In Thailand, trees are important. There are forests of teak and timber, bamboo and palms. There are fruit trees, sacred trees, flowering trees and… the White Mulberry. The White Mulberry isn’t native to Thailand. It was transplanted from nearby China. But, the White Mulberry now feels domestically essential to Thailand. It is the leaves of this tree that serve and sustain the small, yet valuable, insect responsible for Thailand’s rich silk tradition.
Leaves Turned to Silk
Spinning shiny, bright green leaves into silk threads seems like the stuff of fairy tales, but in a way that’s what happens in the process called “Sericulture” (the raising of silkworms for the production of silk). Mulberry leaves are the sole source of food for the Bombyx mori or silkworm moth. These tiny creatures are such picky eaters that without this source of food they would starve to death. Watching the process of turning leaves into silk is always fascinating for our travelers. The affordability of luxurious silk in SE Asia, combined with the direct connection to it at the source, makes it a popular item to take home as a memory and a souvenir.
Silk is the strongest natural fabric in the world. It is breathable, durable, soft, versatile, and extremely beautiful. It’s been around a long time too. Its origins are believed to be rooted in China as far back as 3000 BCE. Archeologists have found the earliest evidence of Thailand’s silk production in the Udon Thani province of northeastern Thailand (where the White Mulberry tree thrives) dating back to 1000-300 BCE.
It’s a pretty complicated process to make silk so one has to wonder how the Chinese figured it out. A legend says that it was chance. The Empress Si Ling-Chi was sitting under a mulberry tree sipping hot tea when a cocoon dropped into her cup. The liquid heat caused the cocoon to unravel and the silky strands were revealed. Understanding the process of silk-making may convince you that the legend is true.
Processing Cocoons into Wearable Art
Cultivating Silkworm (Bombyx mori) Cocoons – Producers of silk care for the domesticated silkworms from egg stage to the completion of the cocoon. Worms mostly feed on mulberry trees, which are hand-picked, chopped up and fed to silkworms. The worms weave their cocoons from two silk glands under their body. They produce a natural protein fiber over two days that creates a cocoon fiber a half-mile to a mile long!
Heating the cocoon – the cocoon is placed in either boiling water, or blasted with steam. This heat softens the glue-like binding agent (sericin) so that the filaments can be unwound.
Unraveling the cocoon – workers (or machines) will brush the cocoon to find the loose end. They then load it onto a reel that unravels the silk. They continuously add strands to make one long fiber.
Doing the Twist (Throwing): Next, they twist the fibers together to create a stronger fiber. It is the different twisting methods that create variation in the types of final products (crinkly, sheer, organza).
Rolling – The yarn is put through a roller to make it uniform.
Dying – The yarn is dyed with natural colors (fruit, vegetables, indigo etc.) or synthetic colors (acid or reactive) to make any number of colorful combinations.
Weaving – the yarn is woven into a fabric. The style of weaving heavily influences the end result. Visiting the weavers in person allows for visitors to understand how complicated the process is to make the intricate patterns available for purchase.
Finishing – This can be accomplished in many different ways, but usually chemicals are applied to give the fabric desirable features, like fire or wrinkle resistance. Though maybe not traditional, these applications are practical!
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
- Sericin, if left on the fibers, produces the product we know as raw silk.
- The thickness of silk filament yarn is measured in terms of denier. A high count is a thicker and stronger fabric. A lower count is softer and more sheer.
- Thailand is the fourth largest producer of silk behind China (1), India (2), Uzbekistan (3).
- Sericulture remained a secret the Chinese kept for nearly 4,000 years. To take a silkworm or cocoon out of the country as a crime punishable by death.
- A female silk moth can lay around 300-500 eggs on a mulberry tree. The larvae feed on mulberry leaves until they are ready to transform into a moth. This is when they create the silk cocoons.
- It takes 2500 cocoons to produce a single pound of raw silk.
- Thailand’s agricultural ministry uses a peacock emblem to authenticate Thai mulberry silk production, using different colors to indicate its grade: A gold peacock is premium Royal Thai silk (handmade from native Thai silkworm breeds). A silver peacock indicates Classic Thai Silk (handmade and specific silkworm breeds). A blue peacock is considered Thai Silk (pure silk thread, but no required production method). A green peacock is a Thai silk blend (the lowest quality).
** You can experience the Thai silk industry and its process up close on our Niteo Thailand tour.