Insights from a trip to America with two weavers

Insights from a trip to America with two weavers
Low season had settled in, stock had run down, customers dribbled in the shop infrequently. I got a call from The Asia Foundation, they were interested in sending artisans, from several of their countries under their women empowerment program, to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, and wanted to know If I would take two weavers.  Naturally I was to take Lae from Savannakhet because the textiles she wove for Ma Te Sai were sewn at Sengsavang, which was sponsored by the Asia Foundation. And this was the place my relationship with the Asia Foundation has started. Quickly the scheme was woven in my mind. I would take Lae and she would bring her Phu Tai textiles to sell, and Navone, who would bring her Taileu textiles to sell, and I would bring the sewn products that were from their fabrics, and that were signature Ma Te Sai. The story was clear, these women coordinated many in their villages to make the textiles, I worked with them and supported sewers to create a modern ranges of homewares, clothing, and accessories.
Calling Navone, she immediately agreed. I called Lae and I heard a hesitation in her voice. I could see something was amiss. I asked The Asia Foundation staff to call Lae and explain more clearly for her. It was not long until I realized my mistake. Dtui, who worked with Lae, was the leader of the cooperative in the vllage and I stupidly had not thought to find out who should get the invitation, but had jumped the rank to invite Lae, as we did business more often together. After a few days deliberation they decided Lae should go anyway, which was a relief. The difficulty now was getting enough product ready in the short time we had before the market, scheduled for early July. 

i headed down to Savannakhet with the Asia Foundation, to learn more about the Phu Tai textiles and the situation for women in the area around Savannakhet. Working with Sengsavang I had heard harrowing stories of young women traded to work across the border in Thailand, heading into unknown conditions. I had also seen many people from Savannakhet living voluntarily on the other side of the border and even spoken to many working in Bangkok’s Chinatown market where I buy the haberdashery to make our products. They all said there was not enough work on the Lao side. This is not the same scenario in Luang Prabang, where we have a burgeoning tourist industry and also are far further from the border.

Speaking with Lae and Dtui in their headquarters, a house-cum-shop stockpiled with textiles ready for market, they explained how many women would leave to work in Thailand. How over the last few years they have been able to sell more of their textiles within Laos and over the border in Thailand, and how this has grown the number of women working, dyeing and weaving, in the village. How Dtui strived to include as many women as possible, accepting their products but having also to manage the quality control, and taking on the job of selling. How their success ensured women would stay and even some came back to help in the village. Also how the men help with the dyeing and families worked together, how growing this cottage industry makes life easier for all in the family in terms of respect and livelihood. 

​Ikat textiles underarm I then met the team at Sengsavang and put in a rush order tp sew placemats, coasters, and cushion covers. Since our last order they had managed to get some new customers, and the students were happy to be sewing orders, earning some money for themselves and also being able to send small amounts back to their families. Something we forget about in the west, but in their communities, a child’s worth depends on some monetary contribution. 

So we haven’t left the country yet and I am already learning. Visas are obtained, thankfully the letter from the Asia Foundation speeds up that daunting process, and I manage to synchronize flights as best as possible. Navone and I, traveling from Luang Prabang are to be in Bangkok prior to Lae arriving from Savannakhet.  It was Lae’s first time flying and both women’s first time in Bangkok.  Then there are the multitude of things that move. We negotiate the maze of up and down required to get our textile-loaded bags stored and get onto the train. Moving walkways, elevators, escalators, and trains, all requiring a new-type of coordination to get on and off. I feel like a mother duck, with the two trailing me through the city maze, and our little trolley bags bumping behind. Then the act of kindness. Not being able to see the entrance of the hotel from the skywalk I ask a man directions, and he sends us off down the stairs to the road in one direction. I stride off determinately, with my ducklings trailing, to be hailed soon after. He had tracked us down, panting to apologize and send us back around the corner in the other direction. It was hot, his apologies and rerouting were much appreciated. 

The next day heading to the airport for our flight to the USA, my ducklings are moving through the ticket barriers like pros, and launching themselves off escalators with grace. And I am still turning around to make sure they are in view. Now the big flight. It was cold, very cold. We put on all the textiles we could. And then many hours late the big entrance to the USA. I declared the textiles and had an invoice as back up. The big customs agent, I don’t think they have small ones, asked me to open my bags. Right now the ducklings were looking perfectly innocent. Asking me what they are, I show him the handmade cotton placemats, jackets, bags, all beautifully presented in clear plastic. He says, “they need to be shredded!”. I almost die. “No, no you don’t understand these are for sale, it is what we have come here for.” I plea. “Samples have to be shredded or else you pay”, he barks back. Okay now I understand, and say of course I will pay, I expect to and they are not samples. Then it is a matter of what they are. Luckily I have the copy of the DHL receipt of the goods we sent so I can give him the codes. He doesn’t like the amount of the sales invoice, says it is wholesale and tax is paid on retail so I quickly agree to double it. Then he directs all of us to stand over in an area away from him, so he can work it out.  This whole process is about 45 minutes. He then comes over and says he has found other concessions, it is not worth his while to even give us a bill, we are free to go. But he reminds me if I hadn’t declared I would have been far worse off. We are all relieved, in fact the three of us skip out of there. 

