Textiles are one of the most important features of Thai heritage and culture. Long ago, the various tribes in southwestern China, Laos, Northern Thailand and Northern Burma developed societies in which clothing represented much more than protection from the elements or economic activity. The colors, patterns and weave all designated the specific tribe, the exact village and the status of the individual villagers. When the Thai moved southward into their present homeland, they brought their clothing and textile culture with them. These traditions have been kept alive right up to the present time in Northern Thailand and specifically the Chiang Mai region. One only has to observe the uniqueness of the costumes of the various hill tribes seen wandering around the city to appreciate how deeply these traditions are embedded.
The importance of textiles in Thai culture is mirrored by its importance to the Thai economy. Around fifty percent of all handicrafts produced in Thailand are textile based and National Thai development policy has encouraged its development from a self-supporting role into an income generating activity.
The North of Thailand is the focus of the Thai textile industry. It is in this region that almost 200,000 people are engaged in either cotton growing, silk producing or in small businesses engaged in textile processing, trading and supplying. Local cotton is grown, spun, dyed and processed by smallholders in the countryside throughout the North, while silk yarns and fabrics are produced in the Northeast and Lower North.
In fact, Silk, the "Queen of Fabrics" has an ancient history. While the Pharaohs of Egypt were wearing Nile Delta cotton and the Royals of Europe were clothed in wool and Linen, the silkworms of Asia and the Orient were spinning threads to make the most beautiful and sensual fabrics to clothe the Siamese and Chinese courts. According to legend, silk was first discovered in China by Empress Si Ling Chi when she was sitting under a mulberry tree in the palace garden. Suddenly a cocoon fell from a the tree into her tea cup. Attempting to remove it, she was fascinated to discover a very fine thread start to unravel.
Many wars have been fought throughout history in an attempt to control the production and export of silk. It is the most wonderful of natural materials, which scientists have tried to emulate with synthetic substances but have never quite matched its qualities. Light, strong, hard wearing and long lasting. Thai silk has always been regarded has as of the best quality and Chiang Mai produces some of the best in the world.
Over recent years, there has been a huge resurgence in the use of natural fibres in the fashion industry. Creations in wool, cotton, linen and silk have floated from international fashion houses to the delight of the fashion conscious and eco-friendly public worldwide.
Thailand however, seems to have been left a bit behind when it comes to taking advantage of these new and emerging niche markets. In the last decade, world production of silk rose by 20% (1995-2004), with China producing over 70% of the total and exporting over 90% of its production. Conversely, Thailand is actually a net importer of raw silk due to limited domestic supply and exports only a small fraction of its production. Thai textiles are increasingly being seen as commodity products subject to intense competition and low prices rather than the high-end luxury fabrics with unique traditional designs that they aspire to be.
In order to address these issues, the "Institute for Science and Technology, Research and Development" (IST) of Chiang Mai University has developed two innovative projects to provide support and advice to local textile producers.
The first project, known as "Quality Development of Local Thai Textile" is supported by the Thai Ministry of University Affairs. Its stated aim is to assist textile producers' groups in the seventeen provinces of Northern Thailand to develop their skills in the various production steps.
Local producers face several problems in the different production steps such as producing and dyeing yarn, treating waste water, designing and marketing fabrics and general business management. These issues have hampered the development of the quality local textiles needed to compete in the increasingly global market place.
The project is involved in numerous activities. Examples include research and development into new environmentally friendly and sustainable color dyeing, pesticide free cotton growing, energy saving production methods, new design and process training and developing a quality standard. They are also building a community network that will serve as a "knowledge hub" to be a forum for the exchange of knowledge and experiences, management best practice and education.
The second project, in collaboration with the Faculty of Business Administration (FBA) is "Thai Home Textile" (EU-HT). The aim of this innovative project is to develop skills in export competence and to help realize existing export opportunities for local Thai producers, suppliers and exporters. The main target markets for this project are the niche home textile markets within the European Union.
The methods employed by the IST consist of a combination of activities such as seminars, workshops, capacity building, technical training, value chain studies, market research, dialogue with key stakeholders and pilot studies.
To date, three key constraints have been identified as limiting the current potential of the Thai home textile industry. Firstly, there is limited access to key EU market information that focuses on trends, trade and technology. Secondly, design limitations have resulted in a lack of product development and product differentiation and, thirdly, the lack of a sustainable supply of quality raw materials has affected quality consistency, variety and cost efficiency throughout the supply chain.
The IST has also published an interim report into the Thai silk industry that highlights a number of key interventions. These include research and development into alternative or innovative products such as naturally dyed textiles, non-mulberry silk home textiles and fair trade production. Design innovation to enable the local industry to react to changes in market demand and cost reduction through process improvement and supply chain collaboration.
As part of the Home Textile project, IST was staging the "7th Silk Cotton exhibition" (Fai Gam Mai), 10-13 August, 2007. The exhibition had three themes with weaving from the 17 provinces in Northern Thailand. A Natural Thread theme featuring handmade cotton from Taffrail, Don Muang and local Thai silk from Kampaengpetch; a Special Colors theme and an Identity theme.
Also for the first time, Eri Silk will be introduced to weavers and attendees at the exhibition. Eri silk is an innovative new textile development in Thailand that is produced by the eri silkworm which feeds on the castor leaf as opposed to the mulberry leaf. It is considered more eco-friendly to produce, has the appearance of wool mixed with cotton but the softness of silk.
Any visitor is interested in research and development of Silk & Cotton, please contact for more details, 081-950-2427.
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