Thai Silk: A Buyer’s Guide

This post was updated: June 24, 2018
Unbleached native yellow Thai Silk Thread
A single thread of unbleached native yellow Thai silk. It takes 6-20 silk filaments to make a single thread; it takes 2-6 silk threads to make silk yarn suitable for weaving.

Introduction

Nothing speaks to old Thai traditions more eloquently than Thai silk. It’s a cultural touchstone of The Kingdom.

But the Thai silk market can be treacherous with outright counterfeits and low-quality but overpriced offers. “Silk sharks” are everywhere, especially at tourist markets.

This tutorial is intended to give you a basic consumer knowledge about buying this complex fabric while on your trip to Thailand. I’ll explain in layman’s terms the different types of silk fabrics; how to recognize counterfeit silk (buyer beware!); the difference between quality and inferior silk; and of course the best places to purchase silk fabric in The Kingdom.

My goal is to educate you as a consumer. Knowledge breeds confidence and you need to shop with confidence. Also, knowing some basics about your silk purchase will make you enjoy and appreciate this fabric even more.

Fake Thai Silk at a Tourist Market
Above Photo: Fake Thai silk for sale at a street market in Chiang Mai. These fakes are 100% polyester. This Thai silk tutorial will teach you to easily recognize counterfeits such as these.

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.

This article is about woven Thai silk fabrics. I also wrote another article entitled “Thai Sericulture: Making Silk” which deals with producing raw silk and yarn making.  This tutorial and the one about Thai sericulture are companion pieces to understanding Thai silk.

You may also be interested in reading “Fake Tests for Fake Thai Silk” which I recently posted. It’s even more info about avoiding silk scams.

Thai Silk Basics

Weaving brocaded Thai silk in Ban Ta-Sa-Wan, Surin
Weaving brocaded Thai silk in Ban Ta-Sa-Wan, Surin Province. This silk is recognized as some of the finest silk brocade in The Kingdom.

The finest silk fabric in the world is handwoven in rural Thailand. Much of it is woven in the Northeast part of the country, commonly known as Esaan. Northern Thailand, in and around Chiang Mai and Lamphun, also produce excellent quality silk fabrics.

Thai silk is woven 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.

Weaving a Brocaded Thai silk
A village woman weaving a simple, yet high quality brocaded Thai silk. Thai silk is produced almost exclusively in rural northern and northeastern Thailand.

The world of Thai silk mostly belongs to women. Women, for the most part, operate the looms, make the silk yarns, dye the yarns and design the patterns. Men usually produce raw silk and engage in sericulture. They may also procure and haul needed materials for weaving (fabric is very heavy), but the actual creation of silk fabric is a woman’s world.

A History 3000 Years Old

Chiang Mai silk weavers circa 1900
Photo circa 1900. Chiang Mai silk weavers. Their teak loom is probably still in use somewhere in The Kingdom.

Silk in what is now Thailand goes back 3,000 years to an excavated village called Baan Chiang near the northern city of Udon Thani. This is the oldest known village in Indochina and archeologists found silk threads there. (Remember China first developed silk almost 5,000 years ago.)

No one knows how silk thread came to Baan Chiang. Did silk traders from China bring it? Or did Baan Chiang inhabitants engage in sericulture and made the silk thread themselves? No one is certain.

Thai silk history goes completely dark until the mid-1800s when Royal Court records mention silk production in the north of the old Kingdom of Siam. In the 1950s, Thai silk weaving was all but dead, but since then has staged a miraculous comeback.

How Thai Silk Is Created

Below is a simple, yet comprehensive overview as to how both traditional Thai silk and Thai silk yarn (thread) are produced. This video was produced by The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Watching this video will give you a great overview of Thai silk and you’ll better understand this tutorial.

Thai Sericulture: The CliffsNotes Version

Raw Thai silk is still made the old fashioned way in Thailand. Silk worm larvae take their holy communion of specially cultivated mulberry leaves. (Mulberry is the only food they’ll eat.) The silk worm then spins its cocoon by secreting a single strand of silk filament, sometimes as long as 1,500 feet.

