BANGKOK – The success story that is the prized status of handwoven Thai silk in the world of haute couture is the unlikely tale of a stylish queen and a former American spy-turned-textile mogul, of a crowd-pleasing Broadway musical and the last-minute preservation of an almost-extinct millenary tradition.
“Much of Thai silk fabric is one-of-a-kind and will never be woven again,” Jeff Gallagher, an American expert in Thailand’s sericulture tradition, told EFE.
“Thai silk is not for mass-produced apparel. Thai silk is personal and intimate between the weaver and wearer.”
Silk-weaving villages are scattered through the northeastern Thai provinces of Khon Kaen, Kalasin and Nakhon Ratchasima, where women of all ages spend their days carefully interlacing silk threads to weave splendorous fabrics on traditional wooden looms.
The territory that is now modern Thailand has always had a close cultural relationship with China, and the Silk Road cemented that status as an important trading hub within Southeast Asia.
But centuries later, at the royal court in Old Siam, domestic silk was not much appreciated. The traditional weaving techniques that are now so cherished were dismissed as the elite preferred to import the higher-quality glimmering fabrics from India or China.
This changed during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), known as Rama V. He established a Sericulture Department and invited Japanese experts to improve the quality of the silk being manufactured in the kingdom of Siam.
By the first half of the 20th century, however, the practice of traditional sericulture was starting to die out again due to the lack of a sizable demand for the product.
That’s where the American spy comes in.
Jim Thompson was an architect and the son of a textile manufacturer. He was sent to Thailand in 1945 as part of a mission to scout the country, then occupied by the Japanese Empire, for a possible allied invasion. Thompson decided to stay.
In 1950, he opened his first shop on Bangkok’s iconic Surawong Road. This small business evolved into the Thai Silk Company in 1951, which would go on to become a giant within the industry.
“Jim Thompson’s success in bringing Thai silk to the West was due to his salesmanship, his obsession with quality and his striking sense of color,” Gallagher said. “His silk not only was the best, it dazzled the eyes of the world’s fashionistas.”
Thompson left an enduring legacy. His company supplied the cloths used in the Broadway musical “The King and I.” Audiences were impressed by the musical’s refined wardrobe that recreated the opulence of 19th-century Siamese court life.
The other instrumental figure in the revival of traditional sericulture was Queen Sirikit, who married King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) in 1950.
She soon saw the potential of fashion as a way to exert influence over the country’s cultural development and began to appear in public wearing exquisite dresses made of the finest traditional silk from the northeastern region of Isaan and the northern Lamphun region.
“Queen Sirikit is truly the ‘patron saint’ of Thai silk. She not only advocated on behalf of the fabric itself, but more importantly, she did so on behalf of the poor rural woman who wove Thai silk. She created both an international and domestic demand for Thai silk. Every Thai woman wanted to dress in the traditional manner of their Queen,” Gallagher said.
In 1960, the royal couple went on a world tour, visiting Western countries.
The queen enlisted the help of renowned French fashion designer Pierre Balmain and her elegant style drew comparisons to Jackie Kennedy.
The Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture’s stated mission is to enhance the potential of mulberry, silk and related products, conduct research, promote the conservation and protection of silkworm genetics and strengthen the culture and local wisdom on sericulture.
It employs thousands of civil servants distributed across 21 centers throughout the country and established a quality-control grading system known as the Royal Peacock Mark. It classifies Thai silk into four categories: the golden, silver, blue and green peacocks.
The golden peacock mark is given to handwoven fabric made from indigenous hand-reeled Thai silk and handmade yarn. It is the finest and most expensive silk.
The green peacock indicates a blend with a higher proportion of silk, although other materials and any type of loom technology can be used.
“Thai silk’s value is directly related to its scarcity. It’s not economically feasible for mechanical looms to produce the very limited quantities of high-quality Thai silk,” Gallagher said.
According to Wijit Chuva, director of the Sericulture Center in Nakhon Ratchasima, there are more than 100 traditional silk-weaving villages throughout the country, mostly clustered in Isaan.
Though the QSDS has heavily promoted mulberry farming instead of the prevalent rice crops in the north and northeast of the country, the survival of traditional sericulture ultimately hinges on intergenerational learning.
“Thai silk finds itself in a bit of trouble of late,” Galagher observed. “Weaving villages that I visited 20 years ago are not as bustling as they were back then. There is a predominance of older weavers that produce the fabric and I worry about the skills being passed along.”