This post was updated September 22, 2021.
Thai silk shopping can be treacherous with over-priced, poor quality silks and outright counterfeits. “Silk sharks” are everywhere, especially at tourist markets. This tutorial will give you a basic knowledge about Thai silk and help you navigate a successful shopping trip for this legendary fabric.
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.
Remember: Nothing speaks to old Thai traditions more eloquently than Thai silk. It’s a cultural touchstone of The Kingdom of Thailand.
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 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
Some of the finest silk fabric in the world is handwoven in rural Thailand on old-fashion wooden looms. The main region for silk weaving is northeastern Thailand (referred to as Esaan 1 by Thais) where small villages often produce their own silk and village women weave it into a lustrous fabric. The northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Lamphun also produce fine silk. Lamphun silk is often worn by the Thai royalty.
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.
These old looms use foot pedals to raise and lower the warp (the vertical threads) so that the weft (horizontal threads) can be manually passed through using a shuttle. Thai weavers have developed many different techniques over the centuries by which these simple looms can produce complex weaves.
Thai Silk: A Woman’s World
Thai silk is woven by women (or young girls). For decades, I have criss-crossed Esaan and the North on my “silk safaris” meeting countless village weavers and they have always been women. I’ve never seen a man sitting at a loom weaving.
But not only is weaving done by women, the entire “cycle” of Thai silk is generally accomplished by women. Thai women care for the silkworms that will produce the silk cocoons. They then boil and reel the silk filament from the cocoons to make silk thread. They dye the silk and create/choose the fabric patterns. Women often own the small village shops and cooperatives that sell the silk.
The silk weaving traditions are passed down from mother to daughter, not father to son.
A History 3,500 Years Old
Silk in Thailand, goes back 3,500 years to an excavated Stone Age village called Baan Chiang near the northern city of Udon Thani not far from the Laotian border. This is the oldest known settlement in Indochina. Among the ruins, archeologists found a single strand of silk entangled on a roller that may have been used to print designs on fabric. 2 They also unearthed pottery with painted motifs that resemble silk worms and cocoons. 3 (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.
Merchants brought Chinese silk westward on the ancient Silk Roads as far back as the 3rd Millenium B.C. The Silk Road between India and China went directly through the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia including Thailand. It shouldn’t surprise us that silk was found in Ban Chiang circa 1,500 B.C. as it lay within the network of ancient Silk Roads.
In the 13th Century, Sukothai, the first capital of Siam, imported silks from China and India. China and India produced a better quality silk and weave which was in demand by Sukothai royals and elites. Siamese weavers worked diligently to improve the quality of their silk fabric to compete with China and India.
Thai silk didn’t attain its legendary status until the mid-19th Century. Finally Siamese weavers had mastered the skill and art of silk weaving and began producing silks with quality enough to rival China, India and the Middle East.
For a full Historical perspective of Thai silk and fabrics, please read my blog entry: Thai Traditional Fabrics: 3,000 years in 15 Minutes.
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: A Quickie Overview
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.
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.
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.
Types of 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 categories. (This is a simplification of types of Thai silk, but for the novice silk buyer, it’s an easy and effective way to classify silk.)
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 silk requires the most expertise and patience of all the various silk weaves. The weft (horizontal thread) is woven on top of two or more warp (the vertical threads on a loom) to create the pattern. 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, especially Lamphun, 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.
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.
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.) The Chinese refer to dupioni silk as shantung silk.
Classic dupioni silk is woven from silk yarns made from the dupion silk cocoon. A dupion silk cocoon is where two silkworms often joined 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.
Native Thai silk is made from yellow silk cocoons which have a rougher surface texture than white silk cocoons which are often imported from Japan or China. Therefore, yellow Thai silk cocoons are especially good at producing thread for dupioni fabric.
Practical Advice: 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 (also known as ikat weaving) is the oldest form of pattern weaving in The Kingdom. It’s easy to recognize even though the patterns and colors are infinite.
In mudmee weaving, the fabric’s pattern is tie-dyed onto a single silk thread (usually 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 reveal the pattern as the weaver brings the weft back and forth across the warp .
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.
Practical Advice: Prices for mudmee silk can vary tremendously, depending on quality. You can find good quality mudmee for $100/1.5 meter bolt (sarong length). But a bolt of 5-color mudmee made with the finest reeled silk yarns and natural dyes can cost upwards of $500 in Esaan. (In Bangkok you’ll pay more.)
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 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 with a plain weave.
