The Thai Silk Story. The legends behind it, how to buy it and where to buy it in Thailand.

Thai silk is amazing.  It is amazing how it is produced, it is amazing how it looks and it is amazing how it feels.  If you visit Thailand, you have to come home with some quality Thai Silk. 

Thai Silk3The Origin of Silk

The origin of silk is in China over 5000 years ago, and for a few thousand years it was a state secret of how it was made.  Those that were caught divulging just a part of the secret lost their head over it (literally).  Merchants in the early years would cross the “Silk Road” to China and would bring the material to India, Persia and Europe and present it to kings and queens, sultans and emperors.  It was one of the most valuable commodities on Earth.  Like all state secrets, it eventually got out, and about 2000 years ago the technique of producing silk was brought to Siam (the original name for Thailand).

Because of the tropical conditions in Siam, the Thai Silk Moth is unique and more productive than in other parts of the world.  Here, the Thai Silk Moth produces about 10 batches of eggs per year, while in Korea and Japan and other cooler climates, they produce only one.  The material is also of higher quality.  Silk production in Siam was most predominate in the northeast of the country (Issan).  Silk worms devour the leaves of the Mulberry Tree, which converts it into cocoons for the metamorphosis to become a moth.  It is the cocoon that is woven into Thai Silk. Over a one month period, the worm prior to hibernation will eat about 25,000 times its weight in Mulberry leaves.

Once the worm has produced a cocoon, it is boiled alive while in hibernation and the threads are taken from the cocoon, dried and spun into silk.  After this process made its way into Siam, it did not become a booming industry because of the Thai Buddhist (Theravada Buddhism) reluctance for killing the animal (in this case, the silk worm) during the process.  It remained only a cottage industry, mainly with production, weaving and use of the silk cloth within a Thai family.

Thai Silk was kept on this very low scale for a couple of thousand years, until the mid twentieth century.

Jim Thompson - The Silk King of Thailand

Jim Thompson – The Silk King of Thailand

Jim Thompson

In World War II, there were a lot of murky things happening with espionage activities in Thailand, which was somewhat of a neutral country but with a lot cooperation with the Japanese.  In Thailand, the OSS (the precursor of the CIA), had several intelligence (oxymoron) operations, and many of these individuals stayed on in the region after the war.  A few of these former intelligence officers later were instrumental in establishing businesses in the country.   The woman that started the Bangkok Oriental Hotel, one of the premier hotels of the world, was part of this group.  Also the fellow that started the Bangkok Post, the leading English language newspaper in Thailand.  Maybe they had a little assistance with initial capital, or expertise, or a few influential doors were opened.  Another one of the OSS guys was a young single guy by the name of Jim Thompson.   He officially resigned from the intelligence service after the war, but served as a de-facto intelligence officer as the Cold War developed (and later the American intrusion into Vietnam).

Thompson also had an interest in the Thai Silk cottage industry, and had a vision of developing Thai Silk into a preferred cloth in the fashion centers of the West.  He developed Silk production so that it could be produced in volume, introduced designs that had Western tastes and went around the world promoting the product.  He highhandedly created the Thai Silk industry, and with his success was followed by many Thai companies.  You will still see many “Jim Thompson Silk Shops” in some of the higher end fashionable shopping areas in Thailand and outside of the country as well.  Jim Thompson  became wealthy from his endeavors with Thai Silk.

Unfortunately for Jim, he became disenchanted with the CIA efforts in Southeast Asia, mainly in what was being done in Laos.  He was investigated by the FBI for his “un-American activities” and was generally not regarded well within the military and CIA that created/directed the Cold War and regional hostilities.  In 1967, at the age of 61, Jim Thompson strolled in the back of a vacation home he was visiting in Northern Malaysia to have a cigarette and he disappeared.  They never found him.  Vanished forever.  This was a rare event back in ’67 (maybe not so rare nowadays).  Lots of stories and speculation went around about this, but nothing ever came of it.

Jim Thompson, despite his murky past and “extra career”, remains the father of the Thai Silk industry, and is very well regarded in Thailand His home in Bangkok is a museum of fine ancient Thai artwork that he collected and silks, and is an interesting side trip to take on a holiday.

Queen Sirikit

Another person instrumental in the promotion of the Silk Industry is the highly revered Queen Sirikit, the current queen mother of Thailand that assumed the throne back in 1950.  For sixty years, she has been pouring money and personal encouragement into the Thai Silk industry, along with other unique Thai crafts.

Today, most of the industry is still in cooperatives that originally started out with the families getting together to design and product silk cloth in volume, and has become the world’s standard for silk cloth.

