This post was updated 5/20/19
Thai Traditional Fabrics = Thai Culture
Few countries give fabrics and weaving the cultural importance and pride that Thailand does. Thai traditional fabrics and Thai culture cannot be separated.
Whether it’s a woman wearing a handwoven Thai silk sarong to be worn at important social occasions, a laborer dressed in denim woven in Prae Province, or a young woman sporting a boho Hill Tribe tunic to a trendy Bangkok club, all these fabrics scream loudly “I’m Thai!”
This cultural pride with fabrics is relatively recent by historical standards. It wasn’t until the late 19th century when Thai weavers, especially silk weavers, became famous for their fabrics.
The fabrics of Siam, from ancient times to modern Thailand, have been influenced by a mix of Indian, Chinese, Khmer, and even Muslim Malay textiles. In a sense, current Thai fabrics are a melting pot of regional cultures and techniques.
Today when you visit a rural silk weaver at work in Isaan (northeastern Thailand) clacking away on her old teak loom, you’ve entered a time machine and traveled upstream through the flow of time. Basic weaving techniques and looms haven’t changed all that much since Angkor kings ruled their empire (circa 800 A.D.) or King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai put forth the first Thai alphabet (circa 1250).
Fabric weaving in Indochina, as with the rest of the world, dates back to an ancient time-a neolithic age-when the values of hearth and home were novel concepts to humankind.
So let me give you a whirl wind tour of Siamese fabrics-3,000 years in 15 minutes.
[Throughout this post, I use the term “Ancient Siam”. This term is intentionally vague and may refer to a period 3,000 years ago until the founding of Sukhothai-a mere 800 years ago. I use it to give the reader a better flavor and perspective to events long since buried by time.]
Ancient Fibers: Hemp, Silk, & Cotton
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there’s fiber, there’s weaving.
Hemp-The Fabric of Ancient Indochina
The most plentiful fiber of ancient Indochina was hemp. Five thousand years ago, not only did hemp grow wild all over Indochina, but it was the species cannabis sativa. (Prehistoric Textiles. Barber). Yes, that’s the kind of hemp you smoke to get high. And yes they did.
Hemp is a bast fiber, very similar to flax (linen). The bast fiber inside hemp keeps the plant standing upright. If you cut down hemp, smoke the flower, and let the rest decay, you will see the silver strands of bast fiber. Twist those strands together and you have hemp thread.
Bast fibers were common thousands of years ago. The Egyptians were making fine linen thread from flax bast 5,000 years ago. The flax linens (real linen!) they wove in 3,000 B.C. would rival the finest linens we produce today.
The ancient inhabitants of Siam would have understood the usefulness of hemp fibers the same as the Egyptians with flax fiber.
Silk-God’s Gift to the East
The origins of Thai silk can be directly traced back to an archaeological site called Baan Chiang in northern Thailand near Udon Thani.
Baan Chiang is the oldest known settlement in today’s Thailand (over 3,000 years old) and archaeologists have found silk threads in pottery that was decorated with silk worm motifs and mulberry leaves (the only food silkworms eat). These silk threads have been dated to between 1,000-300 B.C. (Silk by Mary Schoeser: Yale University Press, 2007)
No one is certain how silk came to Baan Chiang. Did Chinese trading caravans bring it? Or did these first inhabitants create their own silk threads from native Siamese silk worms?
Another interesting question is did silk fiber exist in Ancient Siam prior to 1,000 B.C.? The Chinese were weaving silk since roughly 3,000-2500 BC. So it’s very possible that Ancient Siamese silk goes back even further than the fibers found at Ban Chiang, but we have no direct evidence of it.
We only know that the first silk found in the region came from came from one of the earliest villages known and is from the 1st Millennium BC.
Cotton: The Indian Import
India is the “Cradle of Cotton” having domesticated the plant around 3,000 BC. Cotton is easy to spin into a usable textile thread (once you get the seeds out!) and so upon domestication cotton became a staple fabric.
India is also the cultural font of Siam, more so than China. Siam’s art and religion flowed from India, across today’s Myanmar (Burma) and into Siam.
When precisely cotton came to Siam is unknown. Trading between India and central Southeast Asia dates back nearly two thousand years so it’s not unfounded speculation to think cotton came to Siam before recorded history.
In central Siam, from approximately 200 AD – 800 AD, the Dvaravati culture prevailed via an archepeligo of small, moted towns. The Dvaravati were heavily influenced by India and certainly would have known about cotton. And it’s reasonable to believe that the Dvaravati had established trading routes with mainland India.