Silkworms eating mulberry leaves in Ban Phon, Kalasin Province
Silkworms eating mulberry leaves in Ban Phon, Kalasin Province. Mulberry is the only food they’ll eat. All Thai silk is made from mulberry silk.

Before the silk worm can leave it’s cocoon and metamorphose into a moth, the pods are collected and heated, 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 filament.

Raw Thai silk threads.
Thai silk is first heated in water which looses the serecin (sticky substance) which holds it together. Then it can be reeled (unwound) from the silk cocoon. It is then boiled and bleached again which softens the thread.

Heating the cocoon in hot water softens the gummy substance which binds together the cocoon. After heating, the cocoon’s single silk filament begins to unwind and by a process called “reeling” can be gathered for the beginning of the yarn making process.

Making silk yarn that is fit for weaving is quite complicated, involving many steps. I detail this process in “Thai Sericulture: Making Silk“.

No doubt a visitor from another planet would find us humans a strange bunch indeed hearing that we covet a fabric made from the secretions of a worm.

Thai silk fisherman pants as contemporary fashion
Contemporary Thai silk fisherman pants. From silk worm secretions to the finest fabric-that’s what Thai silk is all about.

Types of Thai Silk Fabric

When buying Thai silk, you’ll generally encounter four types: brocaded, dupioni, mudmee and plain weave. 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 four catagories.

Brocaded Thai Silk

Brocaded Thai silk from Lamphun Province
My wife holding up a bolt of brocaded Thai silk from Lamphun Province. Lamphun, since the mid-19th Century has produced The Kingdom’s finest Royal brocades.

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 silk requires the most expertise and patience of all the various silk weaves.  A “sarong bolt” (1 1/2 meters) of quality brocaded Thai silk may take a weaver up to a month to produce.

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. It’s not unusual for the finest brocaded Thai silk to cost $1,000 or more for a 2-4 meter bolt. You can find very good quality bolts for $150-$200 (U.S.), especially if shopping in a silk weaving village.

Brocaded Thai Silk
Brocaded Thai Silk from Lamphun Province. If you run your hands over this fabric you will feel the pattern. Brocading is accomplished by weaving the horizontal threads (the weft) over the vertical threads (the warp).

I wrote a blog article with lots of photos about brocaded silk entitled “A Silk Safari to Ban Ta-Sa-Wang“. In that post, I go into great detail about how brocading is done by hand on a loom.

Dupioni Thai Silk

Dupioni Thai Silk Triangle Pillow
I made this Thai triangle pillow from a crimson red Thai dupioni silk with mudmee trim. No the photo is not out of focus. You can see the texture of bumps, bulges and nits in the dupioni which gives it “textile character”.

Thai Dupioni silk is one of the most common types of silk fabric in The Kingdom. It can be either solid color or patterned and its prices are quite reasonable.

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.)

Thai Dupioni Silk
Thai fisherman pants made from Thai Dupioni Silk purchased near Kon Gan. You can see the rough texture of the fabric. This silk will become soft after washing.

Classic dupioni silk is woven from silk yarns made from the dupion silk cocoon. A dupion silk cocoon is where two silkworms often jointed together inhabit a single cocoon. For complex reasons, dupion cocoons produce a very rough silk filament and so yarns made with dupion are rough and uneven.

Weaving with this “rough” silk yarn will yield a wonderfully textured fabric we call dupioni.

Solid color Dupioni silk is generally sold by the meter, not the bolt. In the weaving villages of Esaan I have found good quality dupioni for between $12-20/meter. (But beware of very cheap dupioni as it may not be 100% silk or woven with a low grade, spun silk yarn (called noi silk).

Mudmee Silk

A Display of Mudmee silk in Surin Province
A display of mudmee silk at a silk shop in Ban Ta-Sa-Wang in the Esaan region of Thailand. This style of weaving is also known as “ikat”.

