Hand woven Thai silk fabrics reflect the grace, precision and skill of their maker as well as reflecting his or her character, thoughts, emotions and spirit.
The silkworm (Bombyx mori) feeds on the leaves of mulberry trees to produce silk thread, which is reeled off as silk yarn for boiling and washing before being dyed with various hues.
Sericulture, or silkworm rearing, is an art and science. The process can be complex, requiring precise timing.
Mulberry trees that produce cocoons must be carefully nurtured, fertilized and cared for to ensure rapid growth and maximum silk output. When their trees reach maturity they are then fed mulberry leaves by the worms which feed upon them until their cocoons mature enough for spinning silk threads into cocoons around themselves and reeled together by hand into long strands that require hard work over a boiling pot to ensure that all threads remain unbroken.
Once silk threads are collected together they’re ready for dying. Traditional dyes made from plants or barks produce a range of earthy brown to deep jewel tones while commercial productions often use synthetic dyes instead.
Knowledge of how to rear silkworms and make silk was declining steadily until recently, with many fearing its extinction; but through her work as Queen of Thailand, the Queen managed to preserve this special skill and keep it alive and well.
Thai silk weaving has now become world-renowned thanks to the Queen and others’ efforts. Furthermore, it serves as a sustainable cottage industry that helps boost local economies.
Past Thai royal court and aristocrats would regularly import highly prized Chinese silk as it often varied greatly in quality.
Today, most woven silk produced in Thailand is produced in Isaan (Northeast Thailand), specifically in Sisaket, Khon Gaet, Mahasarakham and Khorat provinces. This region boasts the highest number of small silk weaving villages inhabited by farmers who rely on both rice farming and silk sericulture as sources of income; these farmers sell raw silk thread to village weavers who turn it into fabrics.
Extracting the Thread
Silkworms create sericin when it comes time to spin their cocoon. Spinning two semi-liquid proteins at 30cm (1 foot) per minute and turning over 200,000 times during its three day lifespan to form its cocoon, this thread is stronger than steel but as smooth as human hair. In turn, its cocoon protects its caterpillar from being cut by knives used to kill it while keeping its silk thread intact for processing later.
Once a caterpillar has made their cocoon it is taken from its habitat in a mulberry bush and placed into boiling water in order to separate its silk thread from that of its caterpillar host. This process is known as “stifling”. For optimal thread quality urine stains, mold growth, or other defects must not exist within its cocoons – those found with defects must be discarded as soon as they appear.
Boiling their bodies in hot water kills the caterpillar, as well as softening its gum sericin so its cocoon can be unwound as one long silk thread. Since a single filament from one cocoon would be too thin to use directly, 6-20 filaments from various cocoons are combined into a single human-hair sized thread of silk thread from these cocoons. Any leftover pupae contain high levels of protein that are used as fish food or even eaten directly by people living in some countries.
Once silk thread has been reeled it must be washed, bleached and dyed using natural (i.e. barks and leaves) or chemical dyes; after which, once dry it can be wound onto spools ready for weaving by either hand or machine.
Silk thread is too small and weak to create fabric on its own, so it must first be formed into bundles of yarn called skeins before being dyed in different hues before it can be woven into fabrics. Threads running up and down fabric are known as warp threads while those weaving across it are known as weft threads; during weaving these intertwine to form fabric.
Silkworms spin threads up to 1500 meters long inside their cocoons, then boil the cocoons to extract the silk, before washing, bleaching and dying it with natural or chemical dyes made of barks, roots and berries (traditionally). Weavers then wind these threads onto spools ready for weaving using hand operated looms.
Weaving silk fabric requires immense skill to produce high-quality cloth, which explains its popularity at Machada. Our silks have a luxurious sheen that feels incredible against your skin.
Modern looms may be used for our silk weaving process, but our method remains predominantly traditional. We believe in honoring and celebrating local wisdom as well as ancient weaving techniques, leading us to create pieces with unique characteristics for every piece we weave.
Our silk fabrics are woven using only certified silk threads produced locally. In Thailand, most of them are manufactured and woven in Isan region using an intricate technique called Ikat to make patterns with bundles of thread bound together with water-resistant strips in predetermined patterns and then dyed using natural or chemical dyes.
Sericulture and silk weaving were once major industries in Thailand, with the royal family importing highly prized Chinese silk. By the 1950s CE however, domestic silk production had declined so drastically as to threaten complete extinction; Isan, situated on the Khorat Plateau between Laos and Cambodia to the north and east can be credited with keeping alive an oral tradition of raising silkworms to produce provincial fabric with unique patterns and colors.
Historially, weaving was traditionally performed locally by women for personal and special occasion use such as silk dresses, ceremonial cloths and other garments. Weaving combined sericulture and weaving – an ancient craft performed only by hand – with grace, skill and precision to produce exquisite artworks like Thai silk. Each half kilogram of Thai silk takes almost 40 hours to create an individual work of art while machine loomed fabrics produce greater amounts but lack its distinctive beauty and character.
Silk thread’s arrival to Thailand remains unclear. Was it brought in by Chinese traders or did silk weaving already exist in what is now northern Thailand and local residents produced their own thread?
Initial steps in Thai silk production involve preparing raw silk. This involves extracting its cocoon, boiling the worm, unravelling it, spinning it into thread form and dyeing with natural or synthetic dyes – often an extremely time-consuming and laborious process where each thread needs to be stirred constantly in order to get uniform colors.
As single thread filaments are too fine to use effectively, weavers combine many threads together into one thicker yarn that can then be woven into various types of Thai silk fabric – dresses, blouses, or blankets can all benefit from using this material!
Thai silk comes in two distinct varieties, the “Mudmee” (tie-dye) and the “Taffetta”. The former is hand woven fabric from northeast Thailand (Isaan). Weavers use tie dyeing techniques on either warps, wefts or both; creating designs on fabric that reflect Isaan culture.
Taffetta silk, produced only annually in Thailand by machine reeled bivoltine machines, falls short of meeting demand; therefore it must be imported. To help expand production throughout Thailand and improve production by farmers and weavers alike, Queen Sirikit Institute of Sericulture established regional outreach offices nationwide in order to facilitate increased production; they have also assisted with creating hybrid silkworm varieties which produce more high quality cocoons than their earlier yellow cocoon counterparts.