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