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Magnificence of Thai silk

Few visitors to, or expatriates living in Thailand can resist owning at least one item made from Thai silk. Of the major silk producing nations of the world, Thailand attracts an international following for this product running into millions. Thai silk stands apart from the silks of India, China and Europe, in terms of texture, appearance and structure.

Silk from China has a sheen and texture resembling satin: Indian silk has a creased or crinkled appearance and comes in soft, rich colours, while Thai silk displays the natural mix of textures and patterns unique to Southeast Asia.

Thai silk is used the world over in haute couture, and in the realm of furnishings and fabrics. I have had the pleasure of standing next to beautiful ladies wearing Thai silk dresses at cocktail parties in Hong Kong and London: noted elegant Thai silk lampshades in the foyers and bedrooms of some of the world’s leading hotels, drawn rich Thai curtains together and the exquisitely woven bolts of Thai silk adorning a wall.

Silk has been with us for centuries, its fine qualities treasured by people of all nations; its diverse uses in themselves intriguing. If you subscribe to the notion that silk is employed solely in the fashion world of elegant ladies you could not be more mistaken. You will want to know the difference between smooth and rough Thai silk: how it is made, how to recognise the genuine article, and how much you should pay.

Smooth Thai silk is a contradiction in terms. Yes, it is indeed lustrous and smooth, owing to layers of protein producing a natural sheen, and is comprised of triangular fibres creating a prismatic effect when reflecting light from its surface. On closer inspection, however, and you must avoid getting your face smacked while doing so, you will note that the material is made up of tiny, knotted threads over an uneven surface. As a fashion designer once remarked to me, pointing to a bolt of smooth Thai silk before mincing off into a bevy of models, “Knotty but nice, don’t you think?” This knotty quality makes smooth Thai silk almost perfect for hand weaving.

Rough Thai silk is comparatively heavier and more course while retaining a soft texture, and is highly popular with interior designers who use it for curtains, furniture coverings and bedding. That said, rough Thai silk can and is used in making casual wear, giving it a sort of homespun or tweedy look.

Silk is the natural thread made from the salivary glands of the silkworm after it dines on Mulberry leaves. For those of you suffering from Scoleciphobia (a fear of worms), the silkworm is actually a caterpillar. These little chaps spin their cocoons while in a state of metamorphosis between larvae to pupae. The cocoon is then plucked from the Mulberry bush and immersed in boiling water to separate the silk thread from the caterpillar inside. Each cocoon is made up of a single pale gold, or light green thread that is several hundred metres long, and needs to be combined with many other threads to form a workable fibre. The weaver washes the raw silk threads before bleaching them and soaking them in hot vegetable and other natural dyes, before being washed and stretched and undergoing a final dyeing process.

The thread is then wound onto drums in preparation for weaving on the traditional hand looms still very much in use here in Thailand. It can take up to a month to produce four square yards of the finest Thai silk by this method; much longer to create the intricate mudmee patterns much favoured by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. Mudmee is peculiar to Esarn in the country’s Northeast, and involves an ancient and intricate process that produces a multi-coloured silk thread that is then woven into the weft (left to right threads) of the fabric to produce stunning patterns and designs.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have many reputable silk outlets where you can buy your pure Thai silk items with confidence. Visit Jolie Femme on Chiangmai - Sankampaeng Road, (500 meters from Superhightway intersection and a large selection of silk in Fashion King).

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