This post was updated on September 11, 2021
Thai pillows are Thai culture. Their sizes, shapes, fabrics and fill are unique to Thailand. You can find Thai pillows the world over, but they’re all made in the same place-the rural villages of Yasothon Province in northeastern Thailand.
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
This tutorial will introduce you to the many shapes and sizes of Thai pillows, mats and mattresses. I’ll show you how they’re made and the difference between a quality Thai pillow and a bad one.
A Brief History of Thai Pillows
The origins of Thai pillows reaches back far into Thailand’s past. While the historical record is not precise, we do know that Thai pillow making dates back to at least the beginning of the Sukhothai era (the mid-13th Century) and probably much earlier.
The basic “ingredients” of Thai pillows and mats (Tip: The term “Thai Pillows” also includes mattresses and mats.) are fabric, kapok (the fill) and rice straw for triangle pillows. These ingredients have been available to Siamese culture for thousands of years.
Some of 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 mid-19th Century (1850-1875) which clearly depict the use of Thai pillows.
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.
The above painting is located in the “Old Wat”, Wat Kaew in Chiang Rai. While this temple painting is not old (maybe 70-90 years old) by historical standards, it’s importance lies in the fact that a Thai pillow is included in a mural in one of the most historic Thai wats.
The Ramkhamhaeng Stele of Sukothai
There are pillows for sitting and pillows for reclining…-King Ramkhamhaem of Sukhothai from the Ram Khamhaeng Stele (1292)
Historians consider Sukothai to be the 1st capital of Siam. (Prior to 1939, Thailand was called Siam.) It was founded in 1238 and lasted for about 200 years until Ayutthaya was founded. Sukothai is where the Thai alphabet was first formulated.
The Ramkhamhaeng Stele is a squat rectanglar cuboid stone with inscriptions carved into it. It was found in 1833 in the ruins of Sukhothai and tells the story of Siam’s first capital and its King-Ramkhamhaeng. It’s carved inscriptions have been dated to 1292. This stone testament specifically mentions Thai pillows with the following quote:
There are pillows for sitting and pillows for reclining to accompany the yellow robes offered year by year.
This passage refers to the annual Buddhist ceremonies where saffron clad monks came to the ancient city of Sukhothai to pray and chant usually during Buddhist Lent. Thai triangle pillows and folding pillows are specifically designed for reclining. This passage is an unmistakable reference to them.
Even today, when you go into a Thai wat, you’ll see Thai pillows placed on the dais for the monks to sit on while they chant.
Given the Ramkhamhaeng Stele, Thai pillow making can be accurately traced back well over 700 years. But I doubt Thai pillows made their first appearance at Sukothai. The materials-fabric and kapok-had been in use for at least a millennium prior.
For more info about Sukothai, please read my post “My Heart Belongs to Sukothai“.
Modern Thai Pillow Making
Thai pillowry and mats have evolved from the ancient culture of Siam. They are not a product of 21st Century marketing. But that doesn’t mean that Thai pillows are a static commodity that’s been frozen in time for a thousand years. Not at all.
New fabrics, designs and techniques are constantly being added and improved upon by Thai pillow artisans. Here’s a sampler of some of the fabrics and shapes of contemporary Thai pillows. (My Thai pillow business made all of them.)
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 Yasothon Province of northeastern Thailand.
Who Are the Pillow Makers?
Thai pillows are mostly made by rice farmers, who produce the pillows to supplement their income. There is a steady domestic need and a growing export demand for traditional pillows, especially the mats and mattresses. The rice farmers turn to pillow making in the winter and spring months when their rice fields lay fallow until rainy season starting in late May.
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 business will be owned and run by rice farmers whose families have been making traditional pillows for generations. Pillow work can also be taken home and the finished product placed on the porch for pick-up the next day.
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 and mats with kapok; sewing closed the mats/pillows; and lastly, the cleaning and preparing the pillows for shipment.
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 pillows. (Thai pillows are big and heavy!)
