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Thai silk is produced from the cocoons of Thai silkworms. Thai weavers, mainly from the Khorat Plateau in the northeast region of Thailand, raise the caterpillars on a steady diet of mulberry leaves. Khorat is the center of the silk industry in Thailand and a steady supplier of rose Thai silk for many generations.
Today, Thai silk is known for its special qualities, bearing unique patterns and colors.
After silk originated in ancient China and India where the practice of weaving silk began around 2,640 BCE, Chinese merchants spread the use of silk throughout Asia through trade. Some accounts indicate that archaeologists found the first fibers of silk in Thailand to be over 3,000 years old in the ruins of Baan Chiang. The site is considered by many to be Southeast Asia's oldest civilization.
However, silk produced on the Khorat plateau was generally only used for private consumption, with the Thai court preferring to purchase Chinese silk imports. There was an attempt in the early 20th century to develop the industry, with the help of a Japanese sericulture expert, Kametaro Toyama. But this attempt failed due to a lack of interest locally to produce for a larger market.:34
After World War II, a former OSS officer named Jim Thompson decided that silk would be popular back at home in America and through his connections in New York began marketing the product as a traditional Siamese material. In fact, the material he created had little relationship to what had previously been produced in the country. But through clever branding and by developing a range of "Thai" patterns, he managed to establish Thai silk as a recognizable brand.
Writing in the Bangkok Post in 1949, Alexander MacDonald noted that, "...out of a number of scattered remains of history, from cultures borrowed from Siam's neighbors, and from colonies of fat and lazy Siamese silk worms, Jim Thompson is trying to build a modest business." Throughout the 1950s Thais remained little interested in Thai silk, considering it generally suitable only for fancy dress. Rather, it was American tourists who sustained the local development of a silk industry in Thailand. In 1951, The King and I opened on Broadway, featuring a depiction of the Thai court in the mid-19th century in which the costumes were all made using Thai silk. Created by Irene Sharaff, the production served to promote the material to the American audience, and fuelled interest in the country.
Throughout the 1950s, silk shops opened up across Bangkok. But these sold almost entirely to the tourist trade. Wealthy Americans would come into Jim Thompson's shop and buy large amounts of the fabric and then take it home where they would get it made into an item of clothing. Locally, Thais showed little interest in the product as it remained expensive, and unsuited to the hot climate.
The production of Thai silk begins with the Bombyx mori, a small silk worm that comes from the eggs of a silk moth. For their first year, these worms feast on the leaves of mulberry trees before building a cocoon with their spittle.
In its original cocoon form, raw silk is bumpy and irregular. Thai weavers separate the completed cocoons from the mulberry bush and soak them in a vat of boiling water to separate the silk thread from the caterpillar inside the cocoon.
The Bombyx mori usually produces silk thread of varying colors, ranging from light gold to very light green, with lengths varying from 500 to 1,500 yards per cocoon.
A single thread filament is too thin to use on its own, so Thai women combine many threads to produce a thicker, usable fiber. They do this by hand-reeling the threads onto a wooden spindle to produce a uniform strand of raw silk. The process is a tedious one as it takes nearly 40 hours to produce a half kilogram of Thai silk.
Many local operations use a reeling machine for this task, but the majority of most silk thread is still hand-reeled. The difference is that hand-reeled threads produce three grades of silk: two fine grades that are ideal for lightweight fabrics and a thick grade for heavier material.
The silk fabric is then soaked in hot water and bleached before dyeing in order to remove the natural yellow coloring of Thai silk yarn. To do this, skeins of silk thread are immersed in large tubs of hydrogen peroxide. Once washed and dried, the silk is then woven using a traditional hand-operated loom.
Since traditional Thai silk is hand woven, each silk fabric is unique and cannot be duplicated by commercial means. In contrast, artificial silk is machine woven, which means that every part of the fabric is identical and has the same color.
In addition, Thai silk has a unique lustre, with a sheen that has two unique blends: one color for the warp and another for the weft. Color changes as you hold the Thai silk fabric at varying angles against light.
Moreover, Thai silk smells like hair when burned, a testament to the natural fibre that comes from the silk worm, which is similar to the composition of human hair and fingernails. If you move the flame, Thai silk immediately stops burning. Artificial silk smells like plastic when burned.
In terms of price, Thai silk is usually 10 times more expensive than artificial silk.
Another simple way to identify authentic Thai silk is the "wedding ring" test. When you attempt to pull a yard or two of Thai silk fabric through a wedding ring, it will ease through, demonstrating just how smooth and flexible it is as a fabric. Imitation fabrics will crunch up and be very difficult or even impossible to pull through a wedding ring.
To be able to identify genuine Thai silk easily, Thailand's Agriculture Ministry uses a peacock emblem to authenticate Thai silk and protect it from imitations. The peacock emblem serves as a guarantee of quality and it comes in four different colors based on specific silk types and production process. They are:
- Gold peacock: Indicates premium Royal Thai Silk, a product of native Thai silkworm breeds and traditional hand-made production.
- Silver peacock: Indicates Classic Thai Silk, developed from specific silkworm breeds and hand-made production.
- Blue peacock: Indicates Thai Silk, a product of pure silk threads and with no specific production method (allows chemical dyes).
- Green peacock: Indicates Thai Silk Blend, a product of silk blended with other fabrics and with no specific production method.
In 2006, US$14,540,325 worth of silk was exported from Thailand. The predominant markets are the U.S., and the U.K. Silk fabric accounts for about half of the silk exported from Thailand (the rest being raw silk, yarn, cocoons, and silk waste). However, Thailand remains only a small contributor to the global trade in silk. China produces 100,000 tonnes of silk a year, 80 percent of the global market, while Thai silk exports account for just 0.1 percent of global production, with most Thai silk used locally.
- Jim Thompson, a US businessman who helped revitalize the Thai silk industry in the 1950s and 1960s.
- About Thai silk
- Who discovered silk from World of Thai Silk (commercial)
- Ian Brown, "Government Initiative and Peasant Response in the Siamese Silk Industry, 1901–1913", Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 68, Part 2, July 1980
- Joshua Kurlantzick, The Ideal Man: The tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War (Wiley, 2011)
- The Postman Says, Bangkok Post, January 13, 1949
- Klein, Christine (2003). Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
- About Thai silk from World of Thai Silk (commercial)
- Queen bestows quality emblem for Thai silk
- Exports of silk from Thailand
- The global trade in silk
- Fernquest, Jon (2013-05-07). "Silk Boom: Opportunity for Thailand". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 26 January 2016.