Mudmee silk (also known as ikat weaving) is the oldest form of pattern weaving in The Kingdom. It’s an easy to recognize Thai silk eventhough the patterns and colors are infinite.

In mudmee weaving, the fabric’s pattern is tie-dyed onto a single silk thread (the horizontal weft yarn) much like human DNA is encoded with our genetics. As the fabric is woven, the tie-dyed (2-5 different colors) weft yarn will create the pattern.

A loom set up to weave Thai mudmee silk
A loom set up to weave Thai mudmee Silk. Remember-a single horizontal thread (the weft) carries the pattern and the vertical threads (the warp) carry the fabrics color(s).

Mudmee silk is usually woven in Isaan, although weavers in the north occasionally produce it. Many silk enthusiasts covet mudmee more than any other Thai silk. The complexity of the patterns can be astounding and the weaver’s skill must be very high.

Prices for quality mudmee silk can vary tremedously, depending on quality. You can find good quality mudmee for $100/1.5 meter bolt (sarong lenght). But a bolt of mudmee made with the finest reeled silk yarns and natural dyes can cost upwards of $500 in Esaan.

A very large bolt of Thai mudmee silk with dupioni yarns.
This bolt of Thai silk is both mudmee and dupioni. With mudmee silk it’s common that the weaver will choose a dupioni yarn to weave the mudmee design. Finding bolts this long is very rare. Most bolts will be between 1.5 and 4 meters.

I wrote an entire blog article entitled “Thai Fabrics: Mudmee” that goes into great detail about this legendary fabric.

Plain Weave Thai Silk

Plain weave Thai silk
Plain weave Thai silk. Simple and economical. Plain weave Thai silk shares the common attributes of all Thai silk-scratchy, stiff, and heavy-weighted. Thai silk will soften significantly when washed.

Plain weave Thai silk is a smooth (not soft!) textured fabric, unlike brocaded silk. Thai silk tip: If the solid color Thai silk has a rough texture with bumps and nits, it’s dupioni Thai silk, not a plain weave.

Plain weave Thai silk is the easiest to weave because it’s a single color and there is no brocading. Plain weaves are often machine woven, although you can find plenty of bolts of handwoven plain weaves in the silk weaving villages of Esaan (Northeast Thailand).

Thai triangle pillow made with plain weave Thai silk
This Thai triangle pillow is made with plain weave Thai silk and mudmee silk trim. (My company made this pillow and I selected the fabrics.) You can easily see the difference from silk dupioni. If you’d like to learn more about Thai pillows, please see my tutorial: Thai Pillows: An Info Resource.

Shimmering, an attribute for which Thai silk is famous, is usually easily seen in plain weaves. Undulate the fabric slowly and you’ll see it changing colors. This effect is done by using different colored silk yarns for the vertical (the warp) and horizontal (the weft).

Plains weaves are the most economical of all Thai silk fabric because of the simplicity of its weave. An experienced weaver can produce on a hand loom approximately 12-15 meters a day. (Some complicated brocades are handwoven at a rate of about 3-4 centimeters a day!)

A good quality plain weave will cost between $12-$18/yard in the silk weaving areas around Kon Gan or Surin. (Keep in mind that plain weave costs are determined by the quality of the silk yarns used.) Plain weaves make great apparel which is why many dressmakers keep a good selection on hand for their customers.

Guidelines for Buying Thai Silk

A silk shop in Chonobot, Thailand
You should only buy Thai silk from reputable shops that specialize in the fabric. This is one of my favorite shops in Chonobot-a town famous for its mudmee silks.

1. The golden rule for buying silk is to know your seller! Buy only from established fabric shops that specialize in Thai silk. 

Of course you can’t know a silk vendor personally as a tourist; but you can fairly easily acquaint yourself with their business and look for commonsense signs of trustworthiness.

