New creations from Prae Pan weaving co-op

Later in January than usual, we're happy to finally arrive at Prae Pan.

Fon, this weaving co-operative's shop manager, returned from maternity leave in December with her newborn son, Pai, who seems to be growing as fast as his name (Bamboo) would predict! No surprise that he (and Fon's breastfeeding) have become a special part of the fabric of life at the co-op's shop: another example how women can shape organizations to best suit their own needs.

Alleson, Pai, Fon and Mae Ouan at Prae Pan's shop

The co-op's Khon Kaen location in Northeast Thailand (known as Isaan) serves as a retail shop, office, meeting space and warehouse for textiles woven by members in 7 surrounding villages. This community business glows with the pride of self-sufficiency that has been a core value of the co-op for over 20 years.

Inside we're excited to find loads of new hemp fabric in a range of beautiful earth tones -- Prae Pan's specialty -- so, of course, we order more hemp tote bags. We designed this bag last year and found it was popular as a knitting tote.

TAMMACHAT hemp tote bag
some of the new tote bag fabrics

We're also excited to find a new design on the shop's ready-to-wear rack. Ellen tries on a pair of these unique culottes and loves them immediately! Comfortable, loose and easy to wear, they come with choices of 2 pocket designs. We carefully choose cotton, hemp and silk fabrics for the body of the pants, then in consultation with Fon and Mae Ouan, we choose contrasting mudmee (ikat) fabrics for accent details.

Ellen sports a pair of cute culottes!

Apparently choosing fabrics works up an appetite! At mid-day, mats are rolled out on the shop's gleaming wooden floors, Pai is put in his hammock and we 4 sit down for another delicious lunch. The rice is Mae Ouan's own. Afterwards dishes are cleared, mats are rolled up and Ellen lays down on the floor for a short rest. ("You ate too much sticky rice so now you want to sleep!" Mae Ouan chides,  in Thai of course.)

Every visit provides us more language lessons and more teachings about natural dyes. We ask Mae Ouan, the resident natural dye expert, to tell us more about krang, the "mother" of pink dyes:
  • The colours are stronger when the insect resin (known as "stick lac" in English) is fresh.
  • Krang can be collected from the trees on which the insect lives anytime -- except rainy season.
  • The resin can be collected after the insect has gone through its cycle and flies away.
  • In former times, most natural dyers raised their own krang (is "raised" the right word when you're dealing with insects?!); the colours were stronger, as strong as chemical colours because it was fresh; now few do this work.
  • Recently, the price has increased 6 times so pink silks will be more expensive than before.

Alleson helps Mae Ouan fold organic silk fabric dyed with rosewood

More local dye wisdom:
  • Colours are stronger in this season because the plants are not as saturated as in rainy season.
  • The shade of grey (or grey-green) produced by ebony fruit depends on how mature the fruit is and whether it's fresh or dried.
  • The leaf of a local vine, baie beuak, yields delicate shades from silvery grey to sky blue: "You don't want the water too warm or it changes the colour." If it's hot, you get a grey-green instead. Mae Ouan cultivates a planting of this that she originally got from a friend in Mukdahan province. She says, "it gives a more beautiful colour,"  so she has shared cuttings from this plant with other Prae Pan members.

fresh ebony fruit

hemp fabric (on the left) dyed with ebony

After this break that has fed our stomachs and our minds, it's back to designing! Over the next several days we look and learn, think and choose, joke and eat. Alleson shows an unexpected fondness for waltzing Pai around the shop, while Ellen probes Mae Ouan for her traditional knowledge and practices her Thai with Fon.

