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Elegant Thai Silk

According to legend, silk was first discovered in China by Empress Si Ling Chi when she was sitting beneath a mulberry tree in the palace garden enjoying a cup of tea. Suddenly, a cocoon which had been attached to the tree, fell into the Empress' teacup. Attempting to remove it, she was fascinated to discover a very fine thread start to unravel.

The Chinese guarded the secret of silk for thousands of years. It was the cloth of emperors and gods and became a great source of wealth. The secret was protected by enforcing dire penalties. Anyone found guilty of smuggling silkworm eggs, cocoons or even seeds of the mulberry tree was put to death.

A secret doesn't remain secret forever. Another legend maintains that eventually the knowledge escaped China through a Chinese princess who married an Indian prince in the first century A.D. The crafty princess is said to have smuggled silkworm eggs out of the country in her headdress and fed the caterpillars on leaves from mulberry trees which grew in India.

Over the centuries, the knowledge spread to other countries in Asia where silk producing was quickly adopted. There are no records to indicate exactly when silk making began in Thailand, but fragments of silk 3,000 years old have been found among the ruins in Baan Chiang, which some archaeologists believe was the earliest civilization in this part of the world. In any event, at some point in the distant past the Thai people gained the knowledge and, over the centuries, developed a very unique type of silk.

SilkwormMany people do not realize just how complex the process of producing silk is. First of all, the insect which produces the silk fibre, although called a silkworm, is not a worm at all, but a caterpillar. When these tiny caterpillars emerge from their eggs, they are only about a centimeter long and about a millimeter or two in thickness. When first born, they are dark green in colour, and have a voracious appetite. From the moment of birth, they are fed mulberry leaves which have been carefully washed, dried and chopped. In the early stages, they must be fed around the clock, so great are their appetites.

The vast quantities consumed by these caterpillars cause them to grow at a very rapid rate. In fact, they grow so rapidly that their skins cannot contain their bodies. For this reason, they shed their skins four times to allow them to grow before they finally spin their silken cocoons. It is during this time that the silkworms' bodies are slowly filling with the liquid raw material of silk.

The final stage of its existence as a caterpillar is the spinning of its cocoon. With rapid movements of its head, the liquid silk spins from a gland on the lower lip of the caterpillar, which hardens on contact with the air forming a thin triangular ribbon. Spinning thousands of tiny figure-eight shaped loops of silk, the silkworm will spend four or five days at this task without stopping.

The cocoons are gathered and placed in a boiling cauldron. The pupa is removed and three or four fibres are gathered together and attached to an overhead roller. Northeasterners are particularly fond of this stage of the process, as the boiled pupa is savoured as a tasty delicacy; it tastes like corn and is very rich in protein. You see Thai’s love to eat everything.

The silk fibres are slowly unraveled from the cocoons, wound onto wooden spindles, and then spun into thread or yarn. The silk fibre of Thailand's silkworms is a natural gold in colour, and one cocoon consists of a single fibre that is often as long as 500 metres .

At this stage, the silk yarn is washed and bleached until it is creamy white, and is then ready to be dyed any colour. Originally, only vegetable dyes were used, but the Thais love of vivid colours soon led to the use of synthetic dyes, which are colourfast and more permanent than vegetable dyes. After this, the threads are washed and stretched, and when dry are wound onto drums ready for the weavers.

Thai silk produced in this manner, differs considerably from that made in the other major silk producing countries. Chinese silk tends to be smooth and satiny, while Indian silk tends to be softer with richer colours and a more crinkly look. Italian silk has the refined and elegant look of high fashion, and Thai silk projects the natural blended textures and patterns that are so characteristically Southeast Asian.

The silkworms of Thailand are grown primarily on the Korat Plateau in the northeast region, although the majority of silk production takes place in the Chiangmai area. On the small hand looms at these factories, one skilled weaver can produce only about four metres of cloth in a single day.

Most of these silk weaving centers have their own factory showrooms with an incredible array of products for sale with a wide variety of colours, styles, patterns and textures to select from.

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