I’ll discuss silk shops in more detail shortly and point out the signs of trustworthiness, but first I wanted to stress the most fundamental rule in silk buying: Always know about your seller before you buy. Never ever take a gamble with Thai silk.

After almost two decades of buying Thai silk, I still never violate this golden rule.

2. 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 up front.

Authentic, quality Thai silk is not sold at street markets, night bizaars, “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 silk is either counterfeit or at best a very low grade silk.

When you shop for Thai silk at a tourist market, you’re violating the golden rule of knowing your seller. More than that, simply by showing an interest in buying, you’re quickly identifying yourself to a silk shark as someone who doesn’t know anything about Thai silk.

Fake Thai silk for sale at a tourist market.
Fake Thai silk for sale at a tourist market in Chiang Mai. This fabric is 100% polyester, eventhough it has a sewn label claiming to be 100% Thai silk.

3. There are no bargains in the Thai silk trade, only fair deals.

If you think you can find quality Thai silk at bargain basement prices, you’re fooling yourself. (I’m being polite.) You’ll be easy prey for even a rookie silk shark.

The woman who wove 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?

If you pay “polyester” prices for Thai silk, you’re going to get polyester. Simple enough.

Again, there are no bargains in the Thai silk trade. You get what you pay for! Stay away from tourist markets.

A Praewa Thai silk vendor
A Praewa silk vendor in Ban Phon, the village where Praewa silk is woven. These bolts range in price from $150-$1,000 for the bolt he’s showing. Legitimate silk vendors don’t bargain prices. At most they may offer a small discount.

4. Legitimate silk sellers don’t bargain prices.

Generally, Thai silk is not bargained for. (That’s because it isn’t sold at a tourist market.) At most, the owner of a shop may give you a slight discount if you’re purchasing a significant amount.

If you find yourself with a silk seller that suddenly drops the price of a bolt after trying to get you to buy it at a higher price-run for the door. You’re about to be ripped off. How could you ever trust a seller who initially tried to sell you a bolt for let’s say $100, but now will take $60 for it. This seller is admitting to you that he was trying to rip you off. Run.

Bargaining is not how legitimate Thai silk sellers do business.

Buy Thai Silk At Fabric Shops

A Rural Thai silk shop in Yasoton Province.
A rural Thai silk shop in Yasoton Province. My wife (bottom right), our Thai pillow maker Muoi (middle), and the owner (left corner) discuss a bolt of Thai silk. Shopping for Thai silk is done with leisure and lots of questions. Silk shop owners expect that.

The best place to purchase authentic Thai silk is at fabric shops that specialize in the fabric. I would never buy silk fabric from a store that also sells tourist trinkets or non-fabric items. Stay with dedicated silk fabric vendors. Their stores should have a plentiful selection of Thai silk bolts and/or apparel.

But how do I know if a silk shop is legitimate? How do I follow the Golden Rule of knowing the source?

Here are some questions you can answer when going to a silk store whether in Bangkok or in rural Thailand: Is the business a dedicated fabric or silk shop? Does it have a large inventory of Thai silk (at a minimum dozens and dozens of bolts)? Are you in Bangkok or a silk weaving region? Is the silk inventory clean and well presented? Are the prices too good to be true? (If so leave.)

Is the owner present? If so, ask the owner these types of questions: How long have you been in business? Where do you get your silk? Is the silk handwoven? Is it 100% silk? Are the dyes colorfast? We’re your questions answered directly? Enthusiastically?

Shop owners love to talk silk and if they speak English will welcome your questions.

Just by the above questions, you will have a good measure of the the silk shop. You are following the Golden Rule of knowing your source. And after reading the rest of this tutorial, you’ll have a solid, basic knowledge of Thai silk.

 

A silk vendor displaying a bolt of mudmee silk in Bangkok
A fabric store in the “Silk Zone” in Bangkok. The owner onced worked as a sericulturist for Jim Thompson in Korat. I purchased the bolt of mudmee silk that’s being displayed for $90. A decent price.

