BANGKOK – Maria Lafuente – one of Spain’s foremost designers and a global pioneer in promoting sustainability and social awareness through fashion – is no stranger to the delicate silk that is handwoven in the northeast of Thailand.
She has used the material in her previous collections after becoming acquainted with the peculiar properties of the age-old product, made from a protein fiber produced by the larvae of mulberry silkworms.
But nothing beats experiencing its manufacture first-hand to gain a fuller understanding of its potential.
This is why she embarked on a four-day road trip through three rural provinces on the Khorat Plateau, where silk has been fabricated using the same techniques for millennia.
“It’s an immense cultural contribution and an amazing experience which will allow me to base my designs on this new knowledge about natural dyes, patterns and shapes and develop the natural wealth of silk,” Lafuente told EFE.
The tour was jointly organized by the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture (a subdivision of the agriculture and cooperatives ministry) and the Royal Thai Embassy to Spain. It was the first time Thai authorities invited a designer on such a visit.
Fittingly, Lafuente’s CV is filled with firsts: she was the first designer to create dresses made out of potato starch and carbon fiber, as well as the first women’s collection using recycled plastic bottles and fishing nets. She has also fashioned dresses from recycled tires and accessories using sugar cane syrup, a reflection of her concern for environmental sustainability.
At the sericulture department’s headquarters outside Bangkok, Lafuente stepped into a government van with powerful air conditioning – it was the hottest time of the year in the tropical country – joined by her friend Sergio Gallardo, the EFE reporter, three civil servants from the department and a good-natured local driver.
The motley crew headed off for a 450-kilometer (280-mile) journey to Khon Kaen, Thailand’s eighth-largest city and a major hub within the wider northeastern region of Isaan.
Over the first day, the team was introduced to village silk workshops in the neighboring province of Kalasin.
The area, located to the east of Khon Kaen, is one of Thailand’s poorest, as most of its economy relies on the cultivation of cash crops. Apart from producing silk using the intricate “phrae wa” weaving technique developed by the Phu Thai ethnic minority, it is famous as a repository of Jurassic-period dinosaur fossils.
Lafuente was given the chance to try her hand at the wooden spinning wheels used to obtain the characteristically yellow silk yarn. The women workers showed her how the silkworm cocoons are boiled in water to separate the outer layers of fiber from the insect that are then spun into the threads that make up the shiny fabric.
“Silk, like all materials stemming directly from nature, presents many possibilities when it comes to creating fantastic structures, as it is directly born out of the energy of these women,” Lafuente explained. “It takes such a long time to obtain pieces like these, all generated by nature and the dedicated passion that these women have shown over so many years.”
After purchasing some meters of silk cloth for use in Lafuente’s upcoming Fall/Winter collection, the group was offered an unexpected snack: crunchy silkworm cocoons dipped in salt. With a crispy crust and a juicy filling, the pupae – an intermediate stage between larva and moth – are an excellent source of protein, and locals claim they have some aphrodisiac side effects, as well.
On the second day, the group traveled around Khon Kaen province. In the village of Huafai, the expedition was greeted by a nonagenarian playing the Khene, a traditional wind instrument of Laotian origin fashioned with bamboo pipes.
The trip included a visit to the regional silk museum, filled with dusty artifacts testifying to how little the craft has changed over time.
On the third day, the group headed to Nakon Ratchasima, Isaan’s southernmost province. A workshop next to an idyllic Buddhist monastery featured the wooden looms used in the “mudmee” weaving technique, which involves tying strips of straw on the textiles to mark the desired pattern.
In the provincial capital, Lafuente and Gallardo met with the director-general of the sericulture department, Siriporn Boonchoo. They were gifted soap made from silkworm protein and Lafuente was invited to return to Thailand and showcase her new collection at a silk fair scheduled for midsummer.
Lafuente intends to integrate the fabrics purchased throughout the trip into her collection to highlight the artisanship of the women who weave them in these remote villages.
The dresses will be confected by members of Lal La Buya, a foundation headed by Gallardo and based in the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Its goal is to empower at-risk and marginalized women, especially victims of gender violence.
“Empowering all women, but particularly those in the rural world who are more vulnerable, is very important and necessary so that they can feel self-sufficient and valued and able to choose how to live their own lives,” Lafuente said.
“Sometimes, you don’t need to share a language to share emotions and the richness of humanity,” she added. “I am grateful to have been present for something wonderful and pioneering that had many unforgettable moments.”