Shopping for Thai Silk in Bangkok

Thai silk fabric pattern
Genuine Thai silk is unmatched in depth and colour

Thai silk is perhaps the most famous of all Thailand’s products and enjoys a worldwide reputation for its quality and beauty. Obtainable in a huge range of colours, thicknesses, lengths and prices, Thai silk is sure to entice even the pickiest of shoppers.

The silk here in Bangkok is used for everything from haute couture dresses to curtains and tablecloths. As well as small tailors and shops specialising in all the various uses for silk, there are also huge retailers able to supply large quantities of silk at bargain prices.

When mentioning Thailand and silk, one simply has to refer to the legendary Jim Thompson. He played a vital role in re-establishing the silk trade, which was struggling. Born in 1906, James Harrison Wilson Thompson arrived in Asia with the US army in the 1940s. After the war, Jim Thompson stayed on in Bangkok and gradually came to call it home.

Jim Thompson was impressed by the quality and workmanship that went into Thailand’s silk and vowed to bring it back to the position that it so richly deserved. With his natural flair for design and marketing, he almost single-handedly revived the demand for Thai silk around the world.

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Today, Jim Thompson’s House is one of the biggest draws for visitors to Bangkok. Its amazing construction and beauty made it the ‘place to be seen’ during the 1950s and ‘60s. In addition to the house, the area also contains a large shop in which guests can purchase a huge range of silk; all of the highest quality.

Thai silk is considered among the best in the world due to the higher fibre ply, quality of weave and rich hues, which are a result of the coarser silk being able to withstand stronger dyeing. Although most fabric nowadays is woven on a mechanised loom, making the process far more efficient and, consequently, the end product cheaper, Thai silk is often still woven using traditional hand methods, producing an end product that has a very subtly superior feel. There is also quite a complex method of preparing the silk and dyeing it.

However, the sheen test is also revealing, where genuine silk is noted for its two-tone appearance as you move the garment in the light. This is because two different shades of silk are used in the warp and weft on the loom. A further method is to look for imperfection; real silk has thread breaks resulting in tiny bumps in the fabric, while Chinese silk consists of one long continuous strand.

The Shinawatra Company – the main rival of the Jim Thompson operation – has various outlets located around Bangkok and farther afield and offer fantastic quality Thai silk also. Design Thai is another up-and-coming company specialising in silk products, and there are also various other places around Bangkok where a discerning buyer can find silk products of the highest quality. Many tailors will happily make you a custom-made silk suit, shirt, dress or skirt. Some of these tailors enjoy a good reputation, others less so. It is always best to go on recommendations of friends or good hotels when considering visiting a tailor – notable tailors include Patrick’s Fashion Way, Alexandra Thai Silk Company, and Julie Thai Cotton and Silk.

How to recognise real Thai silk
There are several methods for determining if a product is made from real silkworm silk; the most telling method being burning. Real silk burns like hair, giving off an acrid smell, while synthetic, so called ‘Chinese’, silk produces a hard, plastic-like residue, which continues to burn on its own. However, not everyone will let you set fire to a 2,000 baht silk tunic.

Silk is widely available at market stalls and from street side vendors, but discerning buyers will probably prefer the quality and assurance from genuine retailers, despite the price hike. If you are travelling north to Chiang Mai then you’ll do well to save your silk shopping as the prices are much cheaper and the tailors just as good. However, most of the actual silk is farmed and produced on the Khorat plains in the Northeast.

Further reading…