just say that building our fair trade relationship with this group has been a delight! We're impressed with their commitment to using natural dyes, protecting their environment and creating "green products."

We look forward to sharing this group's cotton handweaving with you upon our return to Canada in Spring 2011. We'll have traditional Thai fishermen's wrap pants, cotton scarves in various weights and -- new for this group -- a beautiful undyed silk/cotton scarf made from a mix of Eri silk (handspun silk) and unbleached cotton. Alleson has been wearing this scarf in the last week and loves its soft, yet nubbly texture.

If you're on Facebook, we invite you to visit (and like!) our TAMMACHAT Facebook page. If you're not on FB, you can still see our public Ban Tan photo album.