Thai Pillows: An Info Resource

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Introduction

I have been involved in Thai pillow making for years. Over time, many pillow makers and their families have become friends of my family. This short tutorial is my attempt to introduce this wonderful, old Siamese handicraft to those interested in the culture and tradition of Thai pillows. Enjoy.

A Brief History of Thai Pillows

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An old-style silk triangle pillow at a museum in Northern Thailand.

Very little is known about the origins of Thai pillowry. In fact, the historical record of Thai pillowry is shrouded in mystery and legend.

The most reliable historical records are painted murals in the old wats (temples) scattered about Northern Thailand. Some of these old wats contain murals from the 19th Century (1850-1875) which clearly depict the use of Thai pillows.

Thai Temple Pillow
Thai pillows are commonly used by monks inside their wats. The pillow above will be used by the monks for back support during prayers.

Popular belief (what Thai folk say) is that Thai pillow making started in Northern Thailand in a region called the Lanna Kingdom. The old mural paintings of Northern Thailand validate this belief.

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The temple painting (photo above) portrays a Siamese mythical Temple God leaning against a triangle pillow. This painting is located in the “Old Wat” (Wat Gao) in Chiang Rai. While this temple painting is not too old (maybe 50-60 years), it’s importance is to show the inexorable link between Thai pillows and Thai culture.

There is no doubt that Thai pillowry was produced at least two centuries ago, and may date back as much as 800 years when the Lanna Kingdom of Siam was established. The first pillowry produced were simple triangle pillows and sleeping mats. It was much later in the development of Siamese pillowmaking that folding pillows (Pillows that have a triangle head sewn to one or more small mats) were made.

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Probably, the most important temple mural (above) depicting Thai pillows and mats is located in Wat Phumin in Nan. The mural depicts a Nan prince entertaining a couple of young women while reclining on a Thai mat with a rectangle and triangle pillow behind him. This mural is between 150-175 years old and is the earliest representation of Thai pillowry known. What’s important is that 175 years ago, Thai pillows and mats were already so much a part of Thai culture and life that they were included in sacred mural paintings.

Assorted Thai pillows
Examples of Thai Pillows: Upper Left-Bone Pillow; Upper Center – Rectangle Pillow; Upper Right – Thai Bolsters; Lower Left – Papaya Pillow; Lower Right – Bonestar Pillow

Thai Pillows = Thai Culture

Thai pillowry and mats have evolved from the ancient culture of Siam. They are not a product of 21st Century marketing. It’s interesting to note that the Thai mat the Nan Prince is reclining on in the temple mural at Wat Phumin (photo above) has the same tubular construction that Thais use in making their mats today.

To posess a Thai pillow or mat is to posess a part of Thai culture that is as old and traditional as the ancient walls of Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Nan or Chiang Rai.

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Photo Above: The finest Thai pillows and mats are made with handwoven silk, mudmee and Jomtong cotton.

Modern Thai Pillow Making

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A pillow maker wraps and inserts rice straw into the triangle head of Thai folding pillows.

The art of Thai pillow-making is alive and well in Thailand. Thai pillows and mats (referred to as Thai Pillowry) are no longer produced in Northern Thailand, and are now made almost exclusively in small villages in the Issan region (Northeast) of Thailand.

Thai pillowry is mostly made by rice farmers, who produce the pillows to supplement their income. There is a steady domestic need and an ever growing export demand for the traditional pillows and especially the mats and mattresses. The rice farmers turn to pillow making in the winter months when most of their rice fields lay fallow.

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Photo Above: Siamese Folding Pillows. Upper Left: A rare folding pillow made from river reeds in mudmee style; Upper Right: Standard green kit fabric; Lower Left: Azure blue Jomtong Fabric folding pillow; Lower Right: Pillow makers showing off a custom pillow.

Modern pillow production is organized around the rural Thai village. There are no centralized “pillow factories” like those of the apparel industry. At most, a small group of mostly women may gather at a privately-run, pillow-making business and make pillows in an open air environment. The pillowry business will be owned and run by rice farmers whose families have been making traditional pillowry for generations. Pillow work can also be taken home and the finished product placed on the porch for pick-up the next day.

