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