An Intro to Thai Fabrics: Part 1

Fabrics
Textile madness in the old garment district in Chiang Mai.

A Beginning

Thailand is the land of fabrics. They’re given far more cultural importance than in most other countries. Thai fabrics, and especially Thai handwoven fabrics, are a surviving thread to a way of life mostly forgotten.  Thai fabrics are an easy gateway to finding Old Siam.

Thai Weavers
Photo Above: Weavers at work in Jomtong, Thailand.

Over many years, I have acquired an expertise in Thai fabrics-especially handwoven textiles.  Not a historical expertise, but a purchasing expertise. In this multi-part series about Thai fabrics, I’ll give you a personal view into an often hidden world of Thai weaving and fabric making.

I realized quite early in my learning curve about Thai fabrics that the quest was as rewarding (and often more so) as the fabric itself. I think of my many trips and excursions to locate Thai textiles as “fabric safaris”.

Action-2
Photo Above: My wife, Jenny, viewing fabrics in Northern Thailand.

I have criss-crossed Old Siam by car, especially Esaan, (Northeast Thailand) and The North searching for village weavers and coaxing them to show me their looms and fabrics. I am always accompanied by my Thai wife Jenny who bridges the culture gap between my farang self and villagers who have very little contact with my culture.

With little trouble, my wife will strike up a conversation with a village weaver. More weavers join in to chat; dogs that were barking now wag their tails; children appear; doors open; we’re taken through humble homes to the looms in the back; weavers proudly show me their work and the techniques used to weave that specific fabric. A successful fabric safari!

Fabric Shopping in Chiang Mai
Photo Above: Fabric shopping in Chiang Mai.

To have even a cursory knowledge of Thai textiles, you must be competent in 3 aspects:

  1. Authenticity. The Thai fabric trade is fraught with fakes, especially the silk trade and Hill Tribe wares. Can you tell the difference between Thai silk and its counterfeits? Can you spot the fake Hill Tribe purse from the authentic one? Warning! The counterfeits, especially for Thai silk, can be extremely convincing.
  2. Quality. Thai fabrics, especially the handwovens, are not created equal. Some Thai silks are cheap and low grade and can be bought for $10/meter; while others are exquisite and may be a great deal at $300/meter.
  3. Source. Where do you find authentic, good quality fabrics in Thailand? Hint…authentic, good quality fabrics, especially silk, are not found at tourist markets.
Thai Batik
Photo Above: A woman creates a batik fabric design by stamping hot wax on fabric.

In these fabric essays,  I’ll teach you to recognize authentic, quality handwoven silk, cotton & mudmee. It is my business to know these fabrics, their sources and their prices. You will not find quality fabrics at tourist bazaars or night markets. You will not find “great deals” on Thai silk. (If you do, it just means you’ve been taken. Sorry to be so blunt.) But what you can find are quality fabrics at a fair price throughout Thailand. But to do so, you must first either leave the tourist trail far behind, or be prepared to pay a fairly steep price. And secondly, you must have some knowledge of Thai fabrics.

The Thai Fabric Essays

Thai cotton fabrics
Photo Above: Handwoven fabrics and designs in a small, rural textile shop in northern Thailand.

Throughout rural areas of Thailand, old wooden looms clank, wack and turn out some of the most beautiful fabrics of the world. With the exception of commercial dyes, handwoven textile production hasn’t changed in centuries. Traditional Thai fabrics are a portal to a time long ago. Old Siam.

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