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Thai pillows & mats are made in a rural environment in Northeast Thailand (Isaan). Work is quiet and primarily done outdoors. 

The work flow starts with cutting and sewing of the fabric to be used in the “pillow shells”; then preparing, wrapping and stuffing rice straw into triangle pillows; filling the pillows with kapok; sewing closed the mats/pillows; and lastly, the cleaning and preparing the pillows for shipment.

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The Thai Pillow Making Village is near the town of Yasoton. The pillow makers are rice farmers who make Thai pillows when their rice fields lay fallow during fall and winter.

Women supply the bulk of labor for pillow-making, including the skilled positions of fabric cutting and sewing. Women produce and choose the design of the fabrics used for the pillows. Men supply the logistical labor of finding and hauling kapok to the villages; hauling fabrics (a very heavy commodity); working the power blowers used to stuff kapok into the pillows and lastly loading and hauling the finished pillowry. (Thai pillows are big and heavy!)

Thai pillow making is not a static endeavor. Although the pillow-making traditions of the past play a central role in modern pillow-making, new pillow and fabric designs are continually being introduced.

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A Thai masseuse uses a 4-Fold Thai mattress for her therapy session. The Thai mattress is stuffed with 100% kapok and made with kit fabric, just like any other Thai pillow.

A significant choke point in modern pillow-making has developed in the last few years concerning the sourcing of quality, new kapok. (Kapok is discussed in much more detail later on.) Kapok is the traditional fill of Thai pillows. If the pillow is not stuffed 100% with kapok, it’s simply not a Thai pillow. The increased demand for Thai pillows has made sourcing new kapok difficult and expensive. Used kapok is used exclusively in the domestic market and frequently in the export market. All kapok used in Thai pillowry is domestically grown throughout the country.

The future outlook for Thai pillowry is very good. With increasing demand comes increasing revenue and the ability to raise prices. While domestically the price of Thai pillowry is undervalued, the import demand is growing significantly and the pillow-makers can potentially earn significantly more for producing high quality pillowry for the export market. The tradition of Thai pillow-making is alive and well and growing larger every year.

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Photo Above: Hill Tribe style triangle pillow. I visited a Hill Tribe village near Prae and found this handwoven village cotton fabric. I knew when I first inspected the fabric that it would make a stunning triangle.

Good Pillow or Bad Pillow?

A Guide to Quality

A good Thai pillow or mat is: 1. Well stuffed with new kapok. 2. Double-stitched at the seams for strength/durability. 3. The fabric is good quality and properly cut.

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Good quality Thai pillows will have double cross stitching at the seams to prevent bursting of the kapok fill.

When looking for a Thai pillow or mat, always squeeze them. That’s the single most important quality check you can do. (I squeeze pillows all day long!). You’re checking to see if the pillow/mat is evenly and well-filled. Especially with triangle pillows you should squeeze the three edges. They should feel very firm-almost hard-and often slightly bumpy (because of the ricestraw inside.) You do not want a spongy feel.

New kapok is better than used kapok. New kapok is not only cleaner and much lighter, but has more loft and fluffiness. New kapok is especially important if you’re buying a mat or mattress.

Pay attention to the stitching of the pillow/mat. Often a pillowmaker will elongate the stitching so that the barest minimum of stitches was used to sew the pieces of fabric together. This is what you don’t want. You want the seams to be double stitched in a cross-hatched pattern so your pillow is well constructed.

Kapok

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Kapok = The Heart & Soul of Thai Pillows

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Photo Above: Natural, unprocessed kapok fresh out of the kapok pod. Photo Insert Above: Kapok stuffed into a Thai mat and ready to be sewn closed.

All Thai pillows and mats are filled with kapok. If your Thai pillow or mat is filled with something other than kapok, then it’s not an authentic Thai pillow or mat.

Kapok is a cotton-like fibre that comes from the giant pods of the kapok tree. It’s very soft and has a yellow luster. Kapok is hypo-allergenic, resistant to compressing, repells insects (keep the bedbugs away!), resistant to mold and mildew and it’s 100% organic. Kapok is impervious to water (In fact life jackets were made of kapok). Kapok is considered a premium fill around the world. Thai pillow makers have used Siamese kapok for centuries.

