World famous Thai silk is made from an ancient art form that received a breath of new life after World War II when an American man named Jim Thompson started exporting the product worldwide. Thai silk has been industrialised to the extent that a majority of the fabric is manufactured in bulk in huge textiles. All across the tourist areas of Thailand you’ll find Thai silk shopping products, ranging from well tailored garments to pillows and handbags, in boutiques and shops.
Despite modernisation, there’s still a demand for handmade silk in the old fashion, most of which comes from Isaan in the northeast of Thailand. Here you can still find smaller producers who practice the old hands-on method with silk, giving silk shopping fans in Thailand access to some the finest quality fabric in the world.
While it’s safe to say that most of the nation’s silk is produced in the northern provinces, where mulberry trees (the silkworm’s favourite food) are cultivated, you’ll still find a handful of Thai silk producers as far south as Bangkok with greater access to the flux of tourism shopping dollars. The silk is cultivated and refined in the Korat plateau area but much of the intricate dyeing and weaving takes place in the handicraft centres near Chiang Mai.
Surawong Road, home to Jim Thompson’s business, is the best location when shopping for Thai silk in Bangkok. The San Kamphaeng district of Chiang Mai is another silk shopping paradise with a variety of styles and colours. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s family even runs a silk business here. In Phuket you’ll find several boutiques in Patong and Kata as well as silk products in hotel gift shops. Similar options are found in Samui’s Chaweng district and duty free shops of international airports. Specific shops are listed in the shopping sections of individual 1stop sites.
Thai silk takes on brighter hues and colours than its counterparts in other parts of the world. This is due, in part, to its coarsely woven fibres and that are easier to dye than other types of smoother silk. This also results in a unique sheen that can only be found in Thai silk. When shopping you’ll discover there are also particular traditional patterns distinctive to Thailand. It’s worth knowing that there are different grades and textures of silk, ranging from soft satin-like grades, to coarser weaves (complete with little strand join ‘nodes’) more suitable for smart tunics.
One of the most entertaining times for shopping for Thai silk is near the year’s end in Khon Kaen, a city that hosts an annual silk fair. Crowds of tourists and Thais alike flock to the city to get in on the trading, and you’re likely to see more varieties of silk at one time here than anywhere else in the country.
Silk suppliers offer a staggering variety of bright colours, varied patterns and traditional silk tapestries, all of which is graded according to its quality. While shopping for silk in Thailand, watch out for imitation ‘Chinese’ silk, which is considerably cheaper but is notoriously inferior to true Thai silk. Synthetic silk looks good, but is no subtitute for the real McCoy. It’s lighter, less breathable but much cheaper. Ultimately it lacks the signature ‘two-tone’ of real silk.
Exporters frequent the busier, high volume dealers (like those found in Bangkok or Chiang Mai’s San Kamphaeng district) to purchase silk wholesale and export to their own country. Smaller boutique shops sell handmade garments made from silk, or you pick up some fabric yourself and get fitted by a local tailor in order to have your own garment made.
How to recognise real Thai silk
There are several methods for determining if a product is made from real silkworm silk and the most obvious method is burning. Real silk burns like hair, giving off an acrid smell, while synthetic silk produces a hard, plastic-like residue which continues to burn on its own. However, not many will let you take a lighter to a 2,000 baht silk tunic!
The sheen test is another common method, and genuine silk is noted for its two-tone appearance as you move the garment in the light. This is because two different shades of silk are used in the warp and weft on the loom. A further method is to look for imperfection; real silk has thread breaks resulting in tiny bumps in the fabric, while Chinese silk comprises of one long continuous strand.