The Thai Fabric Chronicles continue with a visit to the Chiang Mai Fabric District.
Almost all tourists planning to visit Chiang Mai will put on their bucket list an outing to one of the big three tourist markets: The Night Bazaar, Anasorn Market or Walking Street (Thanon Kon Durn). Nothing wrong with that.
But there is a more colorful, authentic and traditional shopping district where only a fraction of tourists venture-the Chiang Mai Fabric District. Although the Fabric District has its share of tourists, its main shoppers are local Thais.
Finding The District
Quick and easy to get there. Just tell any songtao, tuk tuk, or taxi driver to take you to Warorot Market. Don’t tell them to take you to the “Fabric District” as the locals don’t use that terminology. Or just say “Gat Luang” (translation-Big Market) which is what the locals refer to Warorot Market in their northern dialect.
Warorot Market is not your destination, but merely a drop off point for you to begin exploring the rather extensive and confusing warren of streets and alleyways that make up the Chiang Mai Fabric District.
The Fabric District is in central Chiang Mai area near the Ping River. If you’re standing at the Tha Pae Gate, you’re about a 15-20 minute walk to the district.
The Fabric District surrounds the Warorot Market building for several blocks in each direction. The district is so large and has so many nooks and crannies that it would take days to see all it offers. An afternoon is plenty of time to get a feel for The District and do some serious apparel and fabric shopping.
Side Note: By all means, go into the building that houses Warorot Market and explore. This market has a dizzying mishmash of Thai foods, sundries, medicinal herbs, and northern Thai food specialties. It is not a tourist market.
Shopping For Fabrics
For twenty years, I have shopped this fabric district hundreds of times. I sourced almost 90% of the cotton fabrics used in my import business to make fisherman pants, sarongs, Siamese pantaloons and harem pants from textile vendors here.
Most of the fabrics in the district are machine woven, although you can find a decent selection of handwoven fabrics in some shops. The fabrics are mostly imported from India and China and make there way here either through direct import, or a wholesale fabric distributor in Bangkok.
I know many of the larger fabric shop owners and I’m familiar with their businesses. Their inventories come from textile manufacturer overruns; discontinued stock; liquidation sales; unperformed contracts, and spot market exporters from China and India.
There is also a lot of “greige” fabric sold here. “Greige” is when a textile manufacturer produces literally tons of plain, undyed fabric and keeps it in constant inventory. It then can be sold very cheaply. Chiang Mai fabric sellers then order the greige and have it dyed or printed to popular colors and patterns. I’ve bought lots of fabric that way and had it printed to the design and color I specifically needed.
You can find very high quality flax linens from Italy, Poland and China at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in the U.S. or Europe. Going to have a men’s suit made while in Thailand? This is an excellent place to purchase top grade English/Australian worsted wool at very reasonable prices. Like lace? This market would make Chantilly blush.
You’ll find a staggering selection of woven fabrics that range from 100% cotton to pure polyester and everything between. You’ll easily find fabrics for sale at 35 bt./meter (about $1.05) that will cost you 10Xs that in the U.S.
There are so many fabric shops here that you won’t be able to even scratch the surface with a single visit. And the ground floor of a fabric shop is only the beginning. The buildings all have several floors where more inventory is stored.
Fabric prices are usually posted with large signs so you always know exactly what the price is. Bargaining is very rare in the fabric stores-again, this is not a tourist market.
A Little History Helps
Wororot Market and the surrounding Fabric District go back well over 100 years. Chiang Mai has been a textile trading hub for hundreds of years.
As I mentioned, I know several of the large fabric shop owners from my years of doing business with them. They are all ethnic Indians. Yes, they were born in Thailand and speak Thai fluently, but they are Indian in ethnicity. That’s true for a majority of fabric store owners.
Indians have been importing fabrics to Siam since the 14th Century. They supplied huge amounts of Indian silk and cotton to the Kingdom of Ayuthaya. Yes, Siam produced silk and cotton textiles, but Indian fabrics were better quality (back then) and much in demand.
So the fact that ethnic Indians to a large extent control the supply of Indian and now Chinese textiles into Chiang Mai (The city’s been around since 1296 A.D.) is merely following a historical path that’s been trodden for over seven centuries.
