Nothing speaks to old Siamese traditions more eloquently than Thai silk. But the Thai silk market is treacherous with its outright counterfeits and low-quality, high-priced imposters.
My goal is to give you some consumer knowledge about buying Thai silk such as where it’s sold and the different types; the difference between good and bad silk and how to recognize fakes. Knowledge breeds confidence and you need to shop with confidence.
Most importantly, always keep in mind that with Thai silk, the journey is always as valuable as the destination. Thai silk is a gateway to Old Siam and a culture that’s quickly disappearing.
Thai Silk Basics
The finest silk in the world is handwoven in rural Thailand, with most of it being woven in the Northeast part of the country, commonly known as Isaan. Northern Thailand, in and around Chiang Mai and Lamphun, also produce exquisite brocaded silks from which the finest Thai couture is made.
Thai silk is still produced on old wooden looms that have been passed down through generations, from mother to daughter along with their weaving expertise. Some looms can be quite small, while others may stand thirty feet tall and take three women to operate.
Nothing puts my mind to rest more than walking down a quiet village street in Isaan and hearing the loud clacking of a loom turning out this legendary fabric.
The world of Thai silk mostly belongs to women. Women, for the most part, operate the looms, spin the thread, dye the yarns and design the patterns. Men may produce the silk thread and procure and haul needed materials for weaving (fabric is very heavy), but the actual creation of silk fabric is a woman’s world.
Silk weaving goes back thousands of years in Thailand, having been first introduced to the Siamese Kingdom as fabrics via the Chinese Silk Route. The mysteries of Chinese sericulture soon followed and the ancient Thai Kingdom began producing its own silk.
Thai silk is still made the old fashioned way. Silk worm larvae take their holy communion of specially cultivated mulberry leaves and become a worm. The silk worm then makes its cocoon by secreting a single strand of silk thread, sometimes as long as 1,500 feet.
Before the silk worm can leave it’s cocoon and metamorphose into a moth, the pods are collected and boiled in water, killing the silk worm inside. In sericulture (the production of silk) the silkworm must be killed before leaving its cocoon to preserve the unbroken length of the cocoon’s single silk thread.
Boiling the cocoon dissolves another secreted substance which binds together the cocoon. After boiling, the cocoon’s single silk thread can be carefully unwound onto a spool in a process called “reeling”.
Wait! We’re not quite finished making useable silk. The silk thread is boiled again and bleached, then intertwined together with two or three other silk threads (it’s called the “ply”) to produce the silk yarn. The silk yarn is now ready to be dyed. It is the from silk yarn that the weavers produce fabric.
No doubt a visitor from another planet would find humans a strange bunch indeed, hearing that they covet and will pay a pile of money to cover themselves in the secretions of a worm. And while Mother Nature may be offended at the killing of the silkworm and “Metamorphasis Interrupted”, the other “metamorphasis” of worm secretion to beautiful fabric, does indeed assuage her wrath.
Types of Thai Silk
When buying Thai silk, you’ll generally encounter three types: brocaded, dupioni and mudmee. Yes, there are more types of weave, and of course every village produces their own unique silk, but almost all Thai silks will fall into these three catagories.
Brocaded Thai Silk
Brocaded Thai silk is a weave that gives the fabric an embossed or raised quality. The fabric is not at all smooth, but is raised in a manner that creates a pattern in and of itself.
Weaving brocaded silks requires the most expertise and patience of all the various silk weaves. A 4 meter dressmaker’s bold of good quality brocaded Thai silk will cost roughly $400-$600 and will take the weaver about a month to produce. (If you purchase in Bangkok, the price can be much higher.) A dressmaker’s bold can yield two outfits for an average size woman.
Brocaded silks are often found in Northern Thailand and they’re known for their delicate, pastel colors. Brocaded silks are often used in making the finest Thai silk couture and can command very high prices.
I wrote a blog article with lots of photos about brocaded silk from Ban Ta-Sa-Wang (a silk weaving village in Issan) that you can read here.
Dupioni Thai Silk
Dupioni is often a single color fabric, but I’ve seen many bolts of patterned dupioni, especially mudmee.
