Silk is basically a fine fibre produced by mulberry silkworms. These worms form a cocoon which is used then to produce silk yarn. Thai Silk is, as a material, not any different from silks of other countries; the difference is merely added in a later process in form of colours, patterns and shapes. The share of Thai Silk on the world market lies by only 0.1%. The main producer of silk is China (80% of the world market's production), followed by Japan and India.
The production of silk is one of the oldest cultural techniques. It dates back 4,500 to 5,000 years, and was first applied in the Indus Valley and in the Yangze region of China. Silk was one of the most important goods which came to Europe over the famous Silk Road. There are indications that the first introduction of Silk to Thailand was about 3,000 years ago, for traces of silk may have been found in Ban Chiang.
The heart of silk production in Thailand is the northeastern region Isan. It is since long a tradtion to breed silkworms here, produce yarn and to weave it on large looms in local village homes.
Still nowadays one can visit silk weaving women in many rural places on the Khorat Plateau. For most of the time and until today, most of the production is for private and local consumption. The Thai court of former times didn't use Thai Silk for representative clothing, but that of Chinese imports. Only after the Second World War, Thai Silk of highest quality, the Matmie Silk from Isan, is also used by the queen of Thailand and seen as fashionable.
A first trial to develop Thai Silk industries was made in the 1920s by the Japanese specialist Kametaro Toyama, but it failed. The second attempt came from the former American OSS agent Jim Thompson shortly after the Second World War. Thompson, a smart businessman with good contacts into higher circles both in Thailand and the USA, invented new patterns and marketing strategies, creating a new product. Jim Thompson House is one of the sights in Bangkok. Initially being a smaller business, Thai Silk became famous after the promotion of the famous musical 'The Kind and I' (Rodgers and Hammerstein) from 1951 on. The costumes for the play were made from Thai Silk. Later the musical was produced also as a Hollywood movie with Yul Brunner.
The silk worm (Bombyx mori) hatches of the eggs of the silk moth. The worm feeds from the leaves of mulberry (Morus alba) trees and build a cocoon with their own saliva. Once the cocoons are completed, they get separated from remaining leaves and the caterpillar inside by getting boiled in water, what provides a brutal end to the small animals.
Since the threads in their natural form are far too thin for usage, they get bundled in a spinning machine. That is a costly, time-consuming process, still done in hand-work by women, although meanwhile also reeling machines are deployed for the work.
In a next process the yarn is put into hot water to get cleaned and bleached by the application of hydrogen peroxide. Due to the bleaching, the silk yarn looses it's natural yellow colour and get's white, respectively translucent and shiny.
After drying, the material is now fit for being woven. In difference to the hand-woven, traditional Thai Silk there are also machine woven products, who differ from the first. Hand-woven silk textiles are all unique in their way and quality, while the mechanized production creates a standard quality which is widely identical.
In difference to the traditional silk there is an artificial silk produced. It consists of plastic fibres and is not silk, although labelled as such. The artificial silk is actually something very different by it's nature and of minor value. There is a simple test method anybody can perform to find out what is what. One holds a lighter on a piece of yarn and burns it. The natural silk will burn and unfold a smell like burned hair or fingernails, for it's substantially a familiar material. The artificial product will smell for plastic. Natural silk will stop burning immediately when removing the flame, while plastic tends to burn by it's own. Natural silk is about ten times more expensive than the artificial one.
Thai Silk get's an official quality emblem to prove authenticity and quality grade, emitted by the Ministry of Agriculture. The Thai peacock symbol differs four qualities:
The gold peacock proves the highest quality level, called Royal Thai Silk, which is made of natural silk and has been hand-made through all stages of production.
The silver peacock proves classic Thai Silk which is also from natural material and hand-made, but not of the excellency as the first.
The blue peacock is made of natural silk but allowes unspecific production methods like the application of chemical dyes.
The green peacock is a quality which alows the blend between natural and artificial yarn and includes unspecified production methods.
Apart from Matmie Silk there exists a number of other kinds of natural silk.
Thai Silk is used for cloths, clothes, curtains, ties, shawls, pillow coats, upholstery coats and many more accessories.