If you’re a Thai silk lover like me, you don’t just go to the village of Ban Phon in Northeastern Thailand to see Praewa silk being woven; you make a pilgrimage.
Many consider this silk to be the finest woven in The Kingdom. Praewa silk is deservedly called “The Queen of Thai Silks” and is revered in the world of Thai fabrics.
And all silk aficionados agree that Praewa silk weaving is as intricate as any in The Kingdom, combining both complex brocades and embroidery. A Praewa silk weaver must be an expert at both.
The Basics: What is Praewa Silk?
Praewa silk is exclusively woven by women of the Phu Thai ethnic community, who live just north of Kalisin town in Kalasin Province. The heart of Praewa weaving is centered in the village of Ban Phon (sometimes spelled Ban Poen).
The Phu Thai migrated to Kalasin Province about 200 years ago from Vietnam.
First, let’s get our pronunciation right for Praewa. The first syllable is pronounced with a hard “a” like the word “prattle” (Forget there’s an “e” in the spelling!). The second syllable is pronounced with a soft “a”, like when you’ve drank too much and someone says something you don’t quite understand and you respond “Wha?” like in “say wha?”. Accent on the first syllable.
Praewa is two words combined. “Prae” means a piece of woven cloth not used as a sarong. “Wa” is a unit of measurement approximately an arm’s length.
Originally, the Phu Thai only wove Praewa silk for women’s shoulder scarves (the sabai) or men’s sashes around the waist. And hence the word “prae” to mean a cloth not used as a sarong. Bright red was the only color woven.
Phu Thai women were tasked with weaving these “Sunday best” garments for their respective families. Weaving expertise was handed down from mother to daughter through the generations.
But Thai silk lovers discovered these isolated silk weaving villages and Praewa silk weaving became a source of needed income for the Phu Thai. Today, Praewa silk is woven in a variety of colors and the fabric is used for skirts, blouses, professional wear and especially formal evening wear.
Any Thai woman who might receive a Royal invitation to a gala event hosted by the Queen at her palace, would consider an outfit made of Praewa silk a fitting choice of attire for such event. And such a choice of fabric would not go unnoticed by the fashionistas.
Yes, you can buy Praewa silk in Bangkok. Just read my blog entry “Buying Thai Silk in Bangkok” and I’ll tell you exactly where.
But if there ever was a place where the journey rivals the destination, it’s getting to Ban Phon in Kalasin Province.
Ban Phon is in Esaan (Northeast Thailand). Of all the millions of tourists that invade The Kingdom annually only about 2% ever visit this poor, parched region. And a whole lot less ever venture out to Kalasin Town and then take a country road out to the Phu Thai villages. That’s as good a Thai silk safari as you’ll find.
Khon Gan is the closest city to Ban Phon and you can fly there. It’s about an hour drive from Khon Gan to Ban Phon. Udon Thani to the north is not that far away either and you can also fly there. From either Khon Gan or Udon Thani you can rent a car or motorbike; or as I recommend, hire a driver and you’re off to Kalasin Province and Ban Phon.
From Khon Gan, take Highway 12 east to Kalasin Town. From Kalasin Town take Highway 227 seventy kilometers north to Ban Phom. Easy!
This village has maybe 2,000 inhabitants at most and is nestled in a slightly hilly countryside dotted with irregular patches of sugar cane and manioc fields and rice paddies.
Ban Phon has a large Phu Thai cultural center you can’t miss as you enter town. At this center, you’ll find Praewa silk weavers working their looms. The village also produces its own silk yarn used in weaving Praewa and you can watch silk filament being hand-reeled from silk cocoons.
In and around this cultural center are many vendors who sell Praewa silk. Since you’re at the source, you can be assured of authenticity and the prices are very competitive for this top grade Thai silk.
The cultural center was built by the Thai government a few years ago and has a modern feel. You’ll often see tour buses parked nearby. Don’t let this scare you off! The tour buses are usually filled with Thais or other silk aficionados who are also making a “pilrimage” here. Ban Phon is isolated enough so that casual tourists of the noisy, abnoxious variety rarely come here.