Dupioni silk intentionally has many fabric knots, bumps, and “fatties” which give the fabric great character. These fabric inconsistencies are called slubs and are crucial to recognizing authentic Thai silk from its counterfeits. (I will explain slubbing and its relevance a little later.)
I love dupioni silk and its prices can be very reasonable. I often choose dupioni to make special Thai silk pillows. The red silk fisherman pants, worn by our model in the earlier photo, is made from dupioni silk.
Mudmee silk (also known as ikat weaving) is the oldest form of pattern weaving in The Kingdom. In mudmee weaving, the fabric’s pattern is first calculated and tie-dyed onto a single silk thread much like human DNA is encoded with our genetics. As the fabric is handwoven, the pattern encoded on the single thread coming into the loom (usually the horizontal thread, aka the weft thread) will create the pattern.
Mudmee silk is usually woven in Isaan, although weavers in the north occasionally produce it. It is considered by some to be the finest of all Thai silk. The complexity of the patterns is astounding and the skill of the weavers to produce this type of silk is at its highest.
I wrote an entire blog article about Thai mudmee silk that you can read here.
Where to Buy Thai Silk
The golden rule for silk purchase is to know your seller! Of course you can’t personally know them as a tourist; but you can fairly easily know their reputation and recognize the indicia of trustworthiness and quality. After almost two decades of buying Thai silk, I still never violate this golden rule.
Stay Away From Tourist Markets
Where NOT to buy Thai silk is the most important information I can give you, so I want to address this issue first.
Authentic, quality Thai silk is not sold at Thai street markets, night bizzars, “walking streets” or other tourist oriented places. There are vendors at these tourist markets who may try to sell you Thai silk, but rest assured, their wares are either counterfeits or at best a very low grade silk that can’t be sold elsewhere.
There are no bargains in the Thai silk trade. You cannot buy authentic Thai silk for $10-$20 a bolt. The woman that spent a lot of time and expertise weaving the fabric certainly knows the market value of her product. The fabric store owner certainly knows the market rates for the product he’s been buying/selling for years. The village silk weaving cooperative certainly knows the value of their silk. So why would they sell their Thai silk at a tourist market at 1/10th the price that they could sell it elsewhere?
When you try to buy Thai silk at a tourist market, you’re violating the golden rule of knowing your seller. More than that, you’re quickly identifying yourself to the seller as someone who doesn’t know anything about Thai silk.
Counterfeits and slick sellers can be very persuasive, especially with the gullible. Again, there are no bargains in the Thai silk trade. You get what you pay for! Stay away from tourist markets.
If in Bangkok or another Thai city, the easiest way to find authentic Thai silk is at a dressmaker or tailor shop. These shops exist all across Bangkok and throughout The Kingdom.
Skilled dressmakers (or tailor) will make for you a variety of Thai silk apparel including professional business suits, evening jackets, skirts, and depending on the proper drape, an array of dresses and blouses. To learn about real Thai silk, you need to touch and feel the real stuff and a dressmaker’s shop is a good place to start the learning curve.
Many of these shops are often clustered around and even located in upscale hotels. If you’re staying in Bangkok, go to a 5-star hotel and you’ll see many have dressmaking/tailor shops that will carry a limited amount of authentic Thai silk. Talk to the dressmakers and feel their silk!
Dressmakers can also provide valuable consultation for your silk shopping. Discuss purchasing Thai silk for an outfit and she’ll be happy to tell you places to go and how much you’ll need. (about 4 yards for professional suit jacket and matching skirt.) Most dressmakers are more than happy if you bring them the fabric to make your outfit. Any decent dressmaker anywhere in Thailand will know the best local fabric shops to purchase Thai silk.
There are far too many quality fabric shops throughout Thailand to name. Every city will have them. Ask your hotel concierge or dressmaker/tailor where to buy quality Thai silk. Every city will have a garment district that may have a good silk shop.
So how do you follow the golden rule of knowing the silk seller with a fabric shop you’ve never been too? Look around the store. Has it been in business for a long time? Does it have a good inventory of Thai silk? Is it quality Thai silk? Are the prices too good to be true? (If so, head for the door quick.) These questions can be answered by just looking around.
