Panmai is a membership owned community business currently with about 300 members. The project was founded in 1991 by ATA (the Appropriate Technology Association) with women's groups in 3 provinces in the Northeast of Thailand, Rot Et, Sisaket, and Surin. The project objectives were to strengthen these women's groups, provide them with market access, reduce the problem of urban migration, and to support natural dye use in their production of handwoven textiles. Before the project, chemical dyes had replaced natural dye use, this was both a loss of tradition and a problem as many women suffered health issues due to chemical dye use.
Panmai is not registered as a fair-trade organization, yet it operates on many fair-trade principles such as annual meetings of the membership to decide on fair prices (adequate compensation for one's work), and profits are used for the benefit of the membership. Also a number of distributors sell Panmai's textiles as fair trade products including Thai-Craft, the Artasia Association of France, and SVA Craft Aid of Japan.
The main activity of Panmai is production of handwoven, naturally dyed textiles from cotton and silk. The producers are women of the Northeast of Thailand. The group is renown for their excellence in natural dying of silk. They are able to dye silk in a great variety of colors. This in addition to being a testament to their skill is also credited to the natural raw materials, leaves, bark, wood, etc that they have in their area. The group conserves these natural resources by planting trees and herbs used in the dying process every year. One of the group rules is that each member must plant at least one dye plant/ tree per year. Panmai is also unique in that they use 100% cotton and silk to make their textiles. Their silk is 100% handspun and most of their cotton is handspun as well. The silk is from a local Thai variety of silkworms. Some members raise their own worms as well.
preparation of materials for natural dye making
yarn dyeing with natural dyes, Thailand
The organisation supports training sessions and knowledge exchange for its membership and provides raw material and equipment on credit to its members when needed.
Panmai has had challenges developing consumer understanding as some consumers did not understand why Panmai's good are more expensive than others in the local market, but with an explanation of the differences in the raw material and the process, most consumers have accepted this qualitative difference.
There have also been problems of getting the product to consistently match the desired specifications of buyers. As we have worked to resolve this issue, the group hopes that consumers will understand that the products, including the raw materials used in the dying process change with the season. For example the colored latex in bark used as a dye may be stronger in color in the hot dry summer than in the monsoon season. This leads to some natural seasonal variation.
collected materials for natural dye making
Despite the challenges the project can be considered a success by observing the improvement in the quality of the life of its members: better health, a reduction in costs through using locally grown materials instead of bought chemical dyes, an end to water pollution from chemical dying, and a more regular and better income that has helped to pay for the studies of their children amongst other things.
few words from Panmai producers:
Mae Sa'at Tonmut also of Ban Hong Hae said that she and others in their group are proud to be able to earn their own living into their 40's and 50's. (Most factories and offices would not easily hire a woman over 40 lacking special skills.)
Mae Hongsa Sinatnawa of Ban Don Kaen tells of the importance the group has had in strengthening the community. "With the group, there is more communication between community members. More people join in the preparations and celebrations of local festivities whether for the school, temple, or for community building projects. Our group donates its time and resources as well."
Mae Boot Bualee of Ban Sung Noi is the only one in her village with the skill and patience to perform the many stepped indigo dyeing process for silk. She says it is a process that can take 10-15 days and if one step is not performed well, the dye will not hold. Her textiles show rich blue indigo shades and weaving artistry, but one can see how much easier it would be to buy ready made indigo colored chemical dye.
Mae Samphun Jundaeng,
the Panmai chairperson who resides and weaves in Ban Don Kaen, says," You must
consider the whole process if you want to support this art. It is difficult to
produce by hand. Our work is real women's group work, handmade art and tradition."