Opening international markets for Thai and Lao weavers
Greetings from Canada, home to TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles. We work with women's weaving groups in rural Thailand and Laos. While a few of them might like to participate in this group, I'd like to outline some of the challenges that face the groups with whom we partner, that prevent them doing so.
1. internet access: For many of us in North America, Europe and elsewhere, the internet has become as much part of our day as the mobile phone has in much of the global south (and elsewhere, but certainly not in rural Canada). Many of our partner groups do not have internet access, do not write English and cannot participate in discussions like this directly.
2. language: English is a major international language, but many of the artisans with whom we work do not speak it. This poses interesting challenges for communication, which is why we spend 4 months each year in Thailand and Laos, meeting with the groups, buying weaving they have in stock or making orders. One of TAMMACHAT's co-founders speaks Thai and we get help from Thai friends and people who work in Thai and Lao NGOs that we have met over the years who speak English. We manage to learn from each other and do business with the help of drawings, photos, language and laughter.
3. international markets: Our role is to help open markets for these highly skilled artisans outside their countries and to tell the story behind the handwoven, naturally dyed textiles they create, each of which is imbued with generations of tradition and skill. We discuss product design, create new products together and, importantly, learn what they can and what they want to weave, so that we respect their traditions and preferences. Another important role we play is to bring our North American perspective on design that will appeal to markets here. We have learned over several years that we have to find the place where what these artisans create and what our customers will buy intersect. We also work together to alter designs that will make the pieces work for both the makers and the buyers. An interesting discussion we had with several groups on our last trip was the growing interest in eco-textiles and the growth of eco-fashion -- a place where there is a natural fit for the textiles they create.
The high quality handloomed textiles TAMMACHAT sells are unique, but global competition and the drive to buy as cheaply as possible, no matter what the effect on those who produce the textiles, has been a difficult challenge for our partners. This is where telling the story comes in. We find that when people understand what goes into each piece, they appreciate the textiles much more and are willing to pay fair prices for them. One example we use is that it takes 2 months or more to create 12 handloomed, organic silk scarves...first you start by growing the mulberry trees organically to feed the silkworms, and so on.
This is a great forum for discussing these issues. I'm happy to be part of this, even though not the artisan myself. If you'd like to learn more about TAMMACHAT's textiles and the artisan groups with whom we work in Thailand and Laos, please visit www.tammachat.com. Stories from our visits with many of the groups are in our Travel Blog at http://tammachatnaturaltextiles.blogspot.com. Learn there what we learn from them.
In fair trade,
Ellen Agger, co-founder of TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles