Thai Fabrics: Handwoven Textiles

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Weaving on old wooden looms is still an occupation in Old Thailand. These handwoven fabrics are some of the finest quality textiles in the world.

An Industry Forgotten By Time.

Thailand still carries on a commercial production of handwoven fabrics. That’s right, you can still go into commercial garment districts and buy bolts of handwoven fabric produced on old wooden looms.

The hand weaving of fabrics on old looms is mostly a rural or small town endeavor. The old wooden looms are handed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation. Quality hand-weaving demands a high skill level. That skill is also passed down through generations.

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Weaving is passed down through the generations. The old woman still weaves on a teak loom given to her by her grandmother when she was a child.

The weavers do not just make a few yards of fabric for little handicraft items; They weave bolts of 20-30 yards to sell. How long this “old world” fabric production will last is a good guess. But handwoven fabrics are still widely produced in the Kingdom and show no signs of disappearing anytime soon.

Women produce all handwoven fabrics. I have never seen a man operate a manual loom in Thailand. And I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of wooden looms in operation all across Thailand over the years. Even the modern mechanical looms are often operated by women. And women mostly control the selling of fabric at all levels. Thai fabrics are a women’s world plain & simple.

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A fabric shop near Prae. The owner is holding a bolt of hilltribe cotton fabric. In back of her are fine brocaded silks. All the fabrics are handwoven.

Here’s how the handwoven market works. Usually, a fabric distributor, buyer or fabric store will need a certain yardage of a certain type of handwoven fabric. This order is then given to a local weaver to make. If the order is large, it’s jobbed out to as many weavers as needed to complete the order within a reasonable time. A woman then usually weaves the order at her home. A courier from the distributor/buyer then picks up the bolt when finished.

Handwoven fabrics in Thailand
For sale at great prices. Bolts of handwoven, cotton fabric in Chomtong, Thailand.

Some fabric shops may have 2-10 looms in the back where a few woman might come to weave. But mostly, women weave at home. The weavers all live in the countryside. Thailand is dotted with rural fabric shops. There are no urban “sweatshops” in Thai handwoven fabric production.

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A large village weaving collective in the mountains north of Chiang Rai.

Sometimes the women organize themselves into a village weaving collective. You will inevitably run across the acronym “OTOP” when shopping for fabric. OTOP stands for “One Tamboon (village) One Product. This was an attempt by the Thai government to get rural villages to concentrate on a single handicraft and produce it commercially. OTOP awards are given for quality. If you hear someone refer to a fabric as “OTOP”, they’re referring to the recognized quality of the fabric.

Often the weavers are given orders for bedspreads, bath mats, table clothes, etc. In that case, The weaver is told what exactly is needed (the size specifications, type of weave, pattern, etc.) and she produces the order. You can walk into a rural fabric shop and order a specific type of handwoven fabric. The minimum order is usually about 20 yards and it will take a week or two to make.

Cotton weaving in Thailand
Weaving is often a pleasantly solitary work done at home. In the photo above, a Northern Thai woman weaves on the bottom floor of her house. The cotton fabric she is producing will be used for curtains and pillows.

The amount of fabric a weaver can produce per day is wholly determined by the complexity of the weave. If the weave is a simple, one color cotton weave with no brocading, a skilled weaver can produce 8-10 meters a day. If the weave is a Royal Silk brocade, a skilled weaver can only produce a couple inches a day!

I recently purchased 4 meters of an excellent quality bolt of silk brocade from Lamphun. It took the weaver 26 days to produce it.

Brocaded Thai Silk
The above Royal Silk brocade is one of the most complex weaves I’ve ever seen. Very few weavers have the skill needed to produce at this level. A master weaver will measure her daily production of Royal Silk by centimeters.

 

How a Wooden Loom Operates: A Quick Tutorial

A woven fabric is composed of vertical threads called the warp or warp threads, and horizontal threads called the weft or weft threads.

First, the warp threads are strung onto the loom and the process can take days depending on the complexity of the weave. These threads often carry the basic color and pattern of the fabric that will be woven.

Hand weaving in Thailand
Stringing the loom with its warp threads (the vertical threads) is a very time consuming task. The above weaver is producing cotton Chomtong fabric.

Every individual warp thread (there can be hundreds if not a thousand warp threads depending on the width of the woven fabric) must be passed through an individual, tiny opening of a sieve that runs the width of the fabric just in front of where the weaver sits which will keep the warp threads separated during the actual weaving process.

Hand weaving in Thailand.
Every warp thread must be strung through the sieve to keep the treads seperate during the weaving process. It can take as long to thread a loom as it does to weave a bolt of fabric.

Every other warp thread is tied to one lifting bar (That’s half the warp.) The remaining warp is tied to a second bar (That’s the other half of the warp.) These two bars are raised and lowered by foot pedals on the wooden loom.

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There are always two warp lift bars on a loom. One bar raises every other warp thread (half) while the other raises the other half.

When one of the warp lifting bars is raised by the floor pedal, half the warp threads are raised upward. This allows the shuttle, which contains the horizontal weft thread, to pass underneath half of the vertical warp threads. Once the shuttle passes under the full width of half the warp threads, the weaver lowers the first lifting bar and raises the second lifting bar which controls the other half of the warp. The shuttle is then passed under the second half of the warp, travelling in the opposite direction from the first pass.

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With the warp threads raised, the wooden shuttle holding the horizontal thread (the weft) can be inserted underneath. With complex weaving patterns this must be done manually.
Hand weaving in Thailand
On simple weaves the shuttle holding the weft thread can be pulled through the raised warp threads. Above Photo: The weaver in her right hand holds the shuttle pull. She has raised half the warp threads. (Notice the raised warp tie bar.) The wooden shuttle is located in a small wooden holder to her right. When she pulls the “Shuttle Pull” the shuttle will quickly travel underneath the raised warp and into another shuttle holder on the other side of her loom.

The result of raising half the warp, passing a weft thread underneath, then raising the other half of the warp and passing the weft thread back underneath from the opposite direction,  is woven fabric. 

This is the most simple explanation of weaving simple fabrics on an old wooden loom. When weaving more complicated fabrics, such as brocades, the weaving process becomes far more complicated.

Basic Types of Thai Handwoven Fabrics

Thai Silk

Thai silk is a handwoven fabric.  It’s the finest fabric in the world! Sericulture was brought to ancient Siam some 5,000 years ago and since that day the old wooden looms have been clacking continuously.

I wrote a detailed blog entry about Thai Silk that you can find here. If you’re planning a trip to Thailand and are thinking of purchasing Thai silk, or just have an interest in this amazing fabric, I highly suggest you read my tutorial to protect yourself against frauds and counterfeits.

Of course any introduction to Thai silk must include mention of the Thai silk king, Jim Thompson, who brought the industry back from its deathbed back in the 1950s. And yes, I wrote a blog entry about Jim Thompson that you can find here.

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Ban Phon silk scarves are recognized as some of the finest hand weaving in The Kingdom. You won’t find these for sale at any tourist bizarre or market.

Mudmee Fabric

Thai mudmee (also known as ikat weaving) is the signature fabric of Thailand and is the oldest technique of pattern weaving in The Kingdom. Mudmee can only be handwoven and can be either silk or cotton. Mudmee is woven almost exclusively in Isaan (Northeast Thailand). Silk mudmee fabric is considered the finest silk in Thailand.

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I’ve written quite a bit about mudmee as I find its history and technique fascinating. You can find my mudmee tutorial here.

Mudmee silk in Thailand
A display of mudmee silk at a silk shop in Ban Ta-Sa-Wang in the Esaan region of Thailand.

Cotton Fabric

Cotton fabric is primarily woven in northern Thailand, but can also be produced in Isaan, Sukothai and other provinces. The small villages that ring Chiang Mai, especially Pasang, produce a large amount of handwoven cotton. The fabric shops in the Chiang Mai garment district all carry handwoven cotton fabric.

Hand weaving in Thailand.
A cotton brocade being woven in Lamphun, Thailand.

Hill Tribe Fabrics

Throughout Northern Thailand are many indigenous villages whose inhabitants are referred to as “Hill Tribe”. (The Akha; The Karen; The Hmong; The Lisu; to name just a few)

Their villages all produce handwoven fabrics and embroidery that are unique to each ethnicity. Village Hill Tribe women often produce much of the clothing worn by the villagers. Their looms are much simpler than the standard teak looms used throughout the Kingdom, but their skill as weavers is quite accomplished.

Hill Tribe weaving in Thailand
Hill Tribe women producing fine fabrics on simple “foot looms”
Hill Tribe weaving in Thailand
A Hill Tribe boy shows off his handwoven/embroidered smock. Village weavers still produce much of the clothing worn in their respective villages.

Final Thoughts

In our industrial world, we give little thought to fabrics. Often, we’re not even sure what our clothing is made from (cotton, polyester or something else?) or where it was made. But in the old Siamese world of hand weaving, these same questions are important and the answers are well known. Ask the little boy above where his smock came from and he’ll tell you with great pride “his mom”!

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