Two different type of silk is produced in Thailand: standard Thail silk from the cocoons of Mullberry silkworms and Eri Thai silk from the cocoons of Eri silkworms that live on Ailanthus trees.
Research from 2013 estimates that over 70,00 small landholders were raising mullberry silkworms in Thailand that year, producing over 287 metric tonnes of silk cocoons. Also, over 2,550 enterprises were raising mullberry silkworms on an industrial scale.
Eri silk ís much more rare, as these silkworms are only raised by roughly 600 families scattered throughout northern, north-eastern and central Thailand.
The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
Visitors interested in learning more about Thai silk and other Thai textiles can visit The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok. Among other things, numerous dressed worn by Queen Sirikit of Thailand is on display, and the museum also contains a state-of-the-art textile conservation laboratory.
Thai silk grading
For Mulberry Thai silk, the Agriculture Ministry of Thailand use a peacock emblem. Only authenticated Mulberry Thai silk is allowed to carry this emblem.
The emblem comes in four different versions, corresponding to four different grades of silk.
- Golden peacockThis is for Premium Royal Thai Silk made from the cocoons of native Thai silkworm breeds. Traditional hand-made production is a requirement.
- Silver peacockThis is fro Classic Thai Silk made from the cocoons of certain specified silkworm breeds. Hand-made production is a requirement.
- Blue peacockThis is for pure Thail Silk. There are no requirements when it comes to production methods, and chemical dyes are allowed.
- Green peacockThis is for Thai Silk Blend, where the fabric is made by combining silk with other materials.There are no requirements when it comes to production methods, and chemical dyes are allowed.
The history of silk production started in China several thousand years ago. Eventually, the practice of cultivating silk worms and making silk fabric spread to Thailand, but it didn’t become a big industry there until the second half of the 20th century. The royal court did for instance traditionally wear imported Chinese silk and not silk produced domestically.
In the early 20th century an attempt was made to improve the Thai silk industry with the help of a Japanese expert, but this project failed, chiefly due to a lack of local interest.
After World War II, the former OSS officer Jim Thompson started a trading company selling silk produced in Thailand on the United States market. Thompson marketed the silk as a traditional Siamese fabric, even though the silk he brought to the United States was quite different from what had been previously made in Thailand.
Thompson’s silk became much more popular in North America than Thai-produced silk had ever been in Thailand, and throughout the 1950s local Thai interest in buying and wearing domestic silk remained low. Instead, it was the budging post-war tourist industry that created a growing domestic market for Thai silk in Thailand, as visitors from abroad purchased Thai silk to bring back home as a souvenir from their journey.
Interestingly, when the Broadway production “The King and I” premiered in 1951, all the costumes worn by the royal family was made using Thai silk, even though the play is set in the mid-1800s when Thai royalty wore imported Chinese silk. Nevertheless, the popularity of the play in North America served to boost interest in Thai silk as well.