The gorgeously iridescent, nubby Thai silk may have originated in northeastern Thailand, where cloth weaving is a traditional folk craft. Rearing their own silkworms and spinning and dyeing the yarn, northeast village women use primitive hand looms to produce shimmering bolts of cloth for sale in faraway markets.
Though it prospered in early Bangkok, the silk industry went into a long decline starting in the latter part of the 19th century when cheaper, factory-produced fabrics from China and Japan began to flood the market. An attempt to improve production was made during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, when Japanese experts were brought in and a Department of Sericulture was established, but the effort enjoyed limited success.
A few years after World War II, an American named Jim Thompson revived the industry and made the silk known to international markets.
There are number of silk companies today, many of them in or around Bangkok, but the Northeast is still the main centre of production; near the northeastern town of Pak Thong Chai, the company Jim Thompson founded has built the largest hand-weaving facility in the world. Besides plain and printed silks of various weights, a number of special weaves have become celebrated. One of these is called mudmee, a kind of ikat which is a specialty of the Northeast. Thanks to the encouragement of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, mudmee is now in wide use.
Another sought-after silk is richly brocaded with gold and silver thread in traditional Thai patterns. This requires the most time and skill to make and is therefore the most expensive, used mainly on such ceremonial occasions as weddings.
Thai silk is today the best known of all the country's handicrafts, found not only in countless local shops but also throughout the world. It is exported worldwide in plain lengths, plaids, brocades, stripes, prints, and checks and is supported by a massive manufacturing and sales infrastructure, a far cry from its bumble origins. Supple hand woven Thai cotton is also popular. Made in a variety of weights for both clothing and home furnishings, it is being exported in increasing quantities. Fine embroidery is one of the traditional crafts of the northern hill tribes, with the Hmong and Yao people being particularly skilled at creating splendid, boldly-colored geometric designs. In long strips, these are used to edge a skirt or jacket, in squares to enhance a vest or shoulder bag, in larger pieces to make a handsome quilt. Her Majesty Queen Sirikit has long been an admirer of tribal embroidery and has helped to promote the craft, particularly on homespun cloths such as cotton and local hemp that produces a fabric resembling linen, among fashionable ladies in Bangkok and in other countries as well.
Source: Assumtion University