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Used mattresses piled up and waiting to be recycled for their kapok. Recycling is good, but used kapok has problems. It’s dirty, moist, and lost its original fluff, not to say it’s also rife with rodent feces.

Kapok trees grow to over 200 feet tall and are abundant throughout Thailand. The pods are broken open by hand and the seeds are manually seperated from the soft kapok filling. The raw kapok fiber is then directly used for pillowry. There is no chemical treatment of the kapok and no chemical additives. The kapok used in Thai pillowry is organic.

New kapok is far superior to used kapok because new kapok has less moisture content (and is therefore lighter) and has more fluff. Used kapok is also very unsanitary. Thai pillowry is made on village farms with all the usual barnyard animals freely walking about. Used kapok, in the form of old mattresses and pillows, is piled high and sit for months before being recycled. The piles of old mattresses and pillows (see photo above) make a great home for mice and chickens. The humid environment also makes mold and mildew a problem with old kapok.

If your retailer gets their mats/pillows from a wholesaler in Bangkok (and they will), I guarantee that the kapok is used and of poor quality, regardless of what they may claim.

New kapok, of course, is more expensive than used kapok. It is also difficult to source. In my Thai pillow business, I’ve sourced new kapok for years and it’s very time-consuming.

Rice Straw

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Rice Straw = The Backbone of Thai Triangle Pillows

Rice straw is the traditional backbone of good quality Thai triangle pillows. These pillows are built to be hard and durable. (use your favorite soft sofa pillow(s) against a thai triangle for comfort) See foto above for examples of good triangle pillow work and rice straw. Always squeeze your triangle for a quality check. It should be hard and bumpy.

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As mentioned above, rice straw is the backbone for any Thai triangle pillow, including the attached triangle head on Thai folding pillows. Many manufacturers produce triangles without rice straw because it’s cheaper to do so. This will result in a poor quality pillow that will sag and lose it’s form after even moderate use.

Squeeze the tubular construction of a triangle pillow. (They’re called “chongs” in Thai.) If they’re smooth and soft, it’s likely the triangle you’re holding was made without rice straw. Simply asking the store owner if the triangle pillow has rice straw won’t do you much good as that person won’t know, and besides they will tell you whatever they believe you want to hear to buy their pillow.

Thai Kit Fabric

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Photo Above: Bone pillows in assorted Kit fabric colors.

Thai pillowry is most commonly made from Thai Kit fabric (see photo above). This fabric is a cotton/polyester blend that comes in many color combinations. Kit fabric is easily identified by its distinctive patterns. There are only a couple of textile manufacturers in Thailand that specialize in producing kit fabric.

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Thai bolsters made with common Kit fabric. Almost all Thai pillows you’ll see at markets and tourist areas will be made from kit fabric.

Many retail sellers of Thai pillows, especially on the internet, will advertise Thai pillows made with 100% cotton Kit fabric. This claim is almost always untrue. The Thai Kit fabric used for Thai pillows is exclusively either a cotton/polyester blend or 100% polyester.

Thai pillows and mats can be made from any fabric. We often go on “fabric safaris” throughout Thailand, looking at silk and mudmee fabrics for pillowmaking. We bring these special fabrics to our pillowmakers. Below is a photo of our great triangle made from handwoven Thai mudmee silk.

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My company, House of Thailand, made these silk mudmee pillows.

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12 comments

  1. Hello,
    I am looking to purchase a batik triangle pillow, but from Indonesia as I love their batik fabrics. Did you ever have any problems bringing the kapok pillow into the US? Do you have any advice or recommendations for shipping? I would hate to pay the money then have it get confiscated by customs. Thanks
    Lindsey H

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    • Hi Lindsey,
      Thanks for contacting me through my blog. Batik triangle pillows sound great! If the triangles only have kapok inside, you should be fine with importing them. If they’re made with rice straw, then you can’t import them (legally) without an agricultural permit. The problem is without rice straw, the pillows will sag and loose shape with use. As for shipping, since it’s only one, just use air freight of Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc. They’ll prepare all the proper paper work. Best of luck.