We order bags in almost every colour and size. Bags with zips, bags with drawstrings, bags with dinosaurs and elephants! We re-order bags that we designed 3 years ago, the Prae Pan signature shoulder pouch, and a new design -- a drawstring bag, perfect for smaller knitting projects such as socks, mittens or a hat. This year's version -- improved with feedback from local knitting shops in Nova Scotia -- will be available in the spring.

prototype knitting project bag

Last but not least, we immerse ourselves in the beauty of silks. In their glass-fronted cupboard, we find a small, treasure trove of organic, hand-reeled village silks. We unfold metres of a deep, ruddy rosewood, and smaller amounts of silvery greens and blues, all of which we will bring home with us for Quilt Canada 2012 in Halifax. (We're happy to be a "Special Friend" of Quilt Canada 2012; you can find us in the Merchant Mall, May 30-June 2 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.)

We also choose 28 beautifully unique scarves for our spring shows but find very few of our favourite Prae Pan scarf pattern, lai bpit, which we've named "Tendrils." We check on silk yarn availability (lots!) and order 8 each of 2 of our best selling colour choices -- a krang magenta and a baie beuak mint blue, both on an undyed warp.

Tendrils scarf with ebony fruit dyed weft

After 4 days of visits, we are sorry to say goodbye but thrilled to leave Prae Pan's shop with a true sign of our closeness: Mae Ouan and Fon each gives us a kilo of rice -- this year's harvest -- from their families' rice fields, another sign of our deepening fair trade relationship.

As we leave, Mae Ouan is also saying goodbye to Pai, who is now old enough to leave his mother and return to the village to be looked after during the week by Fon's husband and mother.

We look forward to next year's visit. Khit thung ("thinking of you").

Ellen and Alleson

Fairtrade organic cotton along the Mekong

Stuffed elephant cushions, bags, table cloths, jackets,bucket hats, zippered pouches – these are a few of the handwoven cotton products made with cloth created by women in Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani province.

organic cotton elephants stuffed with organic kapok!

They make many of these products from handspun, organic cotton, grown along the banks of the Mekong River that divides Thailand from Laos, when the river levels are low in cool and dry seasons, revealing fertile land. It is perfect for growing the cotton, its companion plant indigo – the leaves of which yield the well-known, deep blue indigo dye – and vegetable crops ranging from leaf lettuces, green onions and cilantro to animal feed crops like corn.

organic cotton on the banks of the Mekong River

In 2009, we spent 2 weeks with Aew, who worked with village groups of organic cotton farmers, spinners, dyers and weavers for more than 15 years. We documented and celebrated the Pattanarak Foundation's Organic Cotton Project in a photo book, Weaving Sustainable Communities: Organic Cotton Along the Mekong. (Preview it free online.)

The project ended but Aew, deeply rooted with these artisan groups, started a small, fair trade social enterprise, Napafai, to continue to offer them markets in nearby urban centres, such as Ubon.

Alleson and Aew from Napafai

We met up with Aew in her hometown of Ubon, where she also works for another Thai non-governmental organization, to learn more about her ongoing work with these artisans. She now works as a volunteer board member for the Nong Peun Noi Product Training Centre, where the skilled artisans taught us how they gin and fluff cotton, spin it by hand, dye it with local natural dyes, tie-dye their mudmee (ikat) patterns and weave cloth on traditional floor looms.

tyeing the pattern before dyeing

the tie-dyed indigo mudmee

At this centre, the area artisans receive training – such as the 3-day training in sewing bags that was going on during our visit with Aew – and train school groups and other artisan groups in their centre, passing along their skills.

Nong Peun Noi Product Training Centre

We love the stuffed elephants (sold here as cushions, but equally delightful as sweatshop-free toys) and ordered them in a variety of colours, including bold checks and stripes! (Who says all elephants are grey?) We were excited to find 4 pieces of mudmee cloth in intense indigo blue, woven with a handspun organic cotton weft (crossways yarns) and we ordered small zippered pouched in a finer indigo mudmee cloth.

mudmee zippered pouches --
perfect for notions, change, iPod or phone
a finely patterned mudmee cotton cloth

A quilt with organic cotton batting intrigued us too. Cloth made from fine cotton yarns was loosely woven then 2 layers were stuffed with cotton after its seeds were removed using a handcarved, hand-cranked, traditional cotton gin and fluffed with another traditional tool.

removing seeds with traditional wooden cotton gin

fluffing cotton before spinning it

organic cotton batting in a handwoven quilt cover

We look forward to visiting Napafai's new shop – in the planning stages – and seeing continued opportunities for these artisans to market their work, especially important for the middle-aged and older women whose work with cloth brings much-needed income to their families.