We have evidence that in the 12th Century, the inhabitants of Sukhothai (Siam’s 1st Capitol) were growing cotton and making cotton thread. Spinning whorls for cotton thread have been found at the ruins of Sukhothai.
In the 1240’s, Sukothai was also importing cotton fabrics from India. Ayuthaya (Siam’s 2nd capitol) in 1440 was importing even larger amounts of Indian cotton fabrics. Today, Indian merchants play an oversized importance for importing fabrics into Thailand.
Looms: An Ancient Technology
You can’t have fabric without thread, and you also can’t weave thread into fabric without a loom of some sort.
The very first looms date back 10,000-12,000 years ago and maybe longer. The loom was not invented once and its technology passed around the world. The loom was invented a myriad of times, by many civilizations on the path to modern life.
What kind of loom was originally used in Ancient Siam? No doubt the backstrap loom (foot loom) is an early technology that’s still used today by Thai Hill Tribes. Simple horizontal bar looms would also be a logical choice as they were being used throughout the neolithic world (the Stone Age).
Today, almost all Thai weavers use a treadle loom of one variation or another. This is a loom that raises and lowers the warp (vertical threads) by depressing a pedal with your foot. Treadle looms date back several hundred years-in other words-a relatively new breed of looms.
What’s important to remember about looms is that advances in loom technology mostly had to do with speed-not quality. Skilled weavers could produce high quality fabrics with ancient looms.
Siamese Fabrics: The Long Road to R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Today Thai weavers are respected the world over as producing the finest handwoven fabrics, especially silk. But this weaving expertise has only been recognized since about 1900-a mere blink of history’s eye.
Prior to the 18th Century, Siamese fabrics of silk and cotton were considered inferior in quality to the fabrics produced by China and India. China and India exported their superior textiles to Siam.
The Siamese, especially the Royal Courts, preferred imported silk and cotton. There was no extensive export demand for Siamese weaving. (The Siamese excelled at pottery which was exported all over the region.) While Siamese women toiled at their looms, the simple cotton and silk fabrics they produced were only intended for their own households.
It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th Centuries that Siamese weavers began producing fabrics that could compete in quality with China and India.
To understand why, we need to combine fabrics, fashion, and commerce into an abbreviated historical narrative. (Thai history is especially problematic because there are a thousand small streams to follow that don’t necessarily join a large river.)
A Peek Into the Clothes Closet of Old Siam
From Ancient Siam (3,500 years ago) until approximately 1850, the Siamese, both men and women, dressed mostly the same-a sarong or a chong kraben (a traditional pant configured by wrapping a sarong through the legs). And that was pretty much it.
Siamese women had the option of also wearing a loose shawl-called a sabai-around the shoulders. The sabai’s purpose was not to cover the breasts in public, but to add warmth to a chilly day or add style to daily wear.
The history of Siamese apparel and fashion through the centuries is one of wrapped-not sewn-clothing. Sarongs and chong krabens comprised the most important daily wear.
There were also loose fitting shirts that tied together in the front and a larger version which would be similar to a robe today.
That was the totality of apparel for over 3,000 years in Siam. This basic daily wear really didn’t change until the mid-19th Century. In fact, even until the 1930’s, in the rural and isolated areas of Siam, women could still be seen in public wearing only a sarong or chong kraben just like their ancestors 3,000 years ago.
Wallmart Did Not Exist in Ancient Siam
If you were a common woman in Ancient Siam and you wanted a sarong to wear, you’d have to weave it, or at least someone in your family would have to weave it. If you were a man and wanted a sarong to wear, you’d have to get your mother, daughter or wife to weave it because only women weaved.
You or your family would have to obtain cotton or silk threads to weave either through barter or your female family members would have to spin the thread. In ancient times the skill of weaving was expected of women.
Simple wooden looms were easy to construct and available to all households. The main purpose of a loom is to create tension on the vertical threads-the warp-which then allows the weaver to interlace a horizontal thread (the weft) over and under the warp.
Mudmee weaving is the oldest form of pattern weaving in the world. The pattern is usually created by tying and dyeing a pattern onto a single horizontal thread (the weft) and interlacing it with the warp. (I wrote a blog post about mudmee fabrics entitled “Mudmee: A Cultural Treasure of Thailand“.)
While no one can point to a specific date or even a specific century as to when mudmee weaving fist appeared in Ancient Siam, fabric historians assure us that mudmee weaving was a known form of weaving.
The fact that mudmee weaving was practiced in Ancient Siam is noteworthy beyond the technical aspects of this style of weaving. It shows that the early weavers believed that fabrics and apparel should please the eye.