When you venture into town, you’ll find many fabric and apparel stores selling a variety of local fabrics both in cotton and Thai silk. This area is also “mudmee country”so be on the look out for great mudmee weaving, both cotton and silk. (If you’d like to know more about Thai mudmee weaving, I wrote a blog post that you can find here.)
Ban Phon Sericulture
This village produces most of the silk yarn used in weaving Praewa silk, which is common for the isolated silk weaving villages of Esaan.
What is slightly uncommon about their village sericulture is that they produce a high quality “white” cocoon silk along with the more common, but lesser quality “yellow” cocoon of traditional raw thai silk.
The fact that high quality white cocoon silk yarns are used in weaving Praewa silk is important and also helps to explain why Praewa is considered the “Queen of Thai Silks”.
Silk yarns are not created equal. There are a myriad of different grades of silk yarn from inferior to top quality. Suffice to say that in order to weave top quality silk, you must used top quality silk yarns. Praewa silk is woven from top quality silk yarns.
If you’d like to see the village sericulture, you need to venture into town and ask where you can see silkworms being raised. I did this and was easily directed to a humble, old teak building where the raising of silkworms was ongoing. Hint: Just find out where mulberry trees are grown and you’ll find sericulture near-by.
If you’re interested in more info about Thai sericulture, raw silk and making silk yarns for weaving, I wrote a detailed blog entry entitled “Thai Sericulture: Making Silk“.
Haute Couture & Praewa Silk
It’s impossible to discuss Thai silk and not include Queen Sirikit in the discussion.
She first realized the fashion power of this isolated village’s silk fabrics and brought them to a leading French designer, Erik Mortensen, at House of Balmain in Paris. Using Praewa silk, Mortensen designed the finest modern couture for the Queen. Below are some of his Praewa creations.
Obviously, Praewa is not an inexpensive Thai silk. Prices can range dramatically based on the complexity and quality of the weave. Buying at the source in Ban Phon will save you a little from the prices you’ll find in Bangkok, but you’ll have a much greater selection.
A Praewa scarf will cost $25-$50 (US). A sarong bolt-1.6 meters approximately-can range between $75-$300 (US). A dressmaker’s bolt-4 meters approximately with half the Praewa design and half a matching color plain weave-can range from $150-$1500 (US).
Whether the fabric dyes are natural or commercial is also an important price determinant. Fabrics with natural dyes will cost more, sometimes much more than those using colorfast commercial dyes. But remember! Thai silk made with natural dyes are primarily bought by collectors/textile aficionados. These fabrics are not for wear. You cannot wash or clean a naturally dyed silk fabric without severely washing away its original color.
Of course another price determinant is the quality of the silk yarns used by the weaver. For Praewa silk, you don’t have to worry too much about this as you would with other types of Thai silk. That’s because the village produces its own silk yarns and they are all very good to excellent quality reeled yarns.
As I’ve mentioned before, vendors don’t really bargain prices for fine Thai silk, especially Praewa. At most they may reduce the price slightly by 5%. If any vendor first offers a bolt for $100, but as you head for door exclaims the prices is now $50, run fast! You’re about to get ripped off. (I highly recommend before buying any Thai silk from anyone, anywhere that you first read my blog entry “Thai Silk: A Buyer’s Guide“.
Life-A Collection of Memories
As I’ve gotten old(er), it’s gotten quite apparent our lives become more and more reduced to thoughts of times past. That’s a good thing if your memories are pleasant and soothing.
So would you rather sit in a sleazy, 2-bit bar in Pattaya or Patong Beach getting drunk with a bunch other loud farangs while vacationing in Thailand? Or would you prefer to travel the lonely, country roads of Esaan and see a fabric being woven that wowed the finest fashion houses of Paris? …I thought so.
For me it’s an easy choice.