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.