Panmai: On the Other Silk Road

“Go where?” the young woman asks me again. Four of us passengers sit on 2 benches in the back of a well-travelled songteow – the canopied, pick-up trucks that serve as local, shared taxis and travel almost every road in Thailand.

“Kaset Wisai,” I repeat.

That how it goes when Ellen and I travel to a town too small to be served by a bus line. We wait for the songteow (i.e., “2 benches”) to fill. Until it does, we remain parked or slowly troll the adjacent streets until the required number of passengers is aboard.

Nonetheless, we both enjoy going to Kaset Wisai in Roi-Et province to visit Panmai weaving co-op. Their shophouse is in a thoroughly rural market town experienced by almost no Western foreigners, at least none who don’t have Thai girlfriends.

People stop and stare as Ellen and I pull our wheeled luggage down the street where every morning a bustling fresh market all but fills the wide road. Now in the late afternoon there are only empty stalls, overturned metal ice-chests and splashes of blood from the butchers’ stalls staining the pavement.

One fruit cart perseveres, selling remnants of that morning’s cornucopia of tropical fruit. A single customer is carefully palpating the unusually small mangosteens. “Don’t take any with hard spots,” she councils me in Thai. She seems to assume I’d understand. “Yes, that’s true,” I reply in Thai, “they must be soft all over.” The vendor looks on with amusement. We may be picky but he now has 2 people interested in the small pile of purple fruit.

Ellen’s eyes light up as she sees the spiky green and red rambutans also on offer.  “Don’t take any with dark spines,” I caution, sounding not unlike the woman who counseled me.

So we arrive in Kaset Wisai, home to our favourite silk producing group in Thailand.

This year, we’ve gone almost a month earlier than usual. We’ve been advised that later this week the co-op’s 2 staff will travel to Bangkok to sell at the gigantic OTOP sale. OTOP (One Tamboon, One Product) refers to a national juried system for craft and local food products. The OTOP sale outside Bangkok in December is open only to producers who have been judged worthy of 3, 4 or 5 stars. It’s an important place for Panmai to make their village-created silks and cottons available to urban markets. Although we have shopped there in the past, the exhibition is primarily a trade show for Thai retailers looking for choice handicrafts, so almost all the signage is in Thai. This is significant when one realizes that the booths fill several halls large enough to park airplanes.

To get a great selection without subjecting ourselves to that particular madness, we quickly re-arranged our itinerary to arrive here a few days before Mali and Ooung leave. Fortunately, on this our 7th annual visit, we can travel here in 1 day, get settled into 1 of the few hotels and enjoy an evening stroll and dinner, still ready to work the next day.

In the morning we cruise the bustling market that sprawls over several streets. We find fruit, coffee and take-out khao kapi. I introduce Ellen to this rice dish with at least a half of dozen toppings but its signature fermented shrimp paste, which reminds me of my time living alongside the Gulf of Thailand, is 1 ingredient too many for Ellen.

It’s all so familiar and yet, at the time, so foreign, that our time here fills me with delight.

And that’s even before I see the silk waiting for us in Panmai’s shophouse. But first, we make our greetings, present our token gifts from Canada and show them some photographs of jackets we’ve made from their beautiful silk.

Finally, we dive into the piles of organic silk scarves Mali has brought out for our perusal. She knows we love the strong colours and lively warp stripe patterns she has piled upon the low table. We make 3 passes through the stacks before we are both confident that we’ve made the best choices for our customers. They look happy to have this cash sale of existing inventory on the eve of their departure – a good omen, perhaps, of how they’ll fare in Bangkok.

While Mali prepares the invoice and packs the precious cargo, Ooung goes off for food from the market. Over lunch together, we discuss the group, its members and the number of villages currently involved. They tell us there has been a small decline in numbers but they assure us that the group is still robust, and still the only authentic weaving co-operative from Isaan (northeast Thailand) at OTOP. There are even some younger women joining, they tell us. This is largely due to the fact that in this part of Isaan there are no factories to provide alternate employment. Here, industrious people farm and do whatever they can on the side, or they leave altogether.

After the dishes are cleared and hands are washed, Mali brings out scarves that are more elaborate, and more expensive, than those we have already chosen. She knows that every year I buy a few precious examples of the very best weaving – if for no other reason than, in my own small way, to encourage its practice. She tells me there are fewer than 200 weavers in the group now, but only half of them are expert silk weavers and only a few weave like this. Of course, I buy the white on white scarf that needed a ridiculous number of string heddles and true artistry to create. And I will keep it under wrap until a collector comes along who has the same response that I did.

Pii Plaa (AKA Alleson)

Prae Pan Weaving Co-op: Weaving a Stronger Cloth

Our visits to Prae Pan weaving co-op in Northeast Thailand usually span several days and this year is no exception. We catch up with staff, present gifts carried from Canada, offer feedback on which products bought on our last trip sold well and, of course, choose new textiles and make orders. The silk below -- in soft seafoam green and rich magentas -- is destined for jackets to be tailored in Canada. (Learn more about The Jacket Project in our earlier blog posts.)

On our 2nd day at the co-op's shop in Khon Kaen city, 2 members of the co-op arrive, children in tow, bearing metres and metres of luscious green, handwoven cotton fabric. Much to our delight, this unexpected visit gives us a chance to meet a couple of the younger members of the group and to learn more about the cloth we had been choosing when they arrive.

Ploi (meaning "gem") is the younger daughter of one of Prae Pan's former shop staff. A weaver and dyer herself, she explains that most of the younger women are busy harvesting sugar cane. She and Noi (meaning "small") are dropping off cloth for older weavers, saving them a trip to the city.