Women with children too young to attend school, bring the kids with them for the work day. (Or work on pillows at home.) The kids can run about and play while their mother works. The rural environment of pillow making is a safe environment for children.
Good Pillow or Bad Pillow? A Quality Guide
A good Thai Pillow is:
- Firmly filled with new kapok
- The seams are double-stitched for strength
- A quality fabric is used
Kapok is the heart and soul of a Thai Pillow. If your pillow or mat is not filled with kapok, it’s not a Thai pillow.
New kapok is better than used kapok for a variety of reasons. But, it’s more expensive and much more difficult to find. If you ask a retailer if their Thai pillows have new kapok, they will alway assure you that they do. But almost always the pillows will have used kapok. (Almost all retailers don’t know exactly what’s inside their pillows because they’re not involved in the manufacturing process.)
New kapok is both cleaner and lighter than used kapok. It also has better resiliency (the ability to spring back to its original shape.
Kapok comes from the Kapok tree-a large tropical tree that grows in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The kapok is contained within the seed pods of the tree.
Kapok is a cotton-like fibre. 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.
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 untreated and therefore organic.
New kapok is far superior to used kapok because it has less moisture content (and is therefore lighter) and has more fluff. Used kapok is also very unsanitary. Thai pillows are 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 may 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 sourced new kapok for years and it’s very time-consuming.
Checking the quality of stitching on a Thai pillow is simple. Just look at it! Remember: stitching is usually an omen about the pillow. Sloppy stitching often portends poor quality kapok and fabric. Good stitching portents quality.
Bursted/ripped seams are the most common complaint a customer has with a Thai pillow. Often a person only uses the pillow for a week and already some of the seams are developing small and growing splits or bursts. This is wholly the result of poor stitching.
Thai pillows should be filled firmly which places stress on seams. When you sit on the pillow, this causes even greater stress. Double-stitching the seams, as in the above photo, eliminates bursting. Pay attention to the stitching of the pillow/mat. I have seen retailers advertise that their pillows are double-stitched, but then have photos which clearly show single stitching. Buyer beware.
If your Thai pillow does burst a seam, don’t panic. Just get out needle and thread and sew it back up.
Thai Kit Fabric
Thai kit fabric, as shown in the above-photo, is the most common fabric for Thai pillows. You will rarely see a Thai pillow made with any other type of fabric. In this tutorial, I have used photos of many different Thai pillows my company made from other traditional Thai fabrics-silk, mudmee, river reeds, Chom Tong, and Hill Tribe fabrics. But these are specialty pillows that you will rarely find.
Kit fabric is easy to identify by its bright colors and patterns. There are a myriad of patterns and color combinations, but all kit fabric has the same basic look. Today, all kit fabric is made on mechanical looms. Thai pillow makers order their kit fabric from travelling textile salepersons that specializes in this fabric. At last count, there were only two manufacturers in Thailand, therefore all the pillow makers are using basically the same kit fabrics.
Thai kit fabric is usually 100% polyester. There are higher grades of kit fabric that are 50% cotton/50% polyester. Any retailer who tells you their kit fabric is 100% cotton is not telling you the truth. Period. Simply touch the fabric and you’ll know it’s not 100% cotton.
One final quality issue is firmness. How firm or soft should a Thai pillow be? Here’s a brief overview:
Mats/Mattresses: The general rule is that the firmer the better. This is especially true with mats and mattresses. As a mat/mattress is used, the fabric, especially kit fabric, will stretch. Therefore you need a very firmly filled mat/mattress to compensate for the fabric stretching. (Example: Our regular sized roll-up mats were made 42 inches x 75 inches. After one year of normal use, the mat had stretched to 43″ x 78″.)
Folding Pillows: A folding pillow is combination mat and triangle pillow sewn together. Therefore you want a folding pillow to be very firm. The triangle portion should be made with traditional rice straw (more about that in the next segment) and should be downright hard so it won’t sag after repeated use.