Not A Silk Market
I do not recommend buying Thai silk at this fabric district. I’ve bought silk here (plain woven) when I must purchase a small amount and quickly get it to my pillow maker in Isan to complete a special pillow order. Other than that I purchase my Thai silk elsewhere.
Hill Tribe Style Wares
The fabric district is the best place in Chiang Mai to find Hill Tribe style apparel, handbags, jewelry and countless accessories. Selection and prices can’t be beat.
Along the warren of alleyways, you’ll see small vendors displaying a varied selection of goods. Fisherman pants trimmed with Hill Tribe embroidery; brightly colored yhams (a traditional shoulder purse); embroidered jackets; sundries in a rainbow of colors; purses. clutches and wallets of infinite shapes, sizes and designs, bracelets, earrings, etc., etc., etc.
I buy tons of this stuff and give to friends and family back in the U.S. I love it. It’s very reasonably priced and I like giving my business to street vendors.
But It’s Not Really Hill Tribe….
Authentic Hill Tribe wares died off fairly quickly about 20 years ago. The consumer market simply overwhelmed it. Demand was too great and producing authentic wares was too detailed and time-consuming.
Authentic Hill Tribe wares were originally made from the old, worn clothes of members of a particular Hill Tribe community. (Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, etc.) The older the better because it gave a particular jacket or purse more character.
It was a win-win situation. The Hill Tribe community made income from of worn out clothing and buyers got authentic wares with great character.
Hill Tribe designs and motifs were accomplished by meticulously quilting small patches of this old worn fabric together. The wares also had lots of hand embroidery which together with the quilting created these fascinating items. I wrote a post about Hill Tribe Wares and discuss this in more detail: Thai Fabrics: Hill Tribe Wares
Today, the quilting techniques are completely gone and replaced with cheap printed fabric. Much of the embroidery is done by machines, although if you search diligently you can still find some items with hand embroidery.
In the Fabric District you’ll see many small stores that sell the materials from which Hill Tribe wares are made such as the trim, fabrics, beads, buttons, and ornaments. Small apparel/design businesses source their components here and manufacture and distribute throughout Thailand “Hill Tribe” style wares.
If you bought Hill Tribe style handbags or apparel in Phuket, Samui or Bangkok, it was almost assuredly made by Thais in one of the villages surrounding Chiang Mai.
That’s why I refer to these wares as Hill Tribe style and not necessarily authentic Hill Tribe.
But regardless, I love the stuff! It’s colorful, fun and unique. It adds pizzazz to an outfit. Hill Tribe style is the antithesis to the “stuffed shirt”! And if you bring it home to friends and family, they’ll love it too.
The Fabric District Is Not A Tourist Market
As mentioned earlier, this area is not a tourist market. It’s an actual working garment/fabric district that is primarily visited by Thais doing business.
Chiang Mai and nearby Lamphun Provinces are home to hundreds of small apparel and accessory manufacturers. I know this because I live in Lamphun Province and visit their businesses and purchase from them.
These small manufacturers source much of their components from the Fabric District.
Fisherman pants, harem pants, baggy pants, purses, clutches, handbags, shoulder bags, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, slippers, bedspreads, small rugs, hats, toongs (those long banners that often hang near wats), pillows, and miscellaneous brickbrack are all made by these small, rural Thai manufacturers.
Wherever you buy this stuff-Bangkok or Phuket-it most likely came from northern Thailand. I have often recognized handbags or fisherman pants for sale in Phuket that were made from fabric and trim from the Chiang Mai Fabric District.
The Fabric District has many shops that specialize in buttons, zippers, thread, mannequins, trim, lace, and sewing notions of every type style imaginable.
So when you go and shop the big Chiang Mai tourist markets of the Night Bazaar, Anasorn or Walking Steet, now you know that most of the apparel, including the Hill Tribe wares, was probably sourced right here in the Fabric District.
Finding Old Chiang Mai
The Fabric District is an easy way to see an old-style Chiang Mai that’s fast disappearing in the age of mass tourism.
At times, sweaty, confusing, congested, loud, dirty, and smelly. An authentic garment district whose roots go back hundreds of years. I guess that’s why after two decades I still love coming here. It really hasn’t changed much at all.