.In Bangkok, I highly recommend “The Silk Zone” located on the 2nd Floor of the Old Siam Plaza: 203-4 Treepetch Rd., Pranakorn, Bangkok. The “Silk Zone” will have dozens of independent silk vendors and their prices are reasonable. I’ve been there and have closely inspected their stock and spoken at length to the owners.

You will find dedicated silk shops throughout Thailand in the silk weaving provinces. Kon Gan, Chonobot, Surin and its surrounding villages, Lamphun, and Ubon Rachasima, and Kalasin are all cities and towns that are well populated with shops that will sell authentic, quality Thai silk at market rates.

 Buying From A Village Weaving Cooperative

A Silk Shop in Ban Ta-Sa-Wan, Surin Province
A silk shop in the silk weaving village of Ban Ta-Sa-Wan, Surin Province. The best assurance of buying authentic Thai silk is to KNOW YOUR SOURCE. This shop is a reputable source of Thai silk from their village.

The majority of silk I buy is from small village cooperatives where the silk is actually woven. In these rural villages, the weavers have pooled their fabrics for sale in a village silk shop and usually sell by consignment. These rural, village silk shops differ from their bigger city counterparts in that the silk fabrics for sale will all be produced in their village.

Dressmaker/Tailor Shops

Often the easiest way to find authentic Thai silk is at a dressmaker’s shop in the big cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Korat. These shops often carry an inventory of very good quality Thai silk especially plain weaves.

Skilled Thai dressmakers (or tailors) 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.

Thai Silk Dressmaker's Shop
A dressmaker’s shop in Bangkok called Dandara. For one price, you can choose your Thai silk and they will custom make your outfit. Prices will run about $800 (US) for good quality brocades including the dressmaking.

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 shop and purchase Thai silk.

A Silk Safari to Essan

Shopping for mudmee Thai silk in Chonobot, Thailand
Shopping for mudmee Thai silk in Chonobot. My wife (left), the silk shop owner (middle) our Thai pillow maker (right) carefully examine this bolt. Shopping for silk should always be unhurried with an attention to detail.

If you have the time and a sense of adventure, then going on a silk safari to Esaan is the best way to purchase Thai silk. Remember with Thai silk the journey is as rewarding as the destination.

Esaan 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.

Silk country. A small village in Esaan-Northeastern Thailand
A small Isaan village just outside Si-sa-ket. This is Thai silk country. In their humble homes with antique wooden looms, Isaan women produce the finest silk in the world.
Mudmee silk and silk yarns
The owner of a village silk shop in Isaan shows off her mudmee silk. She’s holding up tie-dyed mudmee silk yarns that are ready for the loom. The mudmee pattern is contained in the silk yarns she’s holding up. To the right are examples of  her mudmee silk.

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 Ban 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.

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

Ban Phon. This is a village in Kalasin Province where the famous Praewa silk is woven. This village is close enough to Chonobot so that you could visit both places in a single day. Paris fashion designer Pierre Balmain chose Praewa silk to design many outfits for Queen Sirikit. (I wrote an entire post about this legendary silk: Praewa: The Queen of Thai Silks.

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 sericulture and weaving operations and breathed life into a dying art. (For more info about Jim Thompson see my post: Jim Thompson.

Praewa Thai Silk Jacket and Weaving silk fabric
Photo Left: A Praewa silk jacket designed by Paris fashion designer Pierre Balmain for Queen Sirikit. (Photo Attribution: The Queen Sirikit Museum of Thai Textiles) Photo Insert: A Praewa silk weaver in Ban Phon, Kalasin Province.

The above list of places to buy silk in Isaan is nowhere 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 and Luang Prabang.

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!)

Brocaded Thai silk from Lamphun Province
Brocaded Thai silk on a loom from Lamphun Province. Historically, Lamphun weavers have produced much of the Thai silk brocades worn by the Royal family.