Triangle Pillows: Very hard! I discuss this in depth in the next section.
Bone Pillows: Also known as hourglass pillows can be soft or hard, depending on use. Most Thai masseuses prefer hard bones for Thai massage work.
Rectangles and Bolsters: Firmly filled so that they don’t lose shape with repeated use, and remain firm enough to support a leg, arm or neck.
Bottom Line: Always choose the firmly filled Thai pillow over the soft, mushy one.
Rice Straw & Triangle Pillows
Rice straw is the backbone of Thai triangle pillows, including the triangle part of a Thai folding pillow. Rice straw is never used in any other Thai pillow other than triangles.
The purpose of rice straw is to give strength to the pillow so it will keep its shape after repeated use. The last thing you want is to have a sagging triangle after only a few uses. Rice straw prevents this from happening.
Thai Triangle pillows (and Thai roll-up mats) are tubular in construction. (See above photo of the open ended Triangle pillow.) These tubes are called “chongs” and rice straw is first inserted into them, and then the pillow maker stuffs the chong with kapok using a stick.
A good triangle pillow will be hard, very hard, and often a little bumpy. You test the quality of a triangle pillow by squeezing them-and squeeze the tops of all three sides. Soft usually means the pillow maker did not use rice straw. Hard and kind of bumpy means they probably did. Again, a triangle pillow made without rice straw will quickly begin to sag-you won’t like that.
Rice Straw and Customs
Almost all countries have restrictions concerning the importation of rice straw. Rice straw is a known habitat for assorted bugs and tiny vermin and so most countries mandate a special license with protocols to be followed before allowing importation. These licenses are only issued to commercial importers. My Thai pillow business had such a license, issued by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and we had to meet twice with officials to go over our product and protocols before the permit was issued.
Tourists can not import rice straw, therefore you’re at the mercy of custom’s officials who can confiscated your Thai triangle pillow if they so choose. I have heard countless stories of tourists returning to their home countries only to have their Thai pillow confiscated. I know of a Thai pillow importer in the United States who didn’t have a rice straw permit and Customs confiscated her entire 40-foot container, burned the contents and sent her a hefty bill and fine. The strictest country by far is Australia, followed by Japan and the U.S.
In the U.S., if a tourist attempts to bring back a Thai folding pillow, Customs often cuts off the triangle head (where the rice straw is) and gives you back the mat. In other words, your Thai folding pillow just got beheaded.
Bottom line: A tourist who wants to bring back a Thai triangle pillow is on the horns of a dilemma. A good triangle will have rice straw and is subject to confiscation, while a triangle without rice straw is a poor quality pillow. (Although remember that Customs will assume a triangle pillow has rice straw inside. If you tell them it doesn’t, they’ll probably cut open the pillow to verify.)
Final Thoughts, Reflections & Musings
If you’ve read this far, you now have a knowledge of Thai pillows which probably surpasses the knowledge of most Thai pillow online retailers. My goal has been to not only give you a “nuts & bolts” explanation of Thai pillows, but to also show their cultural origins.
What I remember most of all my years in the Thai pillow business are the pillow makers-the rice farmers of Esaan. Working side by side with these pillow makers was a wonderful experience. They not only shared their secrets of pillow making, but accompanied me on my “fabric safaris” to the silk weaving villages of Esaan.
I’ve reflected on this in my essays “A Vagabond to Isaan” and “Confessions of an International Thai Pillow Dealer“.
The future does not bode well for Thai pillows. Over the last 10 years, there has been a race to the bottom-who can make the cheapest pillow. Making pillows with new kapok, rice straw and fine fabrics is being overrun by cheap, poor quality pillows for the tourist market.
But Thai pillows will always exist because they are part of Thai culture. I hope this tutorial informs you that Thai pillows are more than just a commodity to be haggled over at a tourist market. Thai pillows have their roots in the golden days of Sukothai and the beginnings of Siamese culture.