Engage the owner in conversation about his Thai silk if he speaks English. Does he seem to know what he’s talking about? Is he enthusiastic about Thai silk or just trying to get you to buy anything? If the fabric shop is in rural Thailand, do you see any old wooden looms around. Often there’s one or two in back of the shop. Do you see any silk yarns strung up or other signs of silk weaving? Seeing evidence of actual silk weaving usually means you’ve found a legitimate seller.
So you see, by just using a little common sense and friendly conversation, you will start to get a good idea about the fabric shop and the authenticity of their silk.
A Silk Safari to Essan
To find the biggest selection of the finest silk at the best prices you must travel to Isaan, northeast Thailand. This is silk country and home to sticky rice, Isaan sausage, Thai roast chicken, fermented red ant eggs (a delicacy) and of course somtom, the spicy green papaya salad that Thais can’t get enough of. This is the land of the Angor Wat style ruins of Pi Mai and Phanon Rung. It is also the poorest region of Thailand and least visited.
Best Places to Buy Silk in Esaan
Chonobot. This is my number one recommendation because of the quality of silk, especially mudmee silk, available and the ease of finding it. The town is located about 25 kilometers south of Kon Gan. On the Main Street of this small town are lots of silk shops. You can simply park your car and started walking from shop to shop.
Surin. This would be my second choice for a silk safari. This town is located about an 8 hour drive from Bangkok. You will find a central silk market in town and fabric shops. Eight kilometers from Surin lies Tha Sawang. Go there! You’ll see some of the finest silk in The Kingdom being woven and a huge selection of fabrics to choose from. Ban Sawai, Ban Chan Rom, Ban Sinarin are all silk weaving villages near Surin.
Ban Phon. This is a village in near Kalasin and the villagers weave the most beautiful silk scarves and shawls found anywhere. This village is close enough to Chonobot so that you could visit both places in a single day. I own several Ban Phon scarves and I treat them as museum pieces.
Korat aka Nakorn Rachasima. I haven’t bought silk from Korat in years, but it has many excellent silk fabric shops. Korat is the second largest city in Thailand and about a 6 hour drive from Bangkok. Pack Thong Chai is a very famous silk weaving village that is only 31 kilometers from Korat. The Korat area will always have a special place in Thai silk history because it was in this district that the legendary Jim Thompson, the original Thai silk entrepreneur, built his organic silk farm and breathed life into a dying art.
The above list of places to buy silk in Isaan is no where near exclusive. I’ve merely touched on a few of the “biggies”. Villages near Ubon Rachatani and Ubon Thani produce fine silks. If you go north and cross into Laos (really just an extension of Thailand that the French grabbed in their colonial days.) you’ll find exquisite silk being produced in Vien Tien.
If your only reason for going on a silk safari to Isaan is to get a better price, then you’re better off canceling your trip. By the time you factor in hotels and transportation costs, you’ll quickly realize that you saved precious little. But if you want to get off the well-beaten tourist trail and seek a little adventure, then by all means contemplate a silk safari to Isaan.
Recognizing Authentic Thai Silk (or how to avoid counterfeits!)
There is no substitute for experience. Educating yourself to some of the most basic aspects of Thai silk will help you immensely not only in avoiding frauds, but also in recognizing quality. There is no single attribute or characteristic that will easily determine if a bolt of fabric is authentic Thai silk. It’s really a combination of all the characteristics below and your common sense.
The Price Test: There are no cut-rate bargains for Thai silk as explained earlier, especially for good quality Thai silk. If you paid $20 (or some other ridiculously low amount) for a bolt of “Thai brocaded silk” you flunked the price test. If I told you I bought a Rolex at a Bangkok street market for $100, would you believe the watch to be authentic? The price test is really nothing more than using basic common sense.
