Thailand’s Handwoven Fabrics: The Industry Time Forgot

Silk weaver in Baan Ta-Sa-Wang, Thailand
A silk weaver in Baan Ta-Sa-Wang, Surin Province produces a fine Thai silk brocade.

In Thailand, village women still earn family income by manually producing an array of fabrics on old wooden looms. It’s not a hobby nor even a craft-it’s a skilled occupation that results in some of the finest fabrics in the world.

Old teak treadle (foot pedal) looms are passed down through the generations from mother to daughter along with the knowledge and traditions of weaving fabrics for commercial sale.

What makes these fabrics special is both their traditions and high quality. In fact many fabric experts agree that Thai silk is one of the most exceptional fabrics in the world.

The Industry Time Forgot

Thai Handwoven Fabrics for sale in Chom Tong, Thailand
My wife shopping for cotton fabrics in Chom Tong, Thailand. All the fabric bolts you see are handwoven.

When the steam engine was first invented in the early 1800’s, one of its first applications was to mechanize a loom. The mechanized loom revolutionized fabric weaving. Textile supply skyrocketed, prices plummeted and weavers were displaced by this new technology. A single mechanized loom could produce the same amount of fabric as 20 woman.

But! A mechanized loom can only speed production. It can’t much improve the quality of the textile when pitted against an expert weaver.

Complexity of the weave, superb quality, and limited demand all combined to shield commercial handwoven textiles in Thailand from the modern mechanized loom, especially Thai silk.

It is simply not commercially worthwhile to set up a mechanized loom with a complex pattern and sputter out a few 1.5  or 4 meter bolts. (Most mechanized looms have minimum runs of 2,000-3,000 meters!) But it is commercially worthwhile to individually hand weave these bolts of fabric.

Weaving = Women Power

Thai cotton weaver in Lamphun Province, Thailand
Weaving a complex cotton brocade in Lamphun Province.

The world of handwoven fabrics belongs to women. Overwhelmingly, woman operate the looms, make the thread, design the patterns, choose the colors, and do all the myriad of tasks needed to produce fabric.

In my 20 years of travelling the dusty back roads of rural Thailand pursuing traditional fabrics, I have never seen a man operating a loom. Never.

That women dominate and control the production of handwoven fabrics shouldn’t surprise us. Women have always done so the world over since fabrics were first woven beginning about 10,000 years ago.

Textile Logistics: Where, What, Time, Pay

Thai weavers set up their looms under their houses.
A Thai teadle loom set up under a traditional Thai house in Kalasin Province.

Where: Women who weave fabrics are not ubiquitous throughout Thailand. Traditional fabric weaving is found in the North, Northeast (Isaan) and the Sukhothai regions. If you shop for Thai silk in Bangkok, the overwhelming odds are that it was woven in either of those three areas.

Women often weave at their home. They may have their loom set up on a patio or garage area. With old fashion Thai stilt houses, the loom is always underneath on the ground floor.

Handwoven fabrics near Chiang Rai, Thailand
A weaving cooperative in the mountains near Chiang Rai. This is as close as you’ll get to a factory setting for manual weaving.

Weaving can also be done in the back areas of village fabric shops or weaving collectives. Several looms may be grouped together and form a more centralized work place. But in all my travels across Thailand, I’ve only seen a “factory” of hand operated looms once, and that was in a Shan village high in the mountains near Chiang Rai.

There are no urban “sweatshops” in Thai handwoven fabric production. Weavers often work alone or with a friend in a home environment choosing the hours they weave.

Handweaving in Sukhothai Province
Weaving in Sukhothai Province. Weaving is a solitary, quiet occupation often done at home.

What: Handwoven fabrics are usually either cotton or silk.  Furthermore, the cotton and silk threads used to weave a fabric are also often produced by hand-not always, but often, especially with Thai silk. The silk weaving villages of Isaan often produce and make their own silk threads. (Please see my tutorial: Thai Sericulture: Making  Thai Silk)

Village weavers can produce many types of textile goods depending on their skills, traditions and the demands of the marketplace. Examples: short or long bolts of fabric; sarong bolts (1.5 meters),  dressmaker bolts (4 meters-1/2 a pattern and 1/2 a matching solid color) scarves of various sizes, assorted floor mats, toongs (long decorative streamers), pillow cases, bedspreads, tablecloths, etc.

Very little of handwoven fabrics are used to make tourist items. It’s cheaper to make such items from mechanized fabrics and a tourist wouldn’t understand the difference.

