Thai Silk – it’s famous.
Though it was a bit different than what I thought of when I imagined silk. To me, silk is usually… silky. Smooth, cool, slinky. The Thai silk I came across wasn’t this traditional style of silk, or what most often comes to mind. I lived in the town of Chonnabot, Thailand, while over there teaching English. The Chonnabot district is known for its Mudmee silk. The area is where the majority of Thai silk is grown, dyed, and woven. The few tourists who make their way out that way are probably looking for silk. When I looked up Chonnabot on all the travel websites (like this one about Khon Kaen province: KhonKaen.com) and in the Lonely Planet and other guidebooks, it mentioned the silk, and that was it.
While I did not manage to pinpoint where this reported museum was actually located, one weekend while a friend was visiting from Korea, we did take an excursion to the outlying villages where families still hand wove silk on giant looms in the spaces below their homes. One of the Thai English teachers took us around the district to all the different villages that each focused on one part of the long, intricate process of making the silk. It takes many, many steps before they finish the product. Each family or person usually specialized in only one part. Some of our teachers could do one of the steps. One of the librarians actually made her own silk, the whole process.
We got to go to a hut where they kept the silk worms. Hundreds, thousands, of little white worms lived in large, round wicker baskets filled with special leaves – their favorite food. There were a dozen of these round baskets full of worms, and the locals took care of the silk worms every day. They made sure they always had enough leaves to eat, that they were sufficiently cool and undisturbed in their little shaded hut, and they collected the cocoons that formed the basis for the silk thread. After they gather these little cylinders, the villagers spin them into the silk thread.
Every step in the whole process generally belonged to a certain village. We stopped by a few silk shops in the country, and saw a few men and women working on the giant looms. We also got to go to one beautiful home stay, where they did the all natural dyeing of thread and mixing of colors. No one was working that weekend because the whole town was working on sprucing up the village for the big visit of one of the government officials. The owner of the dyeing “factory” let us take a look, however. In big clay urns and buckets dyes were simmering, fermenting, sitting, or whatever it was they were doing. Whatever it was, technically, it reeked. These all natural traditional colors, while using no chemicals, smelled something awful. It was hard to breathe being next to these vats, but it was really interesting. What we didn’t get to see and still intrigues me is how they dye the thread to make some of the really intricate patterns and pictures in the fabric.
Some of the teachers had beautiful Thai silk weavings hanging up in their homes. Our town had a whole bunch of little silk shops where you could buy Thai silk straight from the original district and have made into tailored suits and traditional dresses. The Thai silk was a bit heavier than the “regular” silk I was more familiar with. It came in all colors. Bright, vibrant colors, subtle earth tones, and intricate patterns. I intended to buy a few ties as gifts, but unfortunately, after 5 months in town, I left without actually buying any. Woops.