While most visitors to Thailand have a least heard a bit about renowned Thai silk as well as the story of Jim Thompson — the American who re-established the Thai silk industry — the history and process of Thai silk-making makes for a fascinating tale.
Text & Photos By Dave Stamboulis
The history of silk dates back some 5,000 years, with legend having it that a cocoon fell into the Chinese Empress’ Hsi-Ling’s teacup one afternoon, and she became fascinated by the fine filament that unwound from it. China soon realized the value of the golden threads and thus the silk trade was born, spreading out through Persia, India, and Mesopotamia along the acclaimed Silk Road.
Silk became the cloth of royalty and the Chinese guarded its secret for years, beheading anyone who tried to smuggle out silkworm eggs or mulberry seeds. However, no secret can be kept forever, and smuggled worms along with their entire marvelous mystique made their way to the rest of Asia.
Thailand got involved in the silk business around 2,000 years ago, possibly because of Chinese traders searching for better areas to grow silkworms (and indeed the Thai silk moth is unique to the tropical conditions here, capable of producing at least ten batches of eggs per year (as opposed to the univoltine moths of Korea and Japan, who produce just once).
Yet the silk trade did not really take off in Thailand, because of the Theravada Buddhists’ reluctance to kill the silkworms (which is a necessity in the silk-making process). However a few families in Isan kept the process alive, and after WWII, Jim Thompson showed up, searching for viable methods to procure commercial silk, discovered the small cottage industry here, and spread the merit of Thai silk worldwide.
More than anyone else, Queen Sirikit helped to promote the industry for over 60 years, pouring money into her “One Tambon One Product” scheme, which promotes Thai arts and crafts as practical means of making a living and keeping traditional culture alive.
In Isan, there were less opportunities to make other commercial ventures such as with rubber in the South or fruit orchards in the mountainous North, so this was the perfect place to implement a cottage industry. Today in Isan, there are several villages and sericulture centers where silk making is a thriving and alluring draw into the Thailand of old.
Thai sericulture (the process of silk-making) starts with villagers breeding silkworms. Silkworms are actually the larvae of bombyx mari moths that lay eggs (the females lay about 300 eggs at a time, with an ounce of eggs yielding about 35,000 silkworms!), which are then placed on trays full of mulberry leaves, from which the worms proceed to devour 25,000 times their original weight in leaves during a 30-day period. After this period, the silkworms reach a size of about 7cm, at which time they stop eating and commence spinning, making a figure eight movement over 300 times in 36 hours and encasing themselves in golden cocoons of raw silk.
Once the cocoons are completed, they are placed in boiling water in order to unravel the silk, and the raw filament drawn from this amazing process is then hung up to dry. These raw silk threads get washed and bleached, and then soaked in hot dyes, before being stretched and twisted into strands strong enough for weaving.
Because Thai silk have a slightly coarse texture, with knotted threads, it is perfect for weaving by hand on traditional looms, which is the final step in the process before the finished product is ready.
There are many different types of Thai silk; smooth (used for clothing), rough (often used for curtains and drapes), two-toned silk, which appears to change color when seen from different angles, “striped” silk, which is weaved alternating between coarse and smooth thread, and of course the famed mudmee silk, in which the fabric is tye-dyed before weaving. Being able to tell the different kinds of silk apart and knowing which is pure good quality silk is an art in itself, but there are a few tips one can follow in looking for the real thing:
- Check the weave. A real weave has small bumps and blemishes in the thread along the warp, whereas machine made imitation silk has a perfect surface.
- Look at the luster. Imitation silk will shine white in any angle of light, whereas real silk that is weaved with one color for the warp and one for the weft (filling) will create two tones.
- The burn test. Burning a thread of real silk with a flame leaves a fine ash, and the thread will stop burning when you remove the flame, as opposed to polyester, which keeps burning and produces a black smoke.