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.

Here’s an extremely generalized price outline for handwoven, quality Thai silk. But please remember prices can vary tremendously because of levels of quality and the type of silk yarns used (All prices in US dollars):  Small simple scarves $15-$30. Large Scarves $30-$100. Mudmee Sarong Bolt (1.6 meters) $75-$800. Brocaded Dressmakers Bolt (4 meters) $200-$1,500. Small Praewa scarf $50. Praewa sarong bolt $150-$1,000. Solid color dupioni is sold by the yard $15-$40/yard.

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.)

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.

You can quickly develop a feel for authentic Thai silk also. Go to legitimate silk shops and touch as many bolts as you can. There is a consistency to the feel of Thai silk. If in Bangkok, I highly recommend visiting the The Queen Sirikit Museum of Thai Textiles. (I wrote an entire post about it here.) Go to the museum shop and run your fingers over the many bolts of mudmee silk they sell.

Thai silk at the Silk Zone in Bangkok
Got silk? When at a silk shop, take the opportunity to touch and feel the fabric. You will quickly develop an expertise on how authentic Thai silk feels.

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. (Usually due to inherent slubbing of the Thai silk yarns.)

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.

Thai silk fabric slubbing
The photo above is dupioni mudmee Thai silk. Slubs are bulges, nits and “fatties” found in the fabric. They result from the type of silk yarn used to weave the fabric. They are a common attribute of hand weaving. They can be good or bad depending on the type of Thai silk you’re buying. With dupioni silk they’re integral to the quality of the fabric.

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’s made with rough, uneven silk filament. The plying (intertwining) of two or more silk threads into a silk yarn increases the slubbing. Thai silk is such a fabric and is often made from multi-plied silk yarns.

Thai silk slubs
Silk slubs can be easily seen on bottom of the photo. You can see the “bumpy” weft yarn used to weave this piece inside the wooden shuttle. With this fabric (a brocade), the slubbing indicates a lesser quality weave.
Thai dupioni silk slubbing
With dupioni silk, the weaver deliberately chooses silk yarns that will create slubbing and bulge lines to give the fabric character and texture.

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.

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, near the edges of handwoven fabrics is an area that it’s often the easiest to see slubbing.

Rough edges are an attribute of handwoven Thai silk
Rough edges are an attribute of handwoven Thai silk. When buying Thai silk fabric, look for edges similar to this photos.

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 width. 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 often used for the horizontal and vertical yarns. (AKA-the weft and warp yarns) This is what produces the shimmering effect.

Shimmering Thai Silk
This is 100% Thai silk fabric that appears to shimmer without undulating it. This effect is accomplished by using a silk yarn composed of 4 individual threads (4-Ply) that are each dyed a different color and twisted together.

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 weft/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.

Quality

Quality brocaded Thai silk from Lamphun Province.
An exquisite brocaded silk from Lamphun Province.

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 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 and of course plain weave 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.

The Quality of the Silk Yarn. Silk yarns are not equal in quality. The best yarns are made from reeled silk, and the worst are made with spun silk. Reeled silk is made from long, unbroken filaments of silk which not only have the highest luster, but are also the strongest. Spun silk is made from the remnants of reeled silk or defective silk cocoons. The shortness of the filaments makes for a dull silk yarn.

The different grades and types/purposes of silk yarns is a complex subject which I explain in detail in “Thai Sericulture: Making Silk“.

So quality simply presents itself as the following question: How complicated was the weave; how well accomplished was that weave; and what is the quality of the silk yarns used by the weaver?

Mudmee silk fisherman pants
Quality mudmee weave is determined by the clarity of the pattern as well as the quality of the weave. The above mudmee silk example shows very good clarity of pattern and superb weaving skills.

 

Thai mudmee silk yarns
Mudmee silk yarns are tied and dyed then hung up to dry. Mudmee silk is considered by many to be the finest silk woven in The Kingdom.