Handwoven fabrics from Sukhothai Province, Thailand
The weaver from the last photo above from a reverse angle showing the fabric she’s weaving.

Time: How long does it take to weave fabric? There are too many variables to answer that basic question. Consider this: A silk weaver producing the finest brocaded silk might weave a half inch to an inch a day; while a cotton weaver producing a solid color plain weave with a flying shuttle might produce 9 meters a day.

Income: Again this varies tremendously as to what is being woven, the efficiency of the weaver and who the buyer is.

Cotton weaving is paid by the amount you weave. Simple cotton weaving will pay more than the Thai minimum wage-300 baht/day. There’s no doubt that cotton weavers are under-payed for their skills. The advantage of cotton weaving is that it can be done at home with the woman deciding her hours of work. The cotton weaver also has the advantage that if she’s working by order, she’ll be payed upon completion of the order.

A Thai silk weaver in Baan Ta-Sa-Wang, Surin Province
A silk weaver in Baan Ta-Sa-Wang, Surin Province. She’s weaving a silk brocade so complex that she progresses by less than an inch a day.
Brocaded Thai Silk
A close-up view of the silk fabric being woven in the previous photo. Many fabric experts agree that Thai silk is the finest fabric woven.

Silk weavers are more entrepreneurial. They often weave bolts of either 1.5 or 4 meters and give them to village consignment shops to sell. The bolt may cost as little as $2,500 baht ($75 US) or as much as $300,000 baht. ($9,000 US). Sometimes even more.

Often on the price tag for high-end Thai silk, the weaver will put the time it took to weave the bolt. I’ve paid (sold on consignment) $18,000 baht. ($600 US) for a 4 meter bolt of Lamphun brocaded silk that took about a month to weave. Remember! Taking a month to weave does not mean the weaver sat at her loom 8 hours/day for a month. It just means from start to finish the weaving took a month.

A silk weaver may take 30-60 days (and far longer for complex weaves) to weave a dressmaker’s bolt. But that bolt may lanquish of a consignment shop’s shelf for a year or two before being sold. So the silk weaver often has to wait an undetermined amount of time to see her compensation.

But on the optimistic side, having silk bolts for sale on consignment is like having valuable assets. You’re just not certain when they’ll convert to liquid cash.

Cotton vs. Silk Weaving

Weaving Praewa Thai silk
Weaving Praewa silk in Kalasin Province. Praewa is one of the finest silk fabrics in the world and takes great time and expertise. These village women also make the silk thread for their fabrics.

Thai handwoven fabrics can be basically divided into either cotton or silk.

Silk is far more lucrative simply because it can usually demand a much higher price. Silk thread is simply more costly than cotton thread. (Gold is more costly than silver; but is the gold smith better than the silver smith?)

You might be tempted to argue that the Thai silk weaver is more skilled than the cotton weaver. I would disagree. If you peruse the complex cotton weaving from the villages of Ban Chaem in Chiang Mai Province (See my Blog Post: A Fabric Safari to Mae Chaem ) or Ban Hat Siaw near Sukhothai, you’ll readily agree that cotton weaving can be as complicated as silk weaving.

And to confuse matters even more, many of Thailand’s finest handwoven fabrics are a blend of cotton/silk threads.

Village Weaving Traditions

Thai silk damask woven in Surin Province
A silk weaver in Surin Province producing a silk damask fabric.

Village traditions define a weaver’s fabric and the skills needed. Simply acquaint yourself with Praewa Silk-the Queen of Thai Silks, mudmee silk, or brocaded Lamphun silk and you’ll easily see the different weaving methods needed to produce these traditional Thai silks.

The Praewa weaver doesn’t have the skill set to produce Lamphun silk or mudmee silk and vice-a-versa. The cotton weavers of Chom Tong certainly couldn’t produce the intricate sarongs of the Sukhothai weavers and vica-versa.

Hill Tribe weaving in Thailand
Hill Tribe weaving in Lamphun Province.

For a full description of the weaving styles mentioned above, please see my following posts from The Thai Fabric Chronicles:

  1. Thai Silk: A Buyer’s Guide
    2. Mudmee Silk: A Cultural Treasure of Thailand
    3. Thai Sericulture: Making Thai Silk
    4. Praewa Silk-The Queen of Thai Silks
    5. A Fabric Safari to Chom Tong

OTOP-Say What???

