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  • Writer's pictureKaren Selk

Asian Journal - Thailand, 1986

April 6, 2019 blog introduced The Asian Journal, writings we published in the Treenway newsletter starting in 1987. Our journeys began in 1986, a different time and different way of travel. We will continue with the first country I visited to find out more about silk and how my sisters and brothers in other countries worked with this wondrous fibre.

June 1988 – Treenway Silks - Mainly Silk News and Views

“Thailand is a Buddhist Southeast Asian country which has managed to preserve its monarchy system of ruling while all the other countries around it: Laos, China, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia have been warring internally as well as with their neighbours.

I started my research with my sister-in-law and interpretor, Jean, in the remote countryside in the northeast, not far from the city of Khon Kaen. The first village we visited was very renowned for the quality of its weaving as a very famous transvestite master weaver resided there. We knew we had arrived as we walked down the village streets and all the houses, which are built up on stilts, had a loom built into the framework below. Natural and dyed skeins of silk were hanging from poles in their courtyards and interesting spinning apparatus was scattered here and there among the chickens and children. My excitement peaked as we entered the home of Mr. Glum, the 35 year old master weaver. He and his sisters were very kind and informative as they showed us the beautiful, intricate weft ikat fabrics. They were unique and higher quality than the printed and striped Thai silk I had been familiar with. They brought out equipment and yarns and plastic to tie the pattern for the ikat fabrics. Ten to fifteen years ago, before the use of plastic, the ikat pattern was resisted with the inner bark of the banana tree.

The following day our bus/truck ride to the next village was shared with baby chicks, splashing fish, loom reeds, baskets of fruits and vegetables, bags of frogs, nails and lumber. Somehow, we squeezed a dozen people in between the goods. We drove on a narrow dirt road winding through rice fields, water buffalo, banana and mango trees and peaceful villages. When Jean and I stepped off the bus, it was gentle mayhem as it is a rare occurrence indeed when a farrong (foreigner) visits the village. They brought out all their equipment and cocoons to show us the yarn making process which was much different than anything I had ever read about. None of the cocoons were whole, there was a hole where the moth emerged. It is against their Buddhist beliefs to kill the pupae inside the cocoon. The small pointed golden cocoons simmer in a cast iron pot to soften the sericin (the protein that binds the silk filaments together). The women reeling grabbed bunches of filaments from the cocoons and feed them through a slit in a bamboo stick which they use to push the cocoons back into the pot, as the unwound the filaments, so the cocoons don’t all stick together as one. The yarn then travels around a little wheel and is piled into a basket as the reeler continues to pull the filaments from the cocoon. At this stage the yarn is full of lumps and is very wiry. One might guess they were handling orange sisal. Women then wind the yarn onto a swift, simmer the skein and re-wind it onto a smaller swift very carefully picking and smoothing the lumps and rough spots. Now the yarn is boiled and degummed (removing the sericin) ready to be fed through a charka (handspinning wheel) to give it some twist. Finally, the silk is ready for dyeing or tieing for ikat. This village wove beautiful ikat cloth as well as plaid. The women wear ikat sarongs while working in the rice fields and the men tie their plaids into short pants. They giggled in their shy manner, as I was unrelenting in my questions – why would a farrong be so interested in what they did.

The people in the last village we visited, have a very distinctive tradition of embroidery weaving (supplementary weft). The village, as well as the weaving, had an essence that was different from the other villages. We learned later these people had migrated from Laos during the Vietnam war. This village raised their cocoons in more controlled conditions. They have a cement block house with screens to keep out predatory insects. They fed them three times a day and cleaned their trays every day.

The looms were built under the house, same as the other villages, but they were very unique to accommodate the supplementary weave structure. There is a large set of long-eye heddles behind the plain weave heddles. When they warp the loom, they weave bamboo sticks in and out of these extra heddles to make the sheds for the pick-up (supplementary) designs. The bamboo sticks facilitate making the pick-up sheds more efficient. The multi-coloured design wefts are laid in by hand. These fabrics are stunningly refined using both subtle and bright colours.

We left the peaceful villages of the northeast and travelled to Chiang Mai in the northwest where we visited two cottage industry factories. Both factories were very small and intimate by factory standards. They both used simple, wooden fly-shuttle looms as well as hand looms. Both factories produced simple ikat, nothing like the villages, as well as plaids, stripes and plain yardage for printing. The largest factory had two farmers that raised some of their silk. They also raised some at the factory. These cocoons were larger and paler yellow. They were fed the leaves of the black mulberry just as in the northeast. However, they raised eight crops of warms a year and they do stifle the pupae inside to keep the cocoon whole and easier to reel. They do not raise enough cocoons in Thailand for their own use, so they supplement with cocoons from China and Japan. The smaller factory raised their silk very much like the villagers. They housed 36 looms, each producing approximately three metres of fabric per day. Both factories unravelled the cocoons and produced yarn in the same way as the villagers. It is unbelievable how much work is done in these factories. The women work six days a week and get paid about $2.50 per day.

I did not visit large production factories in Bangkok as my main interest was at a cottage industry and home level. I also knew I would see plenty of this in China.”

The next entry will be The Silk of Burma.


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