Silk is the luxury fabric of Asia. It has been used to make elaborate Japanese kimonos, splendid Indian sarees, and the luxurious robes of Chinese emperors. Affordable Thai silk scarves, shirts, bed sheets, dresses, and sleepwear are now commonplace. But in ancient times, a journey of thousands of miles was needed to acquire this luxury fabric from the Far East.
The first silk fabric was developed in ancient China over 5000 years ago. Wanting to keep a monopoly over the production of silk, the Chinese emperors kept the source of this amazing natural fiber a closely guarded secret for many years. But eventually the knowledge spread to nearby lands of how to make the finest luxury fabric from the cocoon of a simple little moth.
Silkworms are the caterpillar of the moth species Bombyx mori, which is a domesticated breed of moth, bred especially for the purpose of producing silk. The caterpillar larva feed on mulberry leaves, and so they are often called mulberry silkworms. The silk threads that form their cocoons are created by protein in their saliva. A single cocoon can contain up to a mile of silk thread. It takes about 3000 silkworms eating over 100 kg of mulberry leaves to produce one kg of silk thread.
The silk fiber produced by the mulberry silkworm is known for its luminous sheen and luster. This is due to the triangular shape of the thread, which creates a prismatic effect and reflects light back at various angles to produce different colors depending on the viewing angle.
Once the secret knowledge of silk production got out, it did not take long before it spread to India, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Silk production in Thailand led to the development of weaving as a highly developed art form. This skill was passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Each region of Thailand was known for particular designs in the silk fabrics created there. In recent years, the Thai silk industry has enjoyed a revival, as the ancient arts or spinning and weaving have been married to modern fashion design to produce contemporary clothing for men and women that carries with it an air of luxury.
The Thai silkworm produces a cocoon that can vary in color from off-white to bright yellow. If left to mature fully, the pupae will chew up the silk as it exits the cocoon, rendering the thread much shorter. So sadly, the caterpillars are killed in the process of harvesting the cocoons by dunking them in a vat of boiling water. The hot water also serves to break up the thread, so it can be separated into a long fiber. A single thread is to thin and weak to be used by itself. Therefore, several threads are spun together into one silk string, which is rolled up on a reel. It can take a full 40-hour work week to collect one pound of silk thread in this manner. After the yellow color is removed by bleaching, the raw silk can be dyed other colors.
Thai silk is used to create a huge variety of products. Everything from silk robes and boxer shorts for tourists to traditional tube skirts and silk scarves can be found in Thai markets.
There are many products being sold as “Thai silk” which are either a blend of silk and another fabric or else not really made of silk at all. Real 100% Thai silk will be much more expensive than artificial silk, and it will also have several characteristics that make it easy to recognize.
Genuine silk that is woven by hand will have unique irregularities, and different colors will be noticed by holding real silk fabric in the light at different angles due to the triangular shape of the threads. Artificial silk will not display the same natural luster. If you hold a flame up to a loose thread on an authentic Thai silk item, it will smell like hair as it burns and stop burning after you pull the flame away. Fake silk will smell like plastic as it burns. One other way to determine if a piece of fabric is authentic silk is if it passes the “ring test”. Real silk will slide smoothly through the center of a wedding ring, while artificial silk will not slide through easily as it bunches up and gets stuck.
The Thai silk industry went through a revival beginning in the 1950s with the help of an American businessman named Jim Thompson. He set up the Thai Silk Company, which kept alive a cottage industry of silk weaving by catering the colors and designs of the final products to the tastes of international consumers. Strangely, Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared one day and was never heard from again. But his legacy continues on. Today, the Jim Thompson label is a well-known symbol of high quality silk products. And his house in the center of Bangkok is now a museum where visitors can learn about silk production while enjoying his collection of art and artifacts from the region.
China is the world’s largest producer of silk, with nearly 300,000 kg of silk fabric produced annually. India comes in second with about 77,000 kg of silk per year. Silk production in Thailand takes place mostly in the south and northeast regions of the country. Around 5,000 kg of silk is produced yearly in Thailand, which is certainly much less than the top producing countries, but it still puts Thailand within the top 10 producers of silk.
Some of the most popular Thai silk products include pillow covers and table runners. These are popular souvenirs for foreign tourists that can be found in many markets around the country. Raw silk scarves are another favorite item, especially with women. Scarves are incredibly versatile as they can be worn in any number of ways, and they also make excellent gifts since they take up so little room in your luggage.
Practical Thai silk items for men include things like neckties and boxer shorts. Silk shirts are also in high demand. There is a particular design of men’s short sleeved shirt with a collar that Thai men often wear on semi-formal occasions.
Traditional Thai skirts for women are long and tube shaped with a lot of extra space. They are folded over to get a snug fit and then secured with a belt. Thai silk skirts can be identified by the part of the country they were woven in according to the particular patterns used in the weaving.
In addition to the work of Jim Thompson, the Queen of Thailand has also done a lot to support and promote the Thai silk industry. Through her efforts, the smooth, radiant fabric hand-woven in the villages is now used for contemporary styles worn by Bangkok’s elite. These days, luxurious handbags and designer dresses are just as much a symbol of Thai silk as the traditional patterns and wrap-around skirts of the past were.
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