Cotton weavers in Chom Tong, Chiang Mai Province
Cotton weavers in Chom Tong, Chiang Mai Province. Their looms have “flying shuttles” which allows them to weave up to 9 meters a day. Note the weavers right hand holds a cord that pulls the weft (horizontal) thread through the warp (vertical) threads very quickly-hence the name “flying shuttle”.

Sometimes the women organize themselves into a village weaving collective. These weaving collectives or cooperatives were often organized via a government program called OTOP-One Tamboon (village) One Product.

OTOP was an attempt by the Thai government to get rural villages to concentrate on a single handicraft and produce it commercially. OTOP awards were given for quality. If you hear someone refer to a fabric as “OTOP”, they’re referring to the recognized quality of the fabric.

The Handwoven Cotton Market

Thai Cotton Weaving in Lamphun Province
A cotton weaver in Lamphun province. Her fabric is woven into long bolts (10 meters +) and will be made into pillow cases, bedspreads, curtains, etc.

Here’s how the market for handwoven cotton fabrics generally works.

Usually, a fabric distributor or local fabric supplier will need a certain yardage of a cotton fabric. This order is then given to a local weaver to make which includes the specific color, pattern and type of thread to be used. If the order is large, it’s jobbed out to as many weavers as needed to complete the order within a reasonable time.

Often the weavers are given orders for bedspreads, bath mats, table clothes, etc. The weaver is told what exactly is needed (the size specifications, type of weave, pattern, etc.) and she produces the order. You can walk into a rural fabric shop and order a specific type of handwoven cotton fabric. The minimum order is usually about 20 yards and it will take a week or two to make.

Cotton weavers do produce long bolts of various fabrics from which pre-made apparel, especially shirts and women’s tunics and jackets, are made. Fabric shops often have a good selection of pre-made apparel for sale.

The Handwoven Thai Silk Market

Mudmee Thai silk for sale in Surin Province
Mudmee silk for sale at the village cooperative in Baan Ta-Sa-Wang, Surin Province.

As mentioned earlier, the economics of Thai silk are slightly different than cotton weaving, although the two share a lot in common.

The Thai silk weaver usually works at home and produces either a sarong bolt of 1.5 or a dressmakers bolt of 4 meters. (A dressmakers bolt is 2 meters of a patterned fabric such as mudmee or brocaded silk and another 2 meters of a matching solid color. A dressmaker can then take that bolt and make a full coordinated outfit.)

A Thai pillow made with mudmee silk
A Thai folding pillow made from mudmee silk from Kon Gan Province.

But the Thai silk weaver, just like their cotton counterpart, can weave very long bolts (10 meters or more) of solid color dupioni silk or plain weave silk. These bolts would be contracted for by either a silk shop or village cooperative.

A good amount of handwoven Thai silk will end up as pre-made clothing. Men’s shirts, women’s outfits (jacket and matching skirts), dresses, blouses, purses are just a few of the items that will be cut and sewn from handwoven silk fabrics.

Thai Handwoven Fabrics-A Personal Reflection

Handwoven fabric from Baan Hat Siaw in Sukhothai Province
Cotton fabric on the loom in Baan Hat Siaw, Sukhothai Province. This fabric will be used to make sarongs.

For twenty years I have zig-zagged across Old Siam going on fabric safaris. Visiting the world of traditional Thai fabrics is like stepping into a time machine and traveling back through the centuries.

You cannot separate Thai fabrics from Thai culture.

After marrying my Thai wife (I’m a White American if you haven’t figured that out already), I found traditional Thai fabrics a wonderful way to understand her culture-which at times can be very confusing!

The Future???

Thai fabric weaver in Mae Cheim, Chiang Rai Province
A young cotton weaver closely inspects her work in Mae Chaem, Chiang Mai Province.

Traditional fabrics will never disappear from Thailand. (Although Thai silk almost did after the turn of the 20th Century.) Thai silk is now just too ingrained in Thai culture to just vanish into obscurity.

But, I’ve sadly noticed during my two decades of observation that there is a receding tide in the silk weaving villages of Isaan and the cotton weavers of the north. Things just aren’t as bustling as before.

And so I worry about the future of Thai traditional fabrics. I worry about the younger generation being taught the complex weaving skills needed to produce many of these fabrics. I worry about modern Thailand looking to The West for its fashion trends. I worry…probably too much.

But there’s still time to jump into your very own time machine and go back centuries to a different world-maybe a better world-the world of Thai handwoven fabrics.

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