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      • Hi…one more question. By preparing the paperwork, do you mean these express couriers will take care of all the customs process for you and deliver the package straight to you? Or will the package still have to go through a customs warehouse somewhere, then you be contacted to pick it up?
        Thanks
        Lindsey

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      • Hi Lindsey,
        The express couriers will take care of the Customs process for you. You may have to fill out a form which they will provide. In other words they will make sure the proper US import forms are used and filled out. Your package will go through Customs and then be delivered to your address. I’d love to see a pic of your triangle pillow when it arrives.

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      • The fact that I can literally text someone over WhatsApp overseas and pick fabrics based on their Instagram pics is just amazing. But…they have so many batik fabrics it’s overwhelming to have to choose!!! I hope it turns out cool. I wanted one with a lot of patchwork however it will cost too much as you have to buy a certain size of batik fabric and not just pay for the amount you use.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Jeff, I’ve just discovered your excellent web site – seemingly the only such resource on the planet – great work! So, I have a question that I have found no useful information about anywhere; is it possible to wash a Thai pillow? I have a triangular pillow with integral fold out three mat section that has suffered an unfortunate food spill…it definitely needs cleaning. In order to prevent staining or smell I immediately doused it in water and squeezed it out. One or both of these operations may have been a bad idea as the pillow has now developed lumps and is not drying well even after several days. Moreover, I recognize the small of wet kapok, and worse, the faint odor of mildew beginning. This cushion is probably lost (I’m thinking of cutting it down to two panels) but in the interests of helping others looking for solutions to such problems, I thought I would ask you here. What can be done? What should have been done?

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    • Hi Brent,
      Thanks for contacting me on my blog. I have good news and bad news. Yes, you can spot clean a Thai pillow with a sponge, mild detergent and luke warm water. Just sponge out a stain/spill and rinse. (You can also try dry cleaning, but I really have never done this.) But you thoroughly wet a section of your folding pillow and so the kapok is both bunching up and having a problem drying. Recommendation: Put the pillow in the sun to dry. When dry, try smacking it with a broom handle to try to “reinvigorate” the kapok. (Sunning and beating with a stick are the traditional ways to clean a Thai pillow.) Yes, wet kapok smells, but that should go away with drying. BUT you mentioned mildrew. That’s a death sentence for a Thai pillow. I always recommend if a pillow gets mold or mildrew to discard it. Yes, you could also cut off that folding mat section, but beware of cutting the seam and exposing the kapok. It can be very difficult to sew up a ripped seam on a completed pillow because the kit fabric doesn’t hold seams very well and you need to have some expertise in sewing to do it properly. Best of luck to you.
      -Jeff

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  3. Hi Jeff, I am in real need of your advice and expertise. I am a long time natural bedding enthusiast andwrite to you after having had a recent epiphany after starting to sleep on Thai roll up mats’ tubular structure filled with kapok as an antidote to my back ache. Indeed stacking these kapok filled mats two or three on top of each other is far superior to a natural latex mattress. This because latex seems to “press back” against joints. Both my wife and I wake up refreshed and invigorated sleeping on these mats. This after having tried to unsuccessfully befriend the ever sagging and compacting/hardening Indonesian kapok mattress and Japanese cotton futon. My query is the following would it be possible to get these mats with tubular compartment to be sewn from a more durable calico or other organic mattress cover material such as cotton or hemp in the Thai Pillow Village? And how manageable is a non-traditional/experimental project such as this for the Thai Pillow Makers? Would they be more prone to mould with such a cover i.e. less aeration? How large could the diameter or lumen be of each tubular compartment, before they become to bulging and bumpy therefore uncomfortable? Or before sagging and compacting becomes problematic? Would a Kapok Blower machine be the best way to fill the compartments? I also note that rice straw is used for the triangle pillows could these also be utilized for firmer support in the “roll up mat used as mattress idea” maybe as the base mat? I have no commercial interest in this idea. My sincere gratitude to you for publishing this educational blog informing the public about the magic of Siamese Kapok and Thai pillows and mats.
    Kindest regards,
    Marlo

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    • Sa-wad-dee Marlo,
      Thanks for writing me on my blog. Let me try to answer some of your questions and comment on your insights.