Fashion! Yes, the Ancient Siamese had a “fashion sense”. There is no utility to putting complex designs on a sarong via time-consuming mudmee weaving. It’s only utility is to please the eye of either the weaver or the wearer (often the same). That’s what fashion is all about.
Ancient Siamese Fashion-Connecting the Dots
We know the following about Ancient Siam:
- Hemp, silk and cotton fibers were available
- Simple looms existed
- Women in general knew how to weave
- Organic fabric dyes were known and used
- Mudmee pattern weaving existed
- Sarongs, sabais, saphaks, crude shirts and robes were worn
Add all that up and you get a very good picture of Siamese fashion and fabrics back in ancient times.
A woman (or man) could walk through their village wearing a fashionable hemp or even cotton sarong (silk was for the royalty and rich) with a dyed mudmee pattern. Fast forward a couple millenia and go to the trendiest fashion venues in Bangkok today and you’ll probably see a Thai woman walking around wearing a cotton sarong with the same mudmee patterns.
The Kingdoms of Sukhothai & Lanna: The Advent of the Textile Trade
The Kingdoms of Sukhothai (1246-1446) and Lanna (1286-1900) mark the beginnings of urban life and increased trade throughout the region, especially textiles.
To be clear, the Kingdom of Lanna (northern Thailand) remained apart from the Kingdom of Siam until 1908 when it was annexed into Siam. But these two kingdoms became economic centers of the region and so attracted trade from both China and India.
Textiles Imported from India and China
Prior to the existence of Sukhothai or Lanna, (and let’s not forget the Dvaravati Civilization: 500 A.D.-1100 A.D.) very little is known about the region’s fabrics other than that cotton and silk were being woven. These pre-Sukhothai period fabrics would have been simple and lacking the quality of silk and cotton fabrics being woven in China, India or the Khmer Empire next door.
Such poor quality of textiles improved only slightly during the Sukhothai period. The denizens of Sukhothai and Lanna, especially the Royal Courts wanted (or better stated-could afford) quality fabrics that local Siamese or Lanna weavers could not yet produce.
This demand, along with a growing urban population, spurred textile imports of both cotton and silk fabrics into Sukhothai.
India, China, the Khmers (today’s Cambodia) and Burma imported cotton, silk, satin, and even velvet into Sukhothai and Lanna. Imported fabrics were now available at local markets from the 12th Century onward.
Ayutthaya: More Textile Demand-More Imported Supply
In 1438, The Kingdom of Sukhothai gave way to The Kingdom of Ayutthaya located farther south on the Chao Praya River. The Ayutthaya period lasts from 1350-1767.
Ayutthaya continued importing fabrics from China, India and the Khmer, but at a much greater amount than Sukhothai ever did. Siamese fabrics still couldn’t compete in quality with imports from China and especially India.
By the end of the 17th Century, Ayutthaya had four fabric markets. Now Siam was importing fabrics from not only China and India, but Europe as well. Not only could you find Indian and Chinese cotton and silk fabrics at the fabric markets, you could also buy European linen, velvet and lace.
King Narai of Ayutthaya (1656-1688) ordered Western apparel (red velvet robes) for his royal court from French diplomats visiting the Kingdom. The Royal Palace was adorned with white linens and carpets from Europe.
As the four centuries of Ayutthaya dominance ends, Siamese weavers continue toiling away at their looms, but getting little respect for their fabrics.
The Chakri Dynasty & Thai Silk
The lineage of the modern Thai Royal Family is known as the Chakri Dynasty and it assumed power in 1782. The capitol was moved from Ayutthaya to Bangkok.
Over the next 200+ years under the Chakri Dynasty, huge changes came to Siamese dress and fabrics. Old Siam becomes the modern nation of Thailand and Thai silk will go from a shunned fabric to a sought-after fabric.
Prior to the Chakri Dynasty, Siamese Royal Courts generally wore silk imported from India or China. But slowly during the 19th century, Siamese silk weavers began to produce both quality silk yarns and quality silk fabrics-quality that was finally good enough for the Royal Siamese Court.
By the mid-19th Century, Lamphun was becoming a silk weaving center, known for its elegant brocades and gold threads. King Mongkut (Rama IV) actively recruited Lamphun weavers and supplied them with gold thread to produce fabrics suitable for his Royal Court.
Fashion is a top down phenomenon. If the Royal Court is wearing Lamphun brocaded silk, then the well-off women of Bangkok will want to wear the same. And if the well-off women are wearing brocaded silk, then poorer women will want to imitate their manner of dress.