From Sooksamboon village, they are well versed in the use of natural dyes and we talk about which local materials were used to create the beautiful piece of mudmee fabric we are selecting for jackets.

The younger weavers usually weave the heavier pieces, like the cotton lap blankets we buy this year, pictured below.

As they prepare to leave, Alleson notices the credit union symbol on Ploi's knapsack. She wants to know more. We learn that Prae Pan set up a credit union about 10 years ago. Now with more than 500 members -- including weaving co-op members and others who live in the same villages -- the credit union has become an independent enterprise. It has bought land and is working toward erecting its own building next year. The credit union has helped people save money, offers life insurance and makes it easier for members to get loans without the same kinds of guarantees that banks typically demand.

On day 4 of our visit, I have the chance to accompany Fon, one of Prae Pan's staff, and Pii Yai, a board member and good friend, to deliver our selected fabrics to the woman who will sew them into bags. We drive to Nong No village, 50 km from the capital city of Khon Kaen. It's a sewing village. Throughout Thailand, one craft or other form of home-based work often dominates in a particular village -- weaving, pottery making, gong making, broom making and so on. Sewing employs many home-based workers in this village. The seamstress, Kampiang, sews only for Prae Pan. (That's where her heart is, I'm told.) TAMMACHAT customers know her work well, as all our bags from this co-op have passed through her skilled hands.

Fon explains the details of our order for 2-pocket shoulder bags, and delivers the fabric, zippers and TAMMACHAT labels.

I notice a couple weaving a grass mat in the yard next door. I ask if I can learn more. Soon Kampiang leads me through a narrow opening in the fence and introduces me to the man and woman working at the mat loom. She deftly folds the end of a strip of grass over a stick and introduces it into one end of the loom. He slides it through, then pulls on the comb to tighten it as she prepares the next strip of grass, some of which she has already dyed.

They work quickly and efficiently. Mats are still used here extensively within homes and even shops -- to cover an indoor tile floor before a sleeping mat is laid down, as a make-shift kitchen or eating area, to cover outdoor raised sitting/working platforms and more. This couple explains that they will be giving mats to other family members, as well as keeping some for their own use.

Before we leave, Pii Yai invites me to see the family kitchen, located to the left of the house. We had been sitting on a platform below the 2nd floor of the house and I had already admired the wooden building above. Kampiang's husband, a carpenter now working in Brunei to earn money for the secondary school education of their 2 sons, had built the house and the outdoor kitchen. I've seen many such Thai kitchens and, like Pii Yai, was impressed with the organization and tidiness of this one.

On visits like this, I never know what's coming next. Our final stop is at the village primary school. The kids are on a break and several gather at the small canteen next to the open air cafeteria. We enjoy a snack of som tom (green papaya salad), sticky rice and small, fried fish. I watch as the kids prepared for an afternoon meditation session before their next class.

We arrive back at the shop in the late afternoon. In 2 weeks, our Prae Pan bags will be on a ship bound for Canada. The rest of our textiles are already en route with Thai Post. We always say goodbye fondly to everyone at Prae Pan, the 1st weaving group we met -- and the relationship that spawned TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles and is at the heart of fair trade.

Off to Thailand and Laos to Meet the Artisans

December is the beginning of weaving season, so we're heading to Thailand and Laos to work once again with our artisan partners over the next few months. We'd like to introduce you to a few of the people with whom we work. These women (and one man) coordinate and collaborate with us on orders. Sometimes we meet in shops they are proud to own or rent; other times we meet them in their villages. They then work directly with the weavers on the making because they know best which woman enjoys weaving a particular design or who is known to make a special colour. The yarn creation, natural dyeing and weaving is usually done at home in the artisans' villages; other times it's done in community textile spaces.

Some of our partners speak English; many don't -- but this is not a barrier to communication, just a fun challenge. Between Alleson's Thai, the help of friends and photos of pieces we've ordered before, we manage just fine.

We're excited about our visits and continue to nurture these long-standing relationships, one of the pillars of fair trade. And as always, we plan to visit some new groups and explore working more closely together.

Our good friend Pii Yai and Alleson pose with staff at Panmai, a Thai women's weaving co-op. They specialize in silk weaving and are known for their natural dyeing skills.

Alleson offers a computer lesson to staff and board members at Prae Pan, another women's weaving co-op in Thailand. TAMMACHAT was birthed at Prae Pan's shop.

Alleson and Mai finish up work in the northern Thai village that's home to Junhom Bantan, a cotton weaving group.

Ellen wears one of this group's beautiful, mudmee (ikat) designed pieces. We originally met this group (and others in a cotton weaving network) through the Pattanarak Foundation; we now work with them through Napafai, a social enterprise near the Mekong River in Thailand.

Alleson and Aew of Napafai display the charming, organic cotton elephants we ordered.

We met the Ban Tho Fan Maetam Group at the first Asian Feminist Conference in northern Thailand.We are planning a visit to learn more about their work with 50 ethnic embroiderers in northeast Thailand.

TAMMACHAT was the first customer to work with this Eri silk weaving group in central Thailand. Fai Gaem Mai, the Cotton and Silk Project, introduced Eri silk creation as a development project in central and northern Thailand.

Warm Heart Foundation works with temple and village weavers in northern Thailand. Eri silk is their specialty.

We met these Paleung weavers at the Royal Project Fair in Chiang Mai. We hope to visit them in their 2 villages this trip.

Saoban Crafts, a social enterprise in Laos, is proud to work with 300 village women. They offer organic cotton, silk and bamboo woven products, plus jewellery.
These are just some of the groups we plan to visit. Subscribe to our blog posts to follow our trip. Or follow us on Facebook.