 

Dressmakers and Your Thai Silk

Often the purpose of buying a bolt of Thai silk is so you can take the fabric to a dressmaker in Thailand (or in your home country) to have custom apparel made.

Most of the Thai silk I buy is for making Thai pillows. I bring it to the pillow makers in Yasoton Province and we decide what will be made from the bolt. That’s as much fun as buying the silk.

Making a Thai Pillow from Thai silk
Here’s a Thai folding pillow I had made from a bolt of Thai mudmee silk I bought in Chonobot. Half the fun of finding and buying Thai silk is having it made into something special.

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. Business suit, sarong, evening attire, etc.

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.

For apparel making, a dressmaker usually needs at least a week to make your outfit which includes at least one if not two fittings.

The Dressmakers Bolt. Buying Thai silk fabric really is like going back to an earlier era. 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.

Thai silk bolts are also commonly sold in “sarong bolts” which are approximately 1.5 meters in length-just the length needed to make a custom sarong with or without pleats.

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. But, the information you learned in this tutorial will hold you in excellent stead while silk shopping for finished apparel. If this is you, then again, know your source. Shop only at established silk botiques where you can trust the business. Don’t shop the tourist markets.

Natural and Commercial Dyes

Dyed silk yarn hangs in Ban Phon
Photo Above: Natural (organic) Dyed silk yarn hangs in the village of Ban Phon, where Praewa silk is woven.

Commercial dyes are commonly used for Thai silk. Commercial dyes make for a colorfast fabric that can be washed repeatedly and won’t bleed. 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 when the fabric came out of the washing machine it was 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 than with commercial dyes. Prices can easily double or triple for naturally dyed Thai silk.

All Things Must End

If you made it through this tutorial, I officially declare you an educated Thai silk buyer. May your future silk safaris be successful and you journey as rewarding as your destination.

Questions and comments welcome. Just contact me via this blog.

If you’re interested in Thai fabrics or Thai hand-weaving, please see the many other blog entries I’ve written.

The Thai Fabric Chronicles

6 comments

  1. A very informative and excellent blog.. I have a question.. I would like to buy some Royal Brocaded Thai Silk as a saree gift for my Mom. Can you please advise what’s the best place to buy one in Thailand? I am yet to plan my trip so I can visit any part of the country to buy the same. Price is not an issue as I am looking for something that is top quality and something she can cherish to have for a long time.

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    • Hi Badrinath. Thanks for contacting me. Royal Thai silk is usually commissioned before weaving and is not sold in a store to the general public because of the time/cost. But you can certainly purchase top-grade brocaded silk as a gift for your mom. I have two recommendations: 1. Go to Baan Ta-Sawaeng (very near to Surin) and walk about the village and see what the weavers have for sale. This village weaves the finest brocades in Thailand in my opinion. 2. Go to Chonobot (near Kon Gan) and shop the different silk shops in this small town. Here’s a recommended store: Meeudom Thai Silk (Owner: Supong Hinthaow) 229/1-2 Moo 4 Sribubreung Rd. Chonnobot, Khon Kaen, Thailand 40180. Tele: 66-43-287192. Best of luck!

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  2. Hi Jeff.What a great article.Thank you for taking the time to prepare and write it.We are making a line of clothing form parmai and attempting to retail globally.We have various sources for the supply of parmai and as result are having troubles discerning the types of dyes being used.Would you be kind enough to advise us of how we might be able to discern the types of dye being used.Many many thanks

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    • Hi Tony and thanks for writing me. Sorry for the delay in responding to your query. I’m not a dye expert. I’m assuming that your Thai silk will use commercial, color-fast dyes. (Natural dyes cannot be washed without washing away most of the dyes.) Different silk yarns react differently to commercial dyes. I believe “reeled” silk yarns better accept dyes than “spun” ( a lower quality silk yarn) yarns. The general rule for dying is to test, test and test again the dyes on small bolts of the fabric. Best of luck.

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