      You ask if the pillow makers will make mats from other fabrics such as hemp or organic cotton. The answer is yes and no. I have had our pillow makers make pillows/mats for my personal use from hemp, silk and high quality cotton. But I’ve known the pillow makers for almost 20 years and they do it because we’re friends. I doubt you could go to the pillow making village as a stranger and get anyone to make custom pillows.

      The tubes in Thai pillows/mats are called “chongs”. I’ve made folding pillows with chongs as big as 6 inches in diameter! The pillow makers do use a blowing machine to fill the chongs. What’s important is the quality of the kapok that the chongs are filled with. Quality Thai pillows/mats are filled with new, clean kapok that has very good loft and resiliency. Used kapok is heavy, full of moisture and dirt and has very little loft left in it. The chongs of a new mat should be tightly filled because the pillow/mat’s fabric will stretch with use. If the chongs are soft and squishy when the mat is new, the mat will have thin spots after a year of usage.

      Rice straw is only used in triangle pillows. And its purpose is to make the pillow hard and durable to it will retain its triangle shape and not sag. You would never want to use rice straw in a mat. The Thais do make/use coconut husk mats which are very hard. (Much firmer that the kapok mats.) A coconut husk mat makes a great base mat to place a Thai kapok mat on top of.

      The bottom line is that a good Thai mat should be firmly filled with new kapok. After that, the fabric is the next most important factor. I like using silk because it’s hypo-allergenic and very durable. But I’ve also used heavy weight cotton and hemp fabrics with good success also.

      I hope this info helps. Best of luck
      -Jeff at mythailand.blog

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  4. Hi Jeff,
    My gratitude to you dear Jeff for all the ground breaking work you have done over many years in order to bring thai pillow making culture to the West and also thank you for your informative and extensive commentary via this resource on the use of the fold up mat as a mattress. Some questions remain would a heavy material like cotton or hemp (silk is not doable for me) make the kapok inside and the cover outside more prone to mould/mildew? How do the experimental bespoke personal mats hold up? What wisdom have you arrived at regarding chong diameter? Are six inch chongs comfortable or is it a bit like trying to reinvent the wheel (chong)? It seems that pillow making tradition has settled on a certain size of chong and if so is it only because they are easier to fold up when made with smaller diameter chongs? I am also intrigued by what you call coconut husk mats are these woven like coir carpets or needled felt pads or something entirely different? And finally and most importantly are you still involved with Thai pillows commercially or are you now focusing on cultural education?
    Kindest regards,
    Marlo

    Like

    • Hi Marlo,
      Sorry for the delay in responding. Using cotton or hemp as a fabric will not have any effect on whether a mat gets mold. Mold results when a Thai mat/pillow gets wet or damp and doesn’t dry out. I’ve never had a serious problem with mold in all the many thousands of Thai pillows/mats our business made and sold. I’m sure using new, fresh kapok had a lot to do with it also.

      I’ve made Thai pillows from both heavy weighted cotton fabric and hemp, and the pillows are wonderfully strong and durable. Hemp is a great fabric because it’s hypo-allergenic.

      My experience with chong diameter is that the best width is about 2.5 inches. The mats will easily roll up and the kapok will not bunch up. I’ve only used 6 inch chongs when I’m making GIANT triangle pillows.

      Thai coconut husk mats are simply made by shredding coconut husks and filling the fabric shell with the shredded husks. I believe if you search alibaba, you’ll see some examples.

      My wife and I are no longer making Thai pillows/mats commercially. We still frequent the Pillow Making Village often and I still have the pillow makers make personal pillows/mats for me. (Currently they’re making me a couple of silk mudmee folding pillows.) I now mostly concentrate on writing about Thai fabrics and pillows. I’ve also been exploring business opportunities in selling Thai silk.

      -Jeff at mythailand.blog

      Like

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