The Feel: Thai silk is often a slightly scratchy, somewhat stiff, sturdy fabric. Generally it is not soft and lightweight (but there are always exceptions depending on how the silk was finished or washed.) That’s why it is so important that you go to high-priced, dressmakers or credible fabric stores so you can touch and feel authentic Thai silk. Thai silk will soften with washing, but new Thai silk should feel like the rough-tough fabric it is. I have run my fingers over myriad pieces of Thai silk over the years, and I can tell within seconds if the fabric is authentic.
The Weave: Thai silk is handwoven. Therefore, imperfections will exist in the weave. Only mechanical looms can crank out a flawless weave. Even The Kingdom’s best weavers can’t produce a flawless weave for a variety of reasons.
Study the fabric very closely. Hold it up to your eye or bend over for a closer look. Try to find small imperfections in the weave or pattern. When you spot a small imperfection, that’s a good thing. It means you’re looking at handwoven silk.
Beware: Mechanical looms can be and are programmed to produce “flaws” and mimic the texture of handwoven fabrics.
Slubbing: Slubbing can differentiate authentic Thai silk from a counterfeit faster than anything else. Slubbing occurs with fabric that has been handwoven from a silk yarn that varies in thickness. The plying (intertwining) of two or more silk threads into a silk yarn exacerbates slubbing. Thai silk is such a fabric and is often made from multi-plied silk yarns.
As a weaver creates her fabric, she almost always looms with inconsistent yarns that produce the slub. A slub looks like a knot of thread and they can be large or very small. Or it can appear as a bulging of thread across a weave-line of the fabric.
Slubbing can give the handwoven fabric great character. I have many times chosen a heavily slubbed bolt over another because I preferred the character of the slubbing. And remember, dupioni Thai silk is deliberately slubbed which gives it its famous texture.
If you don’t find slubs, you probably don’t have authentic Thai silk. The fabric may well be silk, but it is not handwoven. Slubbing can be very small on the finer pieces, so study your fabric carefully.
Only Royal Silk, silk fit for The Queen, may appear to not have slubs because the weaver will use the highest grade silk yarns which may produce little to no slubs. But no common store would possess Royal Silk and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t show it to you and let you touch it.
Beware: Mechanical looms can easily programmed to produce fabric with slubs.
The Edges: Handwoven fabrics have rough, uneven edges of the bolt. Mechanical looms produce fabric edges that are smooth and clean. Always look to the edges of the fabric and make sure they’re rough and uneven. Also, the edges of handwoven fabrics is an area that it’s often the easiest to see slubbing.
A few words about the width of a bolt of Thai silk: Almost all Thai Silk will come in a bolt that was woven approximately 34-40 inches in diameter. It very rarely will exceed that dimension, because very few wooden looms can weave greater than that. Of course if you’re buying scarves or shawls, the weaver obviously used a much narrower fabric format.
The Shimmer: A famous attribute of Thai silk is that it shimmers when you hold it up to a light and undulate the fabric. The reason is simple. In weaving Thai silk, a different colored silk yarn is sometimes used for the horizontal and vertical yarns. (AKA-the wend and warp yarns) This is what produces the shimmering effect.
Many Thai silk fabrics will shimmer; but many won’t as the weaver chose to use the same color wend and warp yarns. A general rule is that solid color Thai silk should shimmer, but patterned Thai silk may not. Mudmee Thai silk (more on this type of silk later) often does not shimmer.
Beware: The easiest trick in fabric counterfeits is to make the fabric shimmer. It’s quite simple to have a mechanical loom weave with a different color yarn for the wend/warp. It’s an old tourist market trick to tell a gullible customer a fabric must be Thai silk because it shimmers and then undulate the fabric in front of the tourist’s face.
The Totality of Indicia: Other than the golden rule of knowing your seller, no single indicia is proof positive you are buying authentic, handwoven Thai silk. It’s a combination of all the above indicia that’s important.
What makes one bolt of Thai silk better than another bolt, other than the sheer preference of the buyer?
The Quality of the Weave. The quality of the weave is the most important attribute. Obviously, handwoven fabrics are only as good as the weaver that produced them. There are expert weavers, journey-woman weavers, novice weavers and just plain old bad weavers.
