S is for Silk

Rachel Biel, the amazing founder and driving force behind TAFA List (the Textile and Fiber Art List) has been posting fascinating stories about the range of products created by or sold by TAFA members. This site is full of the best textile and fibre art on the web -- it's becoming a real hub for those who love handmade textiles.

  • S if for Silk features TAMMACHAT and other TAFA members.
  • R is for Rug is the latest posting.
  • Visit Featured Products for all the postings. (Hint: They start with Z and work their way through the alphabet backwards!)

March 31: South Shore Sustainability EXPO

On Saturday, March 31, 2012 from 9:30am-2pm, join TAMMACHAT at the South Shore Sustainability EXPO at the Nova Scotia Community College in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. This inaugural event is co-hosted by the Community Sustainability Network, Bridgewater & Area.
  • Visit TAMMACHAT's booth to find fresh, new textiles from our recent trip to Thailand and Laos.
  • Learn how you can address local and global issues through fair trade.
  • Hear Chris Benjamin (author of Eco-Innovators -- Sustainability in Atlantic Canada) give the lunch keynote address. 
  • Discover businesses and organizations in our area concerned with and working towards sustainability.
  • Visit the Community Sustainability Network to learn more, to join and to connect.

Win 1 year of free ads (worth $1000) on TAFA List!

Here's a great chance for you to win 1 year of free ads, worth $1000, to reach textile lovers with your business on the new TAFA List site -- that's The Textile and Fiber Art List, a hub for textile artists and businesses of all kinds. "Advertisers most likely to do well: any related to textiles and fiber art (of course!), art, crafts, women, eco-living, spirituality, health, etsy, technology, website development, design, and all of that good stuff." Go to the TAFA Sponsor page for details.

We've been involved with TAFA List since early days, when it was a discussion forum for individual fibre artists and businesses like TAMMACHAT. What we love is how it's grown over the years and how Rachel Biel, the driving force -- and visionary -- behind TAFA List has included fair trade businesses like ours in her vision. That vision: to provide a place online for a business community of entrepreneurs rooted in textile and fiber art products and traditions. TAFA's site says: "A majority of our members have social and environmental agendas at the core of their business. TAFA unites old and new traditions, their historical and modern importance, giving a shared platform to both contemporary and traditional textile techniques from all cultures." We love this inclusivity! Visit TAMMACHAT's TAFA List page.

If you're a fibre artist (fiber artist!), consider joining for a one-time fee of only $75. If you're a business that wants to reach a fibre- and textile-interested market, become a sponsor for a very reasonable price. And maybe you'll be the lucky one to win 1 year of free ads on TAFA List!

DISCOVERY DAY: Big Brother Mouse goes to the orphanage school in Luang Prabang

We arrive in a large truck. Yai and I are in the cab with the driver: standing in the back, hanging onto the pipe frame, are 6 young Lao women in pa siin, looking fresh faced and country healthy. They stand amidst boxes and bins -- the educational displays and games we are bringing to create Discovery Day, a first time initiative of Big Brother Mouse, an innovative book publishing social enterprise in Laos.

The young men follow on their small motorcycles, some alone, some 2 up, few with helmets.

20 minutes later we turn off the main road into an area green with bamboo and trees. We soon cross a stream and enter the gates of  the Luang Prabang Residential School for Orphans in northern Laos.

While the name chills my heart, the space is sunny and bright. Long low, white buildings frame large playing fields and grassy patios with benches and shrubs. Behind the buildings on our left, beautiful plantings of vegetables slope down to the creek.

No one comes out to greet us.

Sasha directs Big Brother Mouse staff (aka "the Mice") to bring all the supplies into an empty classroom. Tables are brought outside. Desks and benches are arranged. Boxes are unpacked.

It shapes up slowly yet by the time the children come to see what is happening, the Mice have created a dozen or more "discovery stations" through which the children move like water in a creek. Here and there BBM staff provide explanations but it seems that little are required.

In less than an hour, the milling and noise level have dropped to a slow buzz. Most of the children have settled into an activity:
  • an explanation of human organs illustrated by a plastic model that can be dis- and re-assembled
  • a series of electric connections that snap together to light a bulb
  • carefully rendered cardboard models of the pyramids -- both Egyptian and Mayan -- along with the Great Wall of China and the Roman Coliseum, accompanied by a globe with which to locate them
  • a table full of visual experiences: a classic kaleidoscope, a 3D Viewmaster, as well as those special glasses to view a 3D elephant poster, and a handful of other optical illusions

There's always an audience for the explanations and magnifying glasses that accompany the mineral and fossils collections.

Inside the 2 transformed classrooms there are 10 kids seated around most of the "play stations." Log cabins are being constructed at one, while colorful plastic tinker toys inspire loftier constructions. And while the plastic lace snap-togethers are new to me they are every bit as compelling for the youngsters constructing whimsical rotundas.