We now have been through the extra 5 hours to get to Santa Fe, and find we have been upgraded to a hotel downtown. It is in the pueblo style, and has a wonderful roof deck to seek peace when your jetlagged body wakes before sunrise. We are joined by Lae’s closest friend from her village, now married to Scott and living in Virginia. They are great hosts, tracking down pho for us, buying snacks and helping us with price tags for our wares. Mone’s American accent is adorable as are her outfits, all woven and made for her by Lae, she sports a different one each day, fitting right in to the International Folk Art Market scene. 

Lae also has a brother nearby, he drives down from Colorado to see her, with his family. I can see the years of hard work on his face. He explains they came with nothing from Laos via the refugee camps in Thailand, worked hard and then started their own electronics manufacturing business, with some clients overseas. They find it hard to take time off, but at least it is better financially for them now. They bring sticky rice and laab. It lasts well until the next day.  I am happy for Navone, she really misses Lao food. Even on the way to the airport in Luang Prabang she stops to buy a big bag of sticky rice and some stinky bbq fish, I tell her that it’s not enough for two weeks. 

We have time in Santa Fe to acclimatize and the fair offers training for first time artisans. We have a volunteer assigned to us, Beth, she is a great asset, and provides all the information along with cushion inserts from her home for our display. Exuberant market volunteers explain the timing of the fair along with the types of customers that will arrive at our booth, they are spot on. Gasali from Nigeria explains how the fair changed his business and his whole family benefit from their trade, another artisan from Mali doubled his workforce from 75-150 after attending at Santa Fe. The next day there are more detailed workshops, but the language and concepts prove difficult, and the outlet mall is calling. But not before Navone has eyes tested, a pair of free readers, and a dental check. I stay for a colour workshop run by an Australian consulting for the fashion world moving between NY and Paris. It is all about harmony and very useful upcoming projects. 

And now it’s showtime, and it rains. This means our booth, covered on 3 sides, which has 3 countries (Timor Leste, Bangladesh and Laos) in 3x3 metres square with over 400kilos of cloth is a slightly disorganized. Volunteers tell us what a shambles we are, as we are trying to prop up goods on pallets whilst shallow streams run through the booth. We all take it in our stride, it’s not our problem we are cheek by jowl.

The rain stops, and the opening evening is filled with customers oohing, and aaghing, indigo lovers, people who have been to Laos. We are relieved. The streams continue through Saturday and Sunday, and we quickly rotate displays to sell. Navone and Lea wrap me in scarves and shawls and smile sweetly as I talk the talk. Baby from Bangladesh (her name is Baby on her passport) gives me a t-shirt with “keeping it real” painted on it in graffiti style.  It goes well with my ikat indigo skirt and trainers, I get many appreciative comments. We regret we did not bring more of some things. One lady tries to buy Navone’s sinh (skirt) off her waist, upset we are sold out. We all learn a lot in the 3 days and even learn how to Uber our way out at the end, packing up in no time, thanks to great sales. 

Unfortunately our friends from Timor Leste and Bangladesh do not sell as well. There are kilos that have to go back. Well the Lao girls have packed some kilos too, but not textiles. Handbags, tech items, medicines, shoes for relatives. I am not happy but as Baby says it’s expected. Our group of ten flying back to San Francisco has two big bags each and extra boxes, all for check in. This is where Melissa and Whitney, The Asia Foundation team shines. They are negotiating and then hauling bags on and off scales, repacking is happening to every bag so we get maximum weight advantage, it is a like a dash to the finish and yes, the bill is minimized. I am impressed. I let Lear and Navone off the hook. 

In San Franciso Lae has a sister. Her husband drives an 18-wheeler, in 4 years it will be paid off. The plan is to sell it and return to Laos, he says he misses “ban nok”, literally translated the village out there, or in other parts known as “the bush”, “sticks”, back of beyond. I wonder if after forty years in the USA he would assimilate that easily. He has a swagger an Isaan cowboy style, I am sure he would be admired.

​We visit the head offices of The Asia Foundation. The lobby is a tribute to Californian governors and the walls are decorated in art deco flair. I cannot help but think how this must be very different from their many offices in Asia. The one in Laos where it is a large house with a garden, the staff are like a family. Just seeing Lae and Navone navigate the streets of San Francisco, and the daunting scale makes me and them a little homesick for Laos. Inside we are greeted with warm smiles. You can see they are truly committed to their work, raising extraordinary amounts of money to empower women. We cannot thank them enough. Not only for the experience but the cash we have in our pockets. Navone and Lae ready to buy more cotton, I can invest in stock to be ready for the high season. 

So what does happen if our contacts from Santa Fe turn into orders and we grow the business?  What will happen in both Navone’s area in the north and Lae’s area in the south is that more women will be engaged in handicraft. More villages can benefit, both have villages nearby who are not as engaged but from the same ethnic group. It means women do not have to leave to find work, and it means women can even return after education. By supporting these artisans and Ma Te Sai, The Asia Foundation is directly helping cottage industries in rural areas grow and this type of development not only empowers women, it is so much better for Laos, keeping people prosperous in their villages and not going to the city to factories.  A big thank you to the International Folk Art Market for supporting so many artisans over the 14 years and to The Asia Foundation for this unique opportunity, we really hope we can go next year.

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