Panmai, Part 2: Natural dyes -– pinks and purples

During our January visit to Panmai's shop, we also chose more than 3 dozen silk scarves, concentrating on a range of reds and purples to round out our displays in 2012. Panmai weaving co-operative is known for its luscious colours: deep golds, brilliant reds, regal purples and deep ebonies. Silk slurps up dyes better than most fibres, especially when using natural dyes, and Panmai doesn't skimp on the concentrations of their dye baths. Curious about how the variations within a hue are made, I set aside 4 scarves to ask how their colours were achieved.

Mali, the group's shop manager, knows her natural dyes well. Krang, a dye known as "lac" or "stick lac" in English, is made with the help of a small insect. The Laccifer Lacca beetle is put on a branch of the Rain Tree (Samanea Saman) where it creates a resin which can be cut from the branch after the insect develops and flies away. This wart-like growth, deep brown in colour, is the central ingredient in many of the pinks, reds and purples found in Asian textiles, especially silks. Its appearance – in its raw form – belies the beauty of the colours it will yield when master dyers apply their skills to it.

krang (stick lac), ready to be prepared for the dye pot

Some pinks and purples created by Panmai from natural dyes
  1. Violet (scarf #1 below): After immersing in a concentrated dye bath of krang, the silk yarns are  washed in water from a particular well in one village. While the salty tasting water is not good to drink, it transforms the usual magenta of krang into a clear, violet-purple.
  2. Orchid (scarf #2): Underground water from the same special well is used along with krang and wood from the Sappan tree (caesalpinia sappan) to create this orchid purple with a hint of pale brown.
  3. Heliotrope (scarf #3): Here the dye bath was super-saturated with 12 kg of krang to colour 2 kg of silk yarns.  
  4. Magenta pink (scarf #4): Only 2 kg of krang are used to dye 2 kg of silk yarn but Sappan wood was also added to the dye bath.

4 tones of purple and pink from krang and sappan wood

On this trip we have been told by more than one group that the price of krang has risen sharply this year. This is especially significant if the groups' members can not harvest enough for themselves and must buy it from others. Some groups are experimenting with using more sappan wood and other local dye stuffs to achieve pinks, reds and purples.

This is a glimpse into the complexity of making and using natural dyes. Each dyeing yields slightly different colours, depending on the time of year – even the week when dye materials are collected and processed – and depending on the artistry and skills of the dyer. The water used, the mordants used to set the dyes, water temperature and mineral content, the amount of dye materials to silk threads – all work in a seemingly magical way to bring forth colours to dye for.

We realize how fortunate we have been to receive such detailed information about many of the dyes traditionally used in Southeast Asia. In the coming year we hope to collect much of this onto one page of our website for easier reference.

In the meantime, we'll be working to get these and other fabulous new items back to Canada for you to see.


Panmai, Part 1: Long-term relationships are the heart of Fair Trade

While the standards stipulated by the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) guide our business practices, they also highlight the heart in our work. Nowhere is this more evident than in our annual visits to the artisan groups that create our products: our time together personifies the WFTO commitment to maintain "long term relationships based on solidarity, trust and mutual respect." A case in point is our relationship with  the weaving co-operative Panmai Group.

We first met Panmai in 2003. As often happens in our work, we were introduced to them by members of another co-op. The familial network of weaving groups in Thailand and Laos, particularly those established more than 2 decades ago, is deep and wide. Like the babies we see in Thailand, we are passed from the embrace of 1 family member to another, making us wonder whether or when we might stand on our own!

