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In search of the perfect Thai silk

It's like the story of the search for the Holy Grail: legendary, complicated. But the goal is the ultimate quest of all time (at least for me) - the perfect swathe of silk in Thailand! I started getting interested in collecting all kinds of silk items, particularly scarves, when I started living in Bangkok in 1995. Back then, I had no idea about silk, silk-making, or the different grades of silk. When I went into a silk retail store in Bangkok, all I could see were these bolts of silk cloth in varying fantastic hues -- all shiny and smooth with that satiny touch. My trips to the biggest flea market in town -- Chatuchak Market -- led me to the native products section. I browsed through stalls of Thai silk cloth, silk shawls, silk bags, and other silk trinkets. The more I viewed each bright and woven silk scarf, the more I wanted to find out where I could find the very best of them.
Bright and luminous Thai silks are displayed in the stalls lining Khon Kaen's Silk Road.
How do you identify good silk?

Silk in Thailand is sourced from the cocoon of silk worms that feed on mulberry trees. The long silk thread is dyed before it is wound around the looms, where skillful artisans weave the horizontal (weft) threads into the vertical (waft) threads. It is said that a weaver can only finish one yard of cloth in one day. Hence, handmade Thai silk cloth is unique and different from other silk cloth, as it retains the distinct characteristics of its maker. The first thing you will notice about Thai silk is the "sheen" or the satiny, shiny finish. According to one Thai silk manufacturer, this is produced by triangular fibers that "reflect light like prisms." Also, the layers of protein that Thai silk possesses give it this shiny look. Another characteristic of really good silk is that when you crumple or fold the cloth, it easily goes back to its creaseless condition after you stretch the fabric out again. To test for good Thai silk, get a piece of the silk thread used on your silk cloth and put it up to a flame. The thread should smell like burnt human hair. If it smells more like burnt plastic or any other industrial commodity, then you don't have pure silk. The colors of good Thai silk don't fade, even after so many washings. Dry-cleaning or hand-washing, using mild detergent, is best for Thai silk. To keep your Thai silk looking good as new, do not apply heat on it directly. Instead, put lightweight cotton cloth over the material before applying your flat iron. – Eileen Paat for GMANews.TV
Tradition of silk-making in Thailand It is widely known that China started producing silk some 5,000 years ago. The origins of silk in Thailand are a little hazy, but it is believed that Chinese merchants who were looking for areas to grow silkworms brought the industry into the country 2,000 years ago. Since then, silk has been used by the local population in their everyday dress and on special occasions. This can be seen from ancient paintings of temples where Thai people are wearing shiny silk garb, sometimes embroidered with gold thread. During the early part of the 20th century, silk-making in Thailand almost died due to the influence of Buddhism, which prohibited the killing of all living things, including silkworms. But the industry managed to survive with the help of two people -- the late American soldier Jim Thompson and Queen Sirikit of Thailand. Jim Thompson was one of the military intelligence personnel posted in Thailand during World War II. After the war, he decided to stay in the country and start a silk-making and trading business. But there was a problem: the only remaining silk at that time were the Muslims in the Ban Krua Cham district and several traditional weaving families in Korat, in the northeast. Banking on his family wealth, and inspired by his admiration for the Thai people, Thompson revived the silk-making industry in Thailand. He also modernized it by using more contemporary designs while utilizing traditional methods of silk-making, and promoting Thai silk to the international market. Today, the Jim Thompson brand produces many high-end silk products from Thailand. On the other hand, Queen Sirikit has been instrumental in popularizing the silk-making industry by launching local projects and private foundations to revive the tradition. Through her "One Tambon, One Product" Project, jobs were provided to traditional silk weavers, making the silk-making industry a thriving business.
Khon Kaen's Silk Road is marked by an arch on the national highway going to city central.
A trip to Khon Kaen Locally, the most famous of these silk-making communities are located in the northeast provinces, so I decided to accept an invitation from my Thai friend to visit her hometown of Khon Kaen last month. Usually, it takes six or seven hours to travel to Khon Kaen by bus from Bangkok, even slower if you take the train. Fortunately, we took my friend’s car which made the trip in four hours, and we arrived in Khon Kaen a little past noon. The first time I visited Khon Kaen in 2003, the town still had a very rural ambience. The main Ruen Rom road going to the famed local silk retail center was flanked on both sides with a few low-lying buildings and vacant lots. Now, there were several tall buildings lining the street, including a brand new hotel for tourists. Business is certainly doing well!
Inspecting the silk bolts of cloth and other silk products at the Prathammakant Local Goods Center in Khon Kaen city.
We only had one destination -- the Prathammakant Local Goods Center, the repository of some of the best Thai silks in Khon Kaen. It’s a one-storey building with a Thai-style wooden roof that has a pointed corner and reddish clay shingles to keep out the rain. The center houses what I can honestly say are some of the best silk cloths I have ever seen. I almost went berserk with the variety and colors of silk cloth for sale. And the prices, compared with the silk sold in posh department stores in Bangkok, are quite reasonable. For instance, a medium-sized shawl in dazzling blue costs only Baht 395 (US$8.70). I bought a few silk shawls and other stuff for myself and some friends. Chatting with Khun Arerat Hirunyamarl, the sister of the proprietor, I found out that the store has specialized in silk retail since 1962. Compared to the traditional designs found in the stores in downtown Khon Kaen, it is here that I see more of the bright and chic colors quite popular among the younger and hipper crowd in Thailand.
Some of the breathtaking Thai silk costumes on display at the Chin Thai Silk Showroom in Khon Kaen. The owner of Chin Thai Silk, Surumontri Srisomboon, reportedly holds the distinction of being the only Thai silk entrepreneur who was awarded by UNESCO as the "Best Silk Manufacturer in the World".
It is also in Prathammakant where I see a wide variety of two-tone silk, a kind of cloth where the color of the weft threads is different from the color of the waft threads. The result is an amazing new color that comes out of the merging of these two colors. A little bit further down the national highway is Khon Kaen's Silk Road, where various manufacturers have set up little stalls to sell their wares. We stopped by to take a look at the silk products. Finally, laden with our silk treasures, we went back to Bangkok feeling happy that we have discovered our pot of gold -- or silk -- in the northeast of Thailand. – YA, GMANews.TV