Why buy Thai silk? Strong but lightweight, elastic but supple – shiny and lustrous Thai silk is among the best buys you can bring home from Thailandby Kornkanok Yongsakul with the Look East team
Thai silk is one-of-a-kind. Produced by “Thai caterpillars raised on Thai mulberry leaves by Thai weavers in Thailand,” every piece of handwoven Thai silk is timeless and unique, its colors and patterns making it something like a work of art. Most of Thai silk we see in Bangkok comes from the Korat Plateau, northeast region of Thailand, now mainly referred to as Nakhon Ratchasima. “Korat” has been the center of the Thai silk industry; a steady supplier of rose Thai silk for many generations.
But it was Jim Thompson, known as the “Father of the Thai Silk Industry,” who made Thai silk what it is today: a luxurious, versatile fabric much-favored by even those who dictate today’s fashions and styles. Thompson, who also introduced permanent chemical dyes for the silk fabric, was an American businessman who single-handedly revived the then dying Thai silk industry.
When he opened his own Thai silk company in the 1950s, Thonpson paid weavers high salaries, raising thousands of the country’s poorest out of poverty. He made millionaires out of his core group of weavers by giving them shares in the Thai Silk Company. Thompson’s determination to keep his company cottage-based was significant for the women who made up the bulk of his workforce. By allowing them to work at home, choosing their hours and looking after their children while weaving, they retained their position in the household while becoming breadwinners. Thanks to Thompson, the Thai silk industry really took off, became huge, and gained the world fame it deserved.
Silk — worn by emperors, the royalty and nobles — has always been considered a symbol of wealth. Empress Si Ling Chi of China was said to have discovered silk. While enjoying a cup of tea in her palace garden under a mulberry tree, a silkworm’s cocoon fell into her cup and she unraveled the beautiful thread that then went down into history books.
For millenniums, the Chinese guarded the secret of silk, even putting to death anyone found guilty of smuggling silkworm eggs, cocoons, or mulberry seeds. But about 1,900 years ago a Chinese princess married an Indian prince, who smuggled silkworm eggs out of China and fed them with the leaves of Indian mulberry trees. Since then silk production has spread, and we have had silk around Asian countries.
Silk is initially rough. Hence, it has to go through a little processing before it stands out in the market. After raising silkworms on a steady diet of mulberry leaves and spinning silk cocoons, they are then “degummed” using special chemicals. The completed cocoon is pulled from the mulberry bush and placed in a vat of boiling water, which separates the silk thread of the cocoon from the caterpillar inside.
Raw silk is first washed, bleached, soaked into vat hot dyes (approximately 90 degrees Celsius) constantly stirring it to get a uniform color, washed again, stretched, and finally put through the final dying process. The threads are then wound onto spools for weaving using traditional hand-operated looms.
Thai silk, soft yet coarsely textured due to knotty threads, can be either hand or machine woven. Machine-woven silk is rather “perfect,” while hand-woven silk patterns speak of the weaver’s thoughts, emotions, and life. Each hand-woven silk fabric is so unique that there’s no chance of duplication through commercial means.
WHAT IS UNIQUE?
There is the satiny Chinese silk, the soft and richly colored Indian silk, and the elegantly machine-weaved Italian silk. However, only Thai silk has its soft, lustrous quality. Why so? “Thai silk has triangular fibers that reflect light like prisms,” experts say. “It also has layers of protein, which gives it a natural sheen and makes it lustrous and smooth. Silk is an insect fiber and superior to any animal or plant fiber. Thai silk fiber is strong but lightweight; it is elastic but supple.”
Silk fabric was initially defined through dressing sense. However, as the fashion and art industry steadily grew, Thai silk went on to be seen in many distinct lights. Whether in fashion or in décor, Thai silk can be creatively used. Silk ties have become fashionionable for men. Women enjoy silk scarves because they feel warm and look stylish. Thai silk is not shimmering shiny, and very comfortable to wear. Most Thai handicrafts and accessories use Thai silk as well.
There is quite a variety within Thai silk, serving different purposes. “Smooth” Thai silk is primarily used for clothing and interior decorating. The so-called “rough” Thai silk, which is not exactly coarse but soft, is abundantly used for silk drapes and curtains. It works well with many interior design applications, and is quite popular with many fashion designers, who use them to define artistic luxury for apparels and even bridal gowns. The “two-toned” Thai silk is pleasant to the eyes, changing colors in different angles, and can be seen around as cushion covers or dress materials.
The exquisitely unique “striped” Thai silk is weaved in such a way that smooth and rough Thai silk are alternated creating an infinite variety of designs, suiting different personal tastes as well. Moreover, it pretty much serves almost all arty purposes — for home décors, curtains, furniture coverings, interior design applications, wall coverings, and even clothing.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF THAI SILK
Thai silk is extraordinary in its own creative way, with hand-woven “ikat silk” also known as “mudmee”; “taffeta,” which is made from white silk cocoons (and actually varies from country to country); and “dupion” silk.
Mudmee, originated from the northeast of Thailand (Isan), was inspired by the people who had migrated from Pakse and Savankheet, Laos who brought their weaving skills with them. Mudmee boasts of its intricate traditional geometric and zoomorphic motifs, and such designs are created by using various colors in the weft (left to right threads). Mudmee can be either half solid or two-toned.
Dupion silk, on the other hand, is made using a mixture from both long, smooth, white cocoons and short, rough, yellow cocoons. This creates a shimmering effect of two different colors woven together, seemingly changing colors when moved in different lights. This also makes the fabric vibrant. The “white and yellow cocoon mixture” adds to creating a crisp drape on dupion.
SILK OR NOT?
How do you make sure you’re buying the original, traditionally made, and good quality Thai silk? The look should give it away, and the price of each fabric wouldn’t be less than Bt500. However, if still unsure, you may burn a thread of Thai silk with a flame. If it is Thai silk, it will leave fine ash and will stop burning when you take the flame away. Polyester silk will drip, burn with a black smoke, and continue to burn after the flame has been taken away. Moreover, Thai silk smells like hair when burned- a testament to the natural fiber that comes from the silkworms, which is similar to the fiber of human hair and fingernails. Artificial silk smells like plastic when burned.
Better yet, look for a peacock emblem on the fabric as it is an authentication from Thailand’s Agriculture Ministry to protect it from imitations. The emblem guarantees quality and comes in four different colors based on the specific silk types and production processes such as, gold, silver, blue, and green.
PASSING IT ON…
If well taken care of, Thai silk can retain its exotic beauty for a century or more. Dry cleaning is the best method to keep your silk enriched. Hand-washing it in lukewarm water using a mild soap with a tablespoon of vinegar added to the final rinse can also be done. Be sure to never wring your Thai silk and dry it in shade, suitably under a mild breeze. Plus, iron it inside when it is slightly damp, or apply a damp cloth on the outside and iron over the cloth if it’s dry. Maintain it well, and congratulations! Your timeless, matchless silk fabric is ready to be passed on to future generations!
WHERE TO SHOP?
While a lot Thai silk fashion houses are marketing online, there’s no dearth of reputable shops specializing in Thai silk, particularly in the up-market malls and shops such as Jim Thompson shops, O.P. Place (next to The Oriental Hotel, 02 266 0186), the shops at River City (next to Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel: 02 237 0077), Central World (BTS Chidlom), the Emporium (BTS Phrom Pong), and Siam Paragon (BTS Siam, Exotique Thai). A variety can also be bought at the Chatuchak Weekend Market (MRT Chatuchak Park). All these places open from 10-10:30 a.m. and go around till late evening.