Asia Section

Thai Silk

Time:2018-03-13 Source:International Silk Union Secre

Buntoon Wongseelashote

Vice President, the Thai Silk Association


Silk Industry in Thailand had a long history. It started off in 1902 when the actual development under the patronage of the King Chulalongkorn (King Rama 5th) was undertaken towards the sericulture, cocoon growing, fabrics weaving, garment making, and so forth. At that time a  Dr. Kametaro Toyama, an associate professor of Tokyo University, was hired to give advice as to how cocoons may be raised to get silk yarns of the best quality. From then on, there has been an establishment of a research center for silk which results in the creation of Thai silk expert groups in the country until today, focusing on the development of good sericulture in particular.

On September 30, 1903 King Chulalongkorn established the Thai Silk Technical Bureau as a part of the Ministry of Agriculture. His Majesty also assigned the Prince of the First Class Pichai Mahindarodom(a Royal Prince Penpatthanaphong) as a Director of this bureau. Furthermore, a school called “a Silk Technical School” was also established to educate Thai people about silk, the school was set up as a replacement for the center set up by the Japanese professor who retired after one year. The assistance from the Japanese on silk was not available until 1969. Thailand received a technical support again from the Japanese government during 1969 and 1988 under the Colombo Plan. Under the Plan, 6 Thai silk experts were sent to Japan to conduct a research on the cocoon production, pesticide usage and right methods of yearn pulling under the Japanese supervision.  Through such assistance, Thailand has ultimately succeeded in producing warp yarns, i.e. 3A quality, as a substitution for those imported yarns.

In July 21, 1976 Queen Sirikit decided to establish the Foundation For the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques in order to help generate additional income for those poor in the remote areas. Thai silk is not only part of the job creation this foundation aims to perform, but the Foundation also promote Thai custom and tradition through other Thai traditional handicrafts. This foundation is located throughout the country, representing the generosity of Her Majesty the Queen having been extended to all poor Thais, who can then make extra income in addition to their income from rice farming, etc.

Thai silk is produced from the cocoons of Thai indigenous silkworms. Thailand's silkworm farmers cultivate both types of the indigenous silkworms that give irregular uneven silk yarns, good for weaving unique commercial silk fabrics, and the Bombyx Mori, 3A quality, smooth and even, used mainly as warp yarns, glossy mulberry silk yarns.


Figure 1. unique uneven silk yarns reeled from indigenous silk cocoons


Figure 2. Different types of silk cocoons as outcomes from the research in the laboratory


Figure 3 Chinese and Japanese white cocoons for reeling warp yarns


Figure 4 silk reeling by hand, as practiced over hundreds of years and still being practiced.


After silk originated in ancient China where the practice of weaving silk began around 2,640 BCE, Chinese merchants spread the use of silk throughout Asia through trade. Some accounts indicate that archaeologists found the first fibers of silk in Thailand to be over 3,000 years old in the ruins of Baan Chiang. The site is considered by many to be Southeast Asia's oldest civilization.

After World War II, an American CIA officer named Jim Thompson decided that silk would be popular back home in the United States, and through his connections in New York began marketing the product as a traditional Siamese fabric. In fact, the material he created had little relationship to what had previously been produced in the country. But through clever branding and by developing a range of "Thai" patterns, he managed to establish Thai silk as a recognizable brand.

Writing in the Bangkok Post in 1949, Alexander MacDonald noted that, "...out of a number of scattered remains of history, from cultures borrowed from Siam's neighbors, and from colonies of fat and lazy Siamese silk worms, Jim Thompson is trying to build a modest business. "Throughout the 1950s Thais remained little interested in Thai silk, considering it generally suitable only for fancy dress. Rather, it was American tourists who sustained the local development of a silk industry in Thailand. In 1951, ‘The King and I’, and classical musical play, opened on Broadway, featuring a depiction of the Thai high class costumes in the mid-19th century in which the costumes were all made using Thai silk. Created by Irene Sharaff, the production served to promote the material to the American audience, and fueled interest in the country.

Throughout the 1950s, silk shops opened up across Bangkok. But these sold almost entirely to the tourist trade. Tourists buy large amount of the fabrics and then take them home where they would get it made into an item of clothing. Locally, Thais showed little interest in the product as it remained expensive, and unsuitable to the hot climate.


Figure 5.  Thai Queen Sirikit is the patronage of Thai silk


The Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture estimates that in 2016, 73,690 small landholders raised mulberry silkworms on 39,570 rai, producing 287,771 kg of silk cocoons. Another 2,552 farmers grew mulberry silkworms on an industrial scale, producing 145,072 kg of silk on 15,520 rai of land. Indigenous type silk production, on the other hand, amounts to only a fraction of these quantities, grown by a small network of 600 families scattered throughout 28 provinces in north, northeast, and central Thailand.   The Queen of Thailand support the Thai silk industry in such a way that her priority objective is that farmers spend their spare time during  being free from rice farming activities have some extra incomes from selling silk yarns and weaving silk fabrics.  In order to promote these activities, efforts were also made to the teaching of degumming, dyeing, and weaving of Thai silk fabrics.  Marketing on the other hand is concentrated in the local market.

In Her Majesty’s view, there is no desire to promote silk as the goods that may generate income through export.  The industry was meant to serve local demand, for use in special events.  In 2016, US$14.6 million worth of silk was exported from Thailand. The predominant markets are the US and the UK. Silk fabric accounts for about half of the silk exported from Thailand (the rest being raw silk, yarn, cocoons, and silk waste).  However, Thailand remains only a small contributor to the global trade in silk, Thai silk exports account for just 0.1 percent of global production, with most Thai silk used locally.

However, silk fabrics and garments as consumed by tourists have been recorded in 2016 as well over 50 million US dollars.



Figure 6. Hand-weaving is still practiced in Thailand, and is generally how the Thai silk fabrics are woven


Figure 7. Jacquard weaving on handlooms


Thai silk has traditionally been reserved for special occasions due to its high cost so its local consumption is relatively low. One can see more contributions to Thai silk in the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok. Its founding in 2003 was to create public awareness of Thai identity and culture, and the beauty of Thai traditional textiles, through research, exhibition, and interpretation


Figure 7. Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles


Thai silk has never been a product of economic significance.  As shown below, it does not matter as an economic contributor, it is more treated as a traditional heritage, and it remains as such even today.