Study carefully the actual weave. Is it tight? How common are the flaws? How obvious are the flaws? Is the slubbing a good thing as with dupioni silk or a bad thing as with brocaded silk? Is the pattern complex and precisely duplicated across the bolt? What about the dying or color of the fabric? Is the color(s) consistent across the bolt?
These are all quality issues. In other words, a quality piece of Thai silk will have a tight weave with very few flaws. Any slubbing will increase the character of the bolt, not decrease it. Any pattern, whether brocaded, woven or mudmee, will be consistent both in design and replication. The bolt will have consistent color.
The Type of Weave. The basic weaves of brocaded, dupioni and mudmee are not equal in terms of the expertise needed to produce the fabric.
Fine brocaded Thai silk will always be considered “better” quality than a dupioni weave, just based on the expertise required. Weaving a brocade is more complicated than weaving most dupioni.
Mudmee weaving can be extremely complex and so fine mudmee silk is given an exalted quality status by Thai silk connesuirs, myself included. The more colors in the mudmee pattern means a more complicated weave that demands more precision. The “tightness” or resolution and complexity of the mudmee pattern is crucial to a quality determination.
So quality simply presents itself as the following question: How complicated was the weave and how well accomplished was that weave?
People want price information about Thai silk more than any other information. Unfortunately, price information can be the least useful information. That’s because so many factors go into arriving at a fair price for a bolt of silk that it’s difficult to compare prices unless the silk fabrics are essentially the same.
For example, you really can’t compare the price of brocaded silk to mudmee silk. One may cost more than another, but that doesn’t mean the less expensive silk is an inferior silk; or that the more expensive is de facto “better”.
Pricing factors include complexity of the weave; the time it took the weaver to produce the fabric; the quality of the silk yarns, the quality of the weave; natural dyes or commercial dyes; the pattern and color scheme and lastly, the overall beauty of the fabric.
In other words, buying Thai silk is somewhat like buying artwork. Personal tastes heavily influence the amount you’re willing to pay for a bolt.
Having said that, here’s some sample pricing:
Brocaded Silks: These silks are probably the most expensive, even eclipsing the finest mudmee in costs. Brocaded silks can be extremely complicated to weave, the color schemes can be jaw dropping beautiful and the quality of the actual silk the best available.
I’ve have seen and purchased good quality brocade dressmaker silk bolts (about 4 yards) starting in the 5000-6000 baht range. (about $175) Very good quality brocade bolts will cost in the 10,000 baht range. (About $300) And the fine dressmaker brocaded bolts, I’ve seen selling in the North (not Bangkok) for 40,000-60,000 baht. ($1000 and upwards) Of course, Royal Brocaded Thai Silk, the finest woven, is even more expensive.
Dupioni Silk: These are the least expensive of all the Thai silks. That’s because, there are often (not always!) the easiest to weave. Also, because of their heavily slubbed texture, the weavers have often chosen a lower grade silk yarn to get the desired dupioni texture.
I have bought solid color, commercial grade dupioni Thai silk for as little as $10/yard in Isaan at the fabric store that produces it. (Dupioni is often sold by the yard, not the bolt.) The same dupioni fabric, I have seen in Chiang Mai garment district selling for $15-$20 a yard. (Please do remember that I buy a lot of commercial grade dupioni for our business along with other high quality weaves, so the store owner or cooperative will give me a very good price.)
Very good quality patterned dupioni can easily sell for $25-$50 a yard depending on quality of the weave and complexity of the colors and pattern.
Mudmee Silk: Quality mudmee silk is appraised more as textile art than a mere fabric. A bolt of good mudmee silk that has 3-4 colors will cost about 6,000 baht, ($175) more or less in Isaan. The price may drop on a single color mudmee for the same quality to about 4,000 baht. ($120) A bolt of fine silk mudmee that has 4-5 colors with a complicated tight pattern that used exclusively natural dyes can easily cost you 10,000-15,000 baht for starters. ($300 upwards) Prices for the best can easily reach 40,000 baht. (Over a $1,000)
Price Bargaining. You can try to bargain prices if you feel the need to; but at good fabric stores and village cooperatives you may not be very successful. Again, there are no bargains in Thai silk only fair deals.