And so over a period of several decades beginning around 1850, Thai silk weaving becomes a source of national pride and national attire.
Khmer Silk = Isaan Silk = Thai Silk
The ancient Khmer were the inhabitants of the Angkor Wat Empire just to the east/southeast of Siam in what is today’s Cambodia. They wove silk, especially mudmee (ikat) silk and imported it to Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Lanna.
As Angkor Wat faded in power and importance, its sprawling empire splintered and new nation states emerged. The northeast section of Siam called Isaan inherited much of the old Angkor empire. The scores of Khmer archaeological ruins scattered across Isaan are testament to the regions ties to Angkor Wat.
So the traditions and quality of Khmer silk over the centuries, became known as Isaan silk and eventually Thai silk.
Today, Isaan is known for producing the finest mudmee silks and cotton in Thailand. (Please see my post: “A Vagabond To Isaan“)
The Dawn of the 20th Century
In 1900, handwoven Thai silks and cottons were now respected worldwide for both skilled weaving and design. The Royal Siamese Court was wearing the finest silk woven by Siamese weavers. Affluent Bangkok women sought out the fabric.
To the north, wooden looms were clacking away, producing a colorful array of cotton fabrics with traditional village motifs. If you attended a social event in Chiang Mai (old Lanna) almost all the women would be wearing a sarong woven in Siam, not imported from India or China.
A main reason for this uptick in quality, especially silk, is that Siamese weavers were using better silk threads. Siamese sericulture (making raw silk), especially in Isaan was improving greatly. (If you’re interested in how silk is made, please see my post: “Thai Sericulture: Making Thai Silk“.
But storm clouds were gathering over Siamese weaving, especially silk, as the 20th Century unfolded.
Thai Silk and Its Near-Death Experience
Starting in the mid-19th Century (around 1850), Siam’s rulers had to deal with a new world order-European power and Imperialism.
The Europeans who visited the Royal Court at this time were shocked that Siamese women often publicly went topless. They were confounded by the fact that Siamese men and women pretty much dressed alike. (Please read my post “Topless in Thailand: A History of Boobs & Buddhism” for more about why Thai rulers changed their traditional attire to please the Europeans.)
The Europeans wore sewn clothing while the Siamese wore wrapped clothing. The Europeans couldn’t hide their contempt for traditional Siamese dress.
The Siamese Kings, Mongkut and later his son Chulalongkorn (Rama IV and V) began to change the way that they and their subjects dressed, especially in public, hoping the Europeans would judge them civilized.
Women baring their breasts at the Royal Court was first banned when Europeans were present and later banned altogether. The Royals began a campaign to eliminate bare breasts from any public market or venue. Edicts were issued against wearing chong krabens or sabais. The authorities wanted women to wear sewn blouses and sarongs, and men sewn shirts and trousers.
The Siamese Royal Court began to dress in European style. Women of the Royal Court wore puffy-sleaved (mutton chop) lace blouses and ruffled dresses which was the current fashion of Victorian Europe. By 1900, the campaign to “modernize” Siamese attire was well under way and having some success in Bangkok and other parts of the Kingdom.
In the 1930’s, with the end of the absolute monarchy, Thailand’s rulers issued strict dress codes which emphasized Western attire over traditional attire.
This government-sponsored conversion to Western attire of course had a negative impact on demand for traditional Thai fabrics and dress. Imported Western wear became preferred over the traditional sarong.
By the 1940’s, handwoven Thai silk was an endangered fabric creeping ever so close to extinction. The knowledge and skills needed for silk weaving were being forgotten by whole villages. The demand for traditional Thai fabrics was all but gone given the government’s edicts against traditional dress.
The Comeback-The 1950’s – Present
There are two people who are rightly credited with saving handwoven Thai silk (and cotton) from the dustbin of history: Queen Sirikit (wife of Rama XI) and Jim Thompson.
In the 1950’s, Queen Sirikit (wife of Rama IX) began to design and wear Thai silk gowns to important official occasions. She would even proudly wear mudmee silk, which was considered a fabric for poor rural women. The Queen employed a whole cadre of designers to create a line of traditional Thai gowns and outfits made from Thai silk/cotton for ordinary Thai women.
The Queen began sending Thai silks, including mudmee, to Parisian fashion designers at House of Balmain. The Paris designers made exquisite Thai silk couture for the Queen which she would wear to elegant international social occasions. The world was being introduced to Thai silk for the first time.