A “plain weave” is the most simple weave. The weft simply goes up over a warp thread and down under the next. Simple. Quality plain weave fabric is determined by the quality of the silk yarns used, the expertise of the weaver to produce a nearly flawless fabric, and a thread count that produces the proper drape.
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) and is called “shot” fabric.
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!)
Practical Advice: 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
The Golden Rule
1. The golden rule for buying silk is to know your seller! Buy only from established fabric shops that specialize in Thai silk.
This is the important rule for buying 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. (You do this everyday in life.)
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. (Example: Do they have a brick & mortar shop filled with rack after rack of quality silk; or, are they just somebody with a few bolts spread on a plastic tarp at a tourist market?)
Never 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.
Thai Silk “Bargains”
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.
Be aware that a silk shark offering you a “Thai silk” sarong at a tourist market for $25 (about 750 baht) is per se fake Thai silk. The cost of quality silk threads alone would cost the weaver more than 750 baht.
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.
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.
Where to Buy Thai Silk
Thai Silk Shops
The best place to purchase authentic Thai silk is at fabric shops that specialize in the fabric. The only other place I’d buy Thai silk is at silk fairs that are usually organized by the local provincial government to showcase the provinces best silk weavers.
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.
Practical Advice: 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.
Please read my post: “Find and Buy Thai Silk In Bangkok“.
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.
Please see my posts: “A Compendium of Thai Silk Shops on Instagram” and “Volume II: A Compendium of Silk Shops on Instagram”.
Buying from a Village Weaving Cooperative
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 and 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.
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 Esaan
Esaan is northeastern Thailand and is legendary for its Thai silk, especially mudmee.
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. It’s also the best way to experience Thai culture away from the madding crowds of tourists. 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.
Please read my post: “A Vagabond to Esaan“.
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. (Read my post: A Silk Safari to Ban Tha Sawang in Surin Province) 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 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.
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
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.
Practical Advice: 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’s Handle or Hand): 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.)
Here’s a brief video that will help you understand the handle and drape of authentic Thai silk.
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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.
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.
How to Spot Counterfeit Fabrics
Buying fake Thai silk should always be a concern of a buyer, whether experienced or novice. Buying from a reputable source and not from a tourist market should keep you safe. But here’s some basics about the differences between authentic handwoven Thai silk and machine-made fabrics.
Fabric Slubs, Nits & Bulges
Slubs can differentiate authentic Thai silk from a counterfeit. Machines produce flawless fabric, while handwoven fabrics often have small “defects” in the weave. Slubbing (when it’s not dupioni fabric) is such a defect.
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.
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 (The Selvedge)
Handwoven fabrics have rough, uneven edges. (the textile term for a fabric’s edge is the selvedge.) Mechanical looms produce fabric edges that are smooth and clean. Handwoven selvedge is always uneven because the weft thread is manually looped back to create the edge. 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.
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: “Shot” Silk Fabric
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 and the fabric is called shot silk fabric.
Many Thai silk fabrics will shimmer; but many won’t as the weaver chose to use the same color weft 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.
What makes one bolt of Thai silk better than another bolt, other than the sheer preference of the buyer? In other words, how is quality of Thai silk fabric determined?
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?
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.
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 Thai Silk Apparel
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 & Commercial Dyes
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 Good 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
- An Intro to Thai Fabrics
- Thai Fabrics Part 2: Handwoven Textiles
- Praewa Silk: The Queen of Thai Silks
- Thai Fabrics Part 4: Hill Tribe Wares
- Thai Fabrics Part 5: Mudmee
- A Fabric Safari to Mae Chaem
- Jim Thompson (The Original Thai Silk King)
- A Silk Safari to Ban Ta-Sa-Wang
- A Cotton Safari to Pasang
- Thai Sericulture: Making Silk
- Thai Pillows: An Information Resource.
- Pratunam Market
- Queen Sirikit & Thai Textiles: A Historical View
- Fake Tests for Fake Silk
- The Chiang Mai Fabric District
- Thai Fisherman Pants: An Owner’s Manual
- Esaan roughly refers to an area from Buriram and Surin northward to Udon Thani on the Laos border and eastward to the Cambodian border. It is the poorest region of Thailand.
- William J. Foley and Burma H. Hyde “The Significance of Clay Rollers of the Ban Chiang Culture, Thailand”, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 23 No. 2, University of Hawaii Press (Dec. 1980)
- Susan Conway, Thai Textiles, Page 16, The British Museum Press (1992)