If you feel a piece of Thai silk is being offered to you at an inflated price, you may want to think about not buying anything from that seller. After all, how much confidence can you have in a person that tries to gouge you???
In a legitimate fabric shop or cooperative, the seller of authentic Thai silk will at most offer a very small discount in the range of 3%-5%. Often prices are not negotiable at all. If a fabric shop owner first offers you a bolt at 10,000 baht, but at some point lowers the price to $6000 baht, I would highly recommend NOT buying from that seller.
The fact that a seller won’t bargain is a good omen of legitimacy and authenticity. I come to buy Thai silk, not engage in cat and mouse games that waste everyone’s time and result in bad deals!
Dressmakers, Seamstresses and Your Thai Silk
Often the purpose of buying a bolt of Thai silk is so you can take that fabric to a dressmaker of your choice in Thailand to have whatever apparel you would like made. Or you may want to take your silk fabric to a curtain maker. Dupioni silk makes the best curtains.
In other words, the purchase of your Thai silk was actually the first step toward having something special made . When you enter a fabric store, you should already have a good idea as to what the end use of the fabric will be.
Thai dressmakers will be very enthusiastic about your acquiring silk for them to make apparel from. The dressmaker will tell you how much fabric you need to buy to make the apparel you’re interested in.
If curtains are your end game, make sure you take window measurements before leaving for Thailand. There are many seamstress shops throughout Thailand that specialize in custom curtains. Our home has Thai silk curtains in almost every room. Make sure to have your seamstress line your Thai silk curtains for protection from the sun.
The Dressmakers Bolt. Buying Thai silk fabric really is like going back to an earlier time. Thai silk is still commonly woven in what’s called dressmaker’s bolts.
A dressmaker’s bolt is a single bolt about 4 yards long (no coincidence that this is the exact yardage you need for a single woman’s suit or dress), with half the bolt being the pattern and the other half is the solid color that perfectly matches the pattern’s color.
This is exactly what your dressmaker needs to make you that stunning professional woman’s suit. You and your dressmaker will decide how to use the solid color and the pattern to your liking.
So if you’re ultimate goal is to make a coordinated jacket and skirt from your Thai silk, I highly recommend that when shopping in fabric stores to give special attention to their dressmaker bolts. They’re made exclusively for your purpose.
Pre-Made Silk Apparel and Assesories: You can buy pre-made apparel of Thai silk and you’ll see it available at many fabric stores and upscale botiques, especially in Bangkok. You can purchase beautiful Thai silk purses and handbags from these same boutiques and upscale department stores. And of course you’ll find a large selection of silk scarves, ties, etc. sold at many venues.
If this is your goal, you have little need to purchase the actual Thai silk fabric. In fact if your goal is buy blouses, purses, scarves, handbags, etc., I highly recommend shopping at Jim Thompson stores. Jim Thompson was the first Thai silk entrepreneur and the company he started in the 1950s, still exists today and offers some of the most beautiful Thai silk creations available.
Natural and Commercial Dyes
Commercial dyes are commonly used for Thai silk. Commercial dyes make for a non bleeding fabric that can be washed repeatedly. If you plan to use your Thai silk for apparel, handbags or curtains, then you must make sure commercial dyes were used and not natural dyes.
Natural dyes (plant dyes) are not colorfast and cannot be washed at all without severely degrading the color. Also, if you wear or sit on a natural dyed fabric, the dye will rub off on you.
I was once given a beautiful bolt of green shimmering, irredescent Thai silk that used natural dyes. I mistakenly washed it and the fabric came out of the washing machine ruined, with almost all it’s natural dyes gone. I have sold naturally dyed mudmee silk pillows that customers complain bleed onto their clothing.
Naturally dyed Thai silk is much sought after by collectors who will purchase a specific bolt to add to their collection. The fabric will not be worn or washed.
Silk that is naturally dyed is much more expensive that commercially dyed silk. It takes a lot more skill and labor to dye fabric with natural plants that with commercial dyes. Prices can easily double or triple for naturally dyed Thai silk.