Jim Thompson: The Thai Silk King

This post was updated on Nov. 11, 2018.
The Thai silk king, Jim Thompson, with his constant cockatoo companion. No fabric blog about Thailand could be complete without paying homage to this trailblazer.

Jim Thompson & Thai Silk

Jim Thompson Thai silk king
Jim Thompson inspecting silk fabrics of his weavers who worked across the canal from his home in Bangkok.

Jim Thompson is rightly considered the father of the contemporary Thai silk industry (post 1950). He is often referred to as the King of Thai silk.

He disappeared mysteriously in 1967 in the jungles of Malaysia and was never heard from again. And so was born the legend of Jim Thompson.

Whenever you see a bolt of handwoven Thai silk, you can thank Jim Thompson. If not for him, the contemporary Thai silk industry probably wouldn’t exist.

Not An Average Life

Jim Thompson in Bangkok
Jim Thompson in the study of his home. Note the Asian antiquities on his desk and against the wall.

The legend of Jim Thompson is permanently etched into Thai lore. He was an American who was sent to Thailand by the U.S. military in 1945 as a spy.  WWII ended just as Jim was landing at old Don Mueang airport and after a few months in Bangkok, he was discharged from the spy service. But in those few months Thailand took his soul hostage and never gave it up.

Jim Thompson started the Thai Silk Company in 1951. At that time, the production of Thai silk was on its death bed. Silk weaving had dwindled to just a few families who could barely make a living from it.

Jim was fascinated by this heavy, shimmering fabric and at first sold small bolts of it from the lobby of the old Oriental Hotel (In 1947, Jim Thompson and 5 others bought the Oriental Hotel, the only hotel in Bangkok at the time, for a grand total of $1500!).

The living room of The Jim Thompson House. Thompson assembled one of the finest collections of Buddhist art anywhere. Much of it is on display at his old house.

He was the first  person to introduce Thai silk to the Western World. He took samples of Thai silk back to New York and stunned the editor of Vogue Magazine with its beauty. Vogue ran a feature about Thompson and his Thai Silk. Soon, the finest fashion houses in the world would seek Thai silk fabrics for their designs and The Thai Silk Company became their source. The original Broadway Play, The King and I, used Thompson’s Thai silk for wardrobes. Thai silk production boomed.

Jim organized the silk weavers and began paying them top dollar. He introduced commercial dyes to silk production (a crucial step forward in making the fabric commercially successful), and was a genius at colors and patterns. But his greatest mark was that he demanded top quality from his silk weavers.

If you bought silk from Jim Thompson, you knew you were buying the finest silk in the world.

Jim Thompson is “Old Siam”

Jim Thompson and a silk weaver
Jim Thompson observes the work of one of his silk weavers. Jim only employed the best silk weavers and only accepted the finest weaving.

Jim Thompson belongs to the world of Old Siam. (Siam is the historic name of Thailand and the country was so named until 1939.)

His company was a window to traditional Siam. (Thompson always referred to the country as “Siam”.)  But Thompson knew and loved a much different Thailand than we see today. In the 1940s and 50s, Thailand was still a very isolated Kingdom. Modern tourism really didn’t exist until the 1960s and even then it was a trickle compared with today. (Please read my post: The Golden Era of Thai Tourism: 1947-1979)

In the 1950’s, travelers to the Kingdom were better described as quasi-adventurers. To see another farang face and hear the English language was a welcome relief in this strange Siamese Kingdom.

There were no American fast food franchises on every corner of Bangkok; No sex tourists; Pattaya was still a sleepy fishing village and the Patpong District didn’t yet exist; No tuk-tuks and very few cars;  Monks still walked barefoot; Westerners that did visit were respectful of Thai culture;  No skyscrapers; The air was clean; And not a single restaurant in the Kingdom served pizza.

The world of Jim Thompson belongs to Old Siam.

Jim Thompson inspects silk his weavers produced across the klong (canal) from his house. Jim only accepted the finest work. (Photo attribution unknown)

Jim Thompson & Queen Sirikit

Jim Thompson and Queen Sirikit
Jim Thompson shows Queen Sirikit a bolt of brocaded Thai silk. Jim and the Queen shared a love for handwoven silks.

Jim Thompson’s role in reestablishing Thai silk production must be viewed together with the work of Queen Sirikit of Thailand.

At the same time that Jim was building his Thai Silk Company, Queen Sirikit began taking a serious interest in Thai silk also. She began wearing Thai silks and especially mudmee silk for Royal social occasions. She toured the poor, rural silk weaving villages and encouraged village women to weave silk fabrics to help support their families.

While Jim was organizing and modernizing Thai silk production, Queen Sirikit was creating both a domestic and international market for the fabric.

(For more info, I wrote an entire post: Queen Sirikit and Thai Fabrics)

The Jim Thompson House

The Jim Thompson House in Bangkok
The Jim Thompson House under construction in 1959.

Jim Thompson built his famous Thai house on a Bangkok canal (a klong) in 1959. He found and purchased 5 old teak houses from Ayuttaya and had them reassembled and connected together into a single dwelling. His famous house was across the klong where his silk weavers worked.

Thompson was the first to see the architectural beauty of these traditional, old teak houses. Nowadays, many people have restored old teak structures and live in them. But Thompson was the first to do so and awakened The Kingdom to an overlooked cultural treasure.

The Jim Thompson House in Bangkok today. The house is actually several old teak farm houses that Jim rebuilt in Bangkok. His house is a great morning outing while in Bangkok.

The Jim Thompson house in Bangkok is a popular tourist attraction today.  (see link to their website at end of this article) I highly recommend visiting it if you’re in Bangkok. His house is filled with his extensive collection of Asian artwork. The grounds also have an excellent Thai restaurant that I highly recommend!

The Thai Silk Company still exists, but it markets its silk offerings with retail stores simply named Jim Thompson. You’ll find Jim Thompson stores at the airport, upscale shopping complexes and top-notch hotels. I shop his stores often, buying purses, ties, shirts and stuff. The silk is excellent and the color and patterns are truly some of the finest you’ll find.

Jim Thompson was driven by aesthetics. His company today, simply called “Jim Thompson” still creates some of most unique silk fabrics anywhere.

Vanishing in the Jungle

Jim Thompson last known photo
This is the last known photo of Jim, taken just hours before he disappeared into the Malaysian jungle.

On Easter Sunday, 1967 Jim took a solitary, afternoon walk down a jungle trail in the Malaysian highlands. He was never seen again. He was 61 years old. But a legend was born and nurtured over the decades.

Jim Thompson is my hero.

Here’s some links if you’re interested in learning more about this Thai legend:

www.jimthompsonhouse.com  If in Bangkok, I highly recommend a visit.

www.jimthompson.com  This is the website for the Thai Silk Company.

A Wikipedia biography of the life of Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson. The Unsolved Mystery by William Warren   The best book by far about the life of Thompson

Bangkok Magazine: A quick tour of Jim Thompson House.

And just one more tip…Above Photo: Red Curry & Duck with Tropical Fruits served at Jim Thompson. The Jim Thompson House has a great Thai restaurant on premises. It’s worth the trip alone.

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