Queen Sirikit re-energized demand and respect for Thai silk. She also encouraged and helped village women to carry on their weaving traditions and sell their fabrics for secondary family income.
A few years prior to the time that Queen Sirikit began designing and wearing Thai silk outfits, Jim Thompson opened The Thai Silk Co in Bangkok in 1948.
He organized some of the few remaining silk weavers in Bangkok to begin producing for his company top quality Thai silk. He organized sericulture operations in Korat. Jim Thompson also designed striking Thai silk colors and motifs to bring a modernity to the fabric.
Thompson brought his Thai silk fabric to the publisher of Vogue in New York who featured it in the magazine. Time magazine and other newspapers began publishing articles about Thai silk. The Broadway musical “The King and I” (an apochryphal story about the Thai Royal Court and banned in Thailand) used Thai silk for its costumes. Thai silk was becoming well known throughout the world.
Jim Thompson rallied the production of Thai silk and improved the quality of color and motif design. He was also a great salesman and introduced New York fashionistas and others worldwide to Thai silk.
Queen Sirikit & Jim Thompson
Both are titans in the history and development of Thai silk and Thai fabrics. Each of their work complimented the other. Without them, it’s very possible that Thai handwoven fabrics, especially Thai silk, would have been destined for the history books.
The Current State of Traditional Fabrics
There is both good news and bad news.
My anecdotal experience has been that the current quality of Thai handwoven silk and cotton is as good as it’s ever been. Consumers demand top quality and Thai weavers have met the challenge.
The good news is also that traditional Thai fabrics have kept pace with the latest fashion trends. In other words, traditional fabrics are used with contemporary apparel design. This is especially true for mudmee-both cotton and silk-where you’ll find an infinite variety of apparel and accessories made from this ancient weaving technique.
More good news is that with Thai silk and especially Thai sericulture, the government has gotten involved much more in the last 20 years to help rural villagers produce handwoven Thai silk.
The government has organized farm extension programs to teach and train village farmers to be better sericulturist (making raw silk). The government has developed new breeds of native Thai silk worms that produce better silk filament and offers these new species to the villagers. The government has also developed better mulberry trees that produce more leaves and are more drought tolerant. (Mulberry is the only food that silk worms eat.)
In 2016, Thailand produced 712 metric tons of silk (Not silk fabric, but raw silk filament), which is the most the country has ever produced. (Keep in mind that China produces 160,000 metric tons annually.)
And now for the bad news…(not so much bad news as storm clouds appearing on the horizon.)
Aside from the fake Thai silk constantly being hawked at tourist markets, what concerns me most is a noticeable drop off in weaving activity in both Isaan and the north such as Chiang Mai and Lamphun.
Ban Ta-Sa-Wang, a leading silk weaving village near Surin, used to be a beehive of activity for silk weavers, buyers and tourists. During my last visit many looms sat idle and the number of silk shops had shrunk by almost half since my first visit 15 years ago. (Please read my post: “A Thai Silk Safari to Baan Ta-Sa-Wang in Surin Province“)
I returned to a village silk shop in rural Isaan where I had bought some of my first Thai silk years ago, only to find that it had closed a couple years ago.
In the north, it’s the same story. Before, if you shopped handwoven cotton fabrics in and about Chiang Mai and Lamphun Provinces, you would see many weavers at work. Today, not so many.
As Queen Sirikit and Jim Thompson understood 70 years ago-if you don’t keep the village weaving traditions intact and active, the community will quickly lose the needed knowledge and skill to produce handwoven fabrics.
It all comes down to economics. If Thai weavers can sell their traditional fabrics at a price that’s decently profitable, then they’ll continue. If not, traditional fabrics will go the way of the dodo bird-extinct.
Traditional Fabrics: A Personal View
I have been going on “fabric safaris” throughout Thailand and Laos for the last 20 years, searching for traditional handwoven silk and cotton. What draws me?
At first, my purpose was to design and sell Thai pillows and traditional Thai apparel (fisherman pants, harem pants, sarongs and handbags) made from handwoven silk and cotton. My wife (she’s Thai of course) and I were very successful with our Thai pillow and apparel business House of Thailand (now closed).
But more profound was my love for handwoven fabric itself. I was fascinated the first time I watched an old Isaan woman weaving exquisite mudmee silk on a simple teak loom. I couldn’t believe that any fabric was still being woven by hand, let alone what is probably the finest fabric in the world-Thai silk!
I also quickly discovered that Thai traditional fabrics opened a door into traditional Thai culture. And so we’ve come full circle to where I began-Thai traditional fabrics = Thai culture!