There are puzzle books and colored pencils, modeling clay and  number games.

And everywhere there is a hum of curiosity and absorption.

No voices have been raised; nothing has crashed to the floor; nobody has run about excitedly; no squirmishes have ensued.

I can't imagine 200 Canadian children in behaving like this.

I welcome news from inspired teachers telling me I am just inexperienced.

Text: Alleson Kase
Photos: Darunee Suppawan ("Yai")

More about Big Brother Mouse:

Saoban: development with a heart

The capital of Laos, Vientiane, is increasingly a city of contradictions. Our annual visits sound discordant notes that grow shriller with each new year. Gleaming luxury cars (this year I saw a Lotus!) park next to broken sidewalks that expose the stinking sewer beneath. I imagine an unwary tourist falling into one of these manhole-sized openings while gawking at the cake-like decorations that frost the Buddhist temples.

Tourists' cafe tables sprout bottles of Lao beer -- as tasty as it is cheap -- while Asean businessmen savour European wines. The menus of the newer restaurants in the old city centre boast bottles of wine that sell for $100 -- in a country where $50 will feed an impoverished family for a month.

Amidst these anomalies is the fair trade social enterprise that we've come to see. Saoban, meaning "village people," has grown out of earlier sustainability projects in the Lao countryside. Many of these were the work of a local NGO, the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADTEC).

Saoban ("Village Handicrafts From the Heart of Laos") now stands on its own feet, which ideally is the goal of all development projects. It works closely with village artisan groups in many regions of this diverse and mountainous country to provide training in business planning, product development, marketing, and access to micro-credit. In its Vientiane shop we see elaborate tapestry weaving, precious silver jewellery, intricate bamboo basketry and bags of many descriptions.

Saoban's Vientiane shop brimming with handcrafted products

We met Saoban in 2009 when they were establishing their store in Vientiane. That year we accompanied one of their young staff on a visit to a small village several hours outside Vientiane where the women weave intricate bamboo baskets. We were impressed with everything we saw, especially the absence of toxic chemicals often used to produce bamboo fibres. Together we designed a bag that combined the villagers' basket-making skills with indigo cotton produced by another village and sewn by a third group. We also arranged for a Big Brother Mouse book party in the village later that year (and provided the funds for same.)

This year, however, we have come to find products woven from organic cotton dyed with natural indigo. In planning for this visit, we had a meeting on Skype (amazing that we can do some of this work from afar), while we sat in Chiang Mai, Thailand and Bandith Ladpakdy, Saoban's Manager, spoke to us from the shop in Vientiane.

softly draping, handspun organic cotton indigo shawl

We're delighted to find that we do not need to make a special order: on the shop's shelves we find almost everything that we had imagined we might design together. iPad pouches in indigo cotton yarn dyed with mudmee (ikat) designs are displayed almost exactly as we had imagined them! The heritage variety of organic cotton used is inter-planted with upland crops of indigo, corn, beans and chilies. The weaving is done in Central Laos, in an area known for its indigo dyeing. Products like these are then sewn by an urban sewing group in Vientiane, where most of the women work at home.

quilted iPad sleeves in organic cotton

Nubbly, handspun organic cotton scarves and shawls in an assortment of naturally dyed colours are nestled into a large bamboo basket that greets us as we walk in the door.

organic cotton scarves in a handwoven bamboo basket

There are even 2 extraordinary handspun organic cotton shawls, yarn-dyed with traditional mudmee designs in a beautiful mid-range shade of indigo.

rich traditional mudmee design in handspun organic cotton

We spend 2 afternoons at the shop. This is the first opportunity we've had to get to know Shui-Meng Ng, who has worked in development with rural Lao families for decades and is now serving as the Managing Director of the independent enterprise that Saoban has become.

Bandith helps village weavers and dyers organize themselves into groups, select their leaders, learn about business planning and how to set realistic, fair prices for their work. Through his work with more than 300 artisans in 14 villages, he is becoming an important local resource. Bandith is also a key figure in a new Lao Fairtrade association formed by and for Lao social enterprises to support each other and learn about fair trade together.

The Saoban team: Bandith, a volunteer from Australia, Shui-Meng and Samoy

While our focus for this visit has been on handspun, indigo organic cotton, we are also keen to learn that village-based organic silk production is again on the rise after decades of dwindling resources and practitioners. This news prompts us to add to our shopping list an elegant but simply designed silk scarf  in naturally dyed shades of gleaming, burnished metals.

hand-reeled organic silk with weft bands from the looser, outer fluff of the cocoons

We look forward to continue building our relationship with Saoban and visiting some of the more remote villages with Bandith in coming years. Until then, we are anxious to share our indigo Laotian treasures, and a bit more, with fans in Canada.

Also: See our video about a Weaving Bamboo Baskets in Laos.