Last month when we arrived at the offices of Panmai, Mali and Ung jumped up to greet us warmly. We left the glare of the sun-baked street, entered the cool shade of their shop and exchanged hugs. With us was our good friend Pii Yai, a volunteer board member of Prae Pan weaving co-operative, who had been pleased to give us a drive to this small market town in Roi-Et, Thailand.

Pii Yai, Alleson, Mali and Ung in Panmai's shop

Mali, whose name means "jasmine," has worked with Panmai for more than 20 years. Ung, whose demeanour reflects the stillness referred to by her name, is a more recent staff member with 10 years service to the group. Between them, they coordinate the production of orders, maintain inventory records, keep the accounts and do all the marketing. This includes attending craft fairs and staffing their only retail shop, which also serves as the offices and warehouse for the group, whose members live scattered amongst villages in Roi-Et and the 2 neighbouring provinces of Surin and Sisaket.

After our greetings, we pore over the inventory on hand – piles and piles (!!!) of organically created silk scarves are safeguarded in glass-fronted, hardwood cabinets. While we're already familiar with most of Panmai's designs, we're always keen to see new designs and, especially, to develop new ones together. This too is one of the tenets of Fair Trade: to develop new products and new markets with the aim of increasing the income of marginalized small producers.

Indeed, we have planned to discuss a new product on this trip. We pull out a sample of a travel-sized jewellery pouch that has been made for generations in East Asia: 8 small pockets clustered around a central well that is secured into a lovely blossom by a drawstring. It's perfect for safe, easy and mobile access to rings, earrings, bracelets and necklaces. When I first saw this blossom pouch, I immediately thought of how lovely it would be in Panmai's signature organic silk.

We explore the dark cupboards, hunting for the perfect colours. We are delighted to find an iridescent pink "shot" with gold – its warp yarns, dyed deep pink with stick lac, are enhanced with a golden weft (crossing yarns) dyed with organic coconut husks.  It is a perfect jewel for anyone's jewels!

handwoven organic silk

Ellen and I then choose an undyed organic silk for the lining, but Mali and Ung advise us that the contrast is too stark, so we reconsider and settle instead on another pink silk "shot" with undyed yarns, resulting in an overall soft pink.

Next, we need a price and an estimate of the making time. Ung makes a call to Jong (whose name remarkably means "clear, diligent, perfect work"). She's not a member of the co-op but has worked with the group for over 20 years as their sewer. We met her on a previous visit when we developed our Silk Squares for quilters and other fibre artists. (See our blog post of Feb. 3, 2008.) Before we thought it possible, Jong arrives on a motorbike from her village nearby.

A team effort in designing the new jewellry pouch

While Mali and I measure the sample pouch we have brought, Ellen goes online to search for layouts to get the most number of circles (the basis of this design) out of a given piece of fabric. Instead, she finds a vague (not vogue!) pattern for the pouch itself. Together, we briefly examine the pattern on our small screen and then Jong disappears upstairs with some silk remnants that Mali has already dug out.

TAMMACHAT's new Travel Jewellry Pouch - prototype

An hour later, Jong emerges with a lovely prototype of the travel jewellery pouch! The making allows us to approve the design as well as allowing Jong to accurately estimate her labour time and cost. Mali adds the cost of the silk fabrics and guesstimates the satin drawstring cost. Ung adds a few baht for managing the project.

We have just witnessed how an experienced and effective production team at Panmai operates. With their combined 50 years of experience, no accountants or computer modeling were needed yet we're all satisfied that a fair price has been arrived at.

These will be mailed to us in Chiang Mai in late February, in time to bring them with us in our luggage to Canada in late March – a truly co-operative effort.


25 ways to wear a scarf

Cool video! 25 ways to wear a scarf in 4.5 minutes.

12 more ways TAMMACHAT shows you how to tie a scarf.

And then there's weaving a scarf as a head wrap.