Known for its rich history, natural beauty, and distinct traditions, Thailand is home to one of Asia’s finest cultural gems – Thai silk. It is one of the world’s finest fabrics, intricately woven into the lives of locals.
Thai silk is an essential material used in ceremonial occasions and traditional clothing items like Pha Sin and Sabai. Aside from fashion, Thai silk is popularly used in Thai-inspired interior design and home ornaments. Most importantly, it is a colorful representation of the nation’s vibrant culture, craftsmanship, and sense of elegance.
What is Thai Sericulture?
Thai Sericulture is the process of cultivating silkworms and producing silk threads from their cocoons. These threads are washed, spun into yarn, dyed, and handwoven into silk fabrics. The most common silkworms used are mulberry silkworms and eri silkworms, cultivated in farms located in Thailand’s northern and northeastern regions.
Two primary weaving techniques are used in Thailand. The first is Ikat, or mat mii, a tie-dyeing technique wherein patterns are dyed onto the threads before they are woven. Another popular technique is brocading, which involves weaving raised patterns onto the fabric. A popular type of brocading in Thailand is Khit, which means “to raise” or “to pick.” These techniques help create the unique textures and patterns that differentiate Thai silk from those made in other silk-making countries like China, India, and Italy. Besides these two, silk can be used in other weaving techniques like fabric painting and embroidery.
Thai Sericulture is an elaborate showcase of artistry passed on through centuries. It is an ancient practice that has sustained generations of families from rural silk-weaving villages. It has put Thailand on the map as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of exquisite silk.
The Story Behind Thai Sericulture
The origin of silk-making in Thailand can be traced back to more than 2,000 years ago when Chinese traders and immigrants imparted the knowledge of silkworm cultivation to the locals. These locals then adopted the art and infused cultural nuances and designs to make the unique Thai silk variant.
Another well-known historical evidence of early silk-making in Thailand is the discovery of ancient silk fibers that are more than 3,000 years old found at Ban Chiang in the Udon Thani Province.
While silk has been manufactured in Thailand for centuries, there was little demand for it, and most highborn families preferred to import silk from more popular producers in China. In the early 20th century, the government tried to encourage silk production multiple times by opening silk factories.
Still, these attempts were futile due to the low-quality filaments created by machines and the lack of interest and demand. Most locals also saw handwoven Thai silk as expensive and material meant only for fancy dresses.
It was in the mid-1900s that the craft made a strong comeback and became more prominent. In 1948, Jim Thompson, a former architect and OSS Officer, founded the Thai Silk Company to revive the creation of high-quality Thai silk. He hired local silk weavers and took samples abroad to present to designers and decorators.
The material got rave reviews from industry professionals. In 1951, award-winning costume designer Irene Sharaff used Thai silk in her designs for the musical The King And I. This marked a noteworthy milestone for Jim and the company. Soon, people flocked to Thailand to look for “Jim Thompson’s place” in Bangkok to source high-quality silk. This increase in international demand has caught the eyes of the locals, effectively enticing more business people to tap into the ever-growing industry.
Another prominent figure who helped revive and sustain the silk industry in Thailand is Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, who founded the SUPPORT Foundation to help farmers and rural villagers, most of whom are silk and cotton textile weavers. Queen Sirikit also promoted the craft by infusing local textiles with Western fashion pieces to help encourage locals and foreigners alike to recognize the significance and beauty of the country’s weaving techniques. The Queen also founded the Institution of Sericulture to ensure the industry’s continued development and to advocate for silk farm workers and weavers.
Today, the art of silk-making in Thailand has become a prominent representation of Thailand’s identity and uniqueness, with countless local businesses now proudly showcasing the craftwork. More than just a fabric, Thai silk has become an embodiment of resilience, adaptability, and innovation, with economic and cultural impacts that are simply undeniable.
Featured Image by Chalffy from Getty Images