Thai Silk1Varieties of Thai Silk and How to Tell if it is Good Quality

Actually, with Thai Silk there are different varieties that each look and feel different, and are used for different purposes.  Smooth Thai Silk is used for clothing, Rough Silk is often used for curtains and drapes.  There is also Two-toned silk, which appears to change color when seen from different angles, “Striped” silk, which is weaved with alternating  coarse and smooth thread, and the famed “Mudmee Silk” which the fabric is tie-dyed before weaving.  When you visit a quality Thai Silk shop, the sales representative should be able to show you several different types of Silk and explain the differences.

Be aware, there are many shops that sell imitation silk and will tell it is the real thing, especially in the tourist areas.  There is a big profit motive as it costs about 1/10 the production costs of real silk to make imitation.  Some shops will sell inferior Chinese Silk (again, labeled as Thai Silk).  Unless you can discern the difference, it is wise to go to a reputable shop, where you may pay a little more but you will get a lifetime of use from the material (but even in the high end silk shops in Thailand, it is still much cheaper than in the US or in Europe).  Many of the bigger shops may have the weaving factory right behind the shop.  That’s a good thing.

Thai Silk2Here are some tips to determine if the silk you are looking at is real silk and is good quality:

The weave -  The weave should have small bumps and blemishes in the thread along the warp creating an individual variation in the weave, whereas machine made imitation silk has a perfect surface (like a machine did it).

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, and change color as you move the material to your sight.

Pattern -  Genuine silk with a printed pattern (not the same as a woven pattern) will have the pattern visible on one side and an outline of the pattern on the reverse side. Imitation fabrics with a printed pattern will have the pattern visible on one side and a plain color on the reverse side. Genuine silk with a woven pattern will have the pattern visible on both sides but the pattern on the reverse side may appear slightly “fuzzy”.

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.

What to Buy in a Thai Silk Shop

A lot of people first coming to a quality Thai Silk Shop will want to buy everything in the store.  It’s probably OK to do that, too, since you will see the prices at a fraction of the cost in the US.  A quality silk tie for men in a Macy’s or a Nordstrom back home will start at about $150 and can quickly climb to as much as $800 or $900.  You will find quality Thai Silk Ties in Thailand for about USD $25 to perhaps as high as $100.  If you ever see a Thai silk tie sold anywhere in Thailand that is less than around 500Baht (about USD $15) it is not real silk, no matter what the label says.  Or, it maybe Chinese Silk.

One of the best things about Thai Silk is that it feels really good when you wear it.  So when you see the Thai Silk mens boxer shorts and laugh a little bit, think about the guy that will be wearing those shorts.  He will feel really good all day long, and it will be reflected in his excellent mood (and make it all worth it).  Silk boxer shorts are not as crazy as they sound like.

Nothing makes you rest better than to be sleeping under Silk sheets (along with anything else you may be engaged in between the sheets).

Silk Robes are also a good thing to buy, along with women’s blouses and skirts.  Any silk that is touching the skin will make it all worth the effort and expense.

Thai Silk4Where to Buy Thai Silk

In Bangkok:

Jim Thompson Silk Shops – The highest quality shops, which you will find in the Siam Paragon shopping mall and other high end shopping areas.  There is also a Jim Thompson outlet shop on Sukhumvit Road and  Soi 93.

Anita Silkthis places weaves their own silk, and has several  locations in the high end shopping malls in Bangkok.

Small Custom Tailor Shops – these are all over the city but quality will depend upon the quality of the merchant.  This is where you have to employ the tips for recognizing good quality silk.

Chatuchak Market (JJ Market)the big weekend market has many Silk stalls, and you will get the best pricing, BUT you have to be a wise buyer.  Carefully check out the cloth, and then put on your bargaining hat.  You should not be paying the first price that is suggested.

In Chiang Mai:

Quality Thai Silk in Chiang Mai is cheaper than in top shops in Bangkok, and there are some top shops in town.

Jollie Femme – just outside of downtown near Bo Sang, this shop weaves their own silk, and you can walk around the factory right behind the store.  They do everything from feeding the silk worms to the finished product, and it is of excellent quality.  This would be my first choice (the name certainly does not sound Thai, but it is definitely a Thai operation).

Thai Silk Village – just down the street from Jollie Femme on San Kamphaeng Road, would be another good choice.

Do Not Buy Silk in the shops around the Night Bazaar.  Much of it is imitation or Chinese Silk with false labeling.

Have your own recommendations?  Please share it with others in the comments below.

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