Thai silk is one of the most valued and widely-acclaimed fabrics in the world. One distinguishing factor that sets Thai silk apart from other silk is the wave-like quality of the Thai silk threads. This combined with Thailand’s individualistic tradition of handwoven craftsmanship is what makes Thai silk famous all over the world for its elegance and beauty.
Thai silk in its finished form is the result of a long and attentive process which finds its beginning in the silkworm. Called Bombyse mari by the scientific community, these tiny engineers of silk have a life-cycle similar to the common butterfly. After hatching out of the egg, the silk worm feeds on Indian Mulberry leaves until it is ready to spin a cocoon around itself and await its transformation into a butterfly. It is at this crucial stage that man intervenes, for it is the yellow threads of the cocoon that make the soft, sheer, coveted fabric dubbed silk.
History has it that silk originated thousands of years ago in china. Ln those times, as man relied completely on chance findings of silk worm cocoons for the precious silk threads, nature dictated the production of silk. Now, however, the process has been revolutionised. Plantations of Indian Mulberry are grown in order to ensure a steady supply of cocoons, and, in many cases, industrial machinery is employed in the weaving and dyeing process. In the production of Thai silk, however, the traditional methods of Saaw Mai, Grew Mai, Tii Gleaw, and Taw Mai are still used.
The first step in the production of silk after the cocoons have been gathered is called Saaw Mai. First, the cocoons are boiled in order to separate the intricate web of thread. From there, each strand is meticulously pulled out. In order for silk to be high-quality, strands from several cocoons must be pulled out simultaneously so that they will entwine to form larger, stronger threads. This, in turn, results in silk that reflects light and has a high sheer.
Next, the threads are placed on a wheel and made into spools in a process called Grew Mai. While the threads are being spun, warm water is used to increase their elasticity. Strands that have passed the Grew Mai step should be smooth, straight, and continuous throughout.
The third step is called Tii Gleaw, and involves combining the spools obtained in the Grew Mai process into plies. This ensures that the silk will not separate during weaving. From here the plies are bleached and dyed in preparation for weaving.
Taw Mai or the weaving, is the climax of the silk production process for it involves incorporating hours of painstaking preparation into unrivalled artistic expression and beauty. Two types of silk are used in weaving. One, called ‘Yim silk’, is used for background and the other, ‘Pung silk’, is used for designs. Instruments used in weaving are the Hoog and the Gi Gradook. Both require craftsmanship, knowledge, and experience on the part of the weaver in order to produce the design and pattern desired. This is especially true of intricate designs such as the Pha Yok Dok Tong and the Pha Yok Dok Ngern in which one misplaced strand would arrest the pattern’s freedom and flow.
By the time silk appears as we know it, much time, energy, and care has been invested—all of which reflect the painstaking love of the creators. Thai silk, already beautiful of itself, increases tenfold in worth and significance with an understanding of the history and processes behind it.
Those visiting Chiang Mai and interested in Thai silk should be sure to tour Sankampaeng, one of Chiang Mai’s largest silk producing areas.