Silk is one of Thailand’s signature products and is widely regarded as being among the highest quality in the world. Thai silk is stronger and more durable for dying, producing a much wider variety of finished colours and patterns. These are woven into distinctive fabrics and become beautiful garments that have long been associated with Thai culture.
In Phuket, silk is widely available in markets as bolts of fabric, or from tailors who are very skilled at producing fine quality jackets, shirts, tunics and dresses at short notice. Either you can pick up pieces of cheaper priced silk from the vendors or arrange for a tailor to produce something according to a large selection of local or international designs they have patterns for.
Phuket has a large selection of silk shops and tailors, particularly in Patong. Invariably, there is also a tailor right outside each hotel, and they certainly are good value so don’t necessarily be put off by their insistent soliciting for business. Furthermore, wherever there are markets there will be vendors selling silk of both Thai design and plain thread.
Silk in Phuket comes from the north and northeast of Thailand where it has traditionally been woven by hand for centuries and is produced cheaply. Hand-woven silk has a distinctive feel to it and can be recognised by the tell-tale lumps that indicate the knotting between strands of thread. This is considered higher quality. The silk itself is harvested from silkworms that are kept in farms on the Khorat Plateau in Isaan, where they thrive best. Much of the weaving occurs in Chiang Mai.
You will also come across plenty of synthetic silk – so-called ‘Chinese silk’ – which is not real but has a similar sheen and is much lighter and cheaper. This, too, can be pleasant, but the garments are of poor quality and usually only wearable for one season.
How to Recognise Real Thai Silk
There are several methods for determining if a product is made from real silkworm silk, with the most obvious one being burning. Real silk burns like hair, giving off an acrid smell, while synthetic silk produces a hard, plastic-like residue which continues to burn on its own.
However, not everyone will let you take a lighter to a 2,000-baht silk tunic. Instead, try the sheen test. 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 imperfections – genuine silk has thread breaks and knots resulting in tiny bumps in the fabric, whereas Chinese silk comprises one continuous strand.
At the markets, classic Thai silk is sold, with its distinctive patterned weave. You will find the best quality silk in the shops and boutiques but it’s much more expensive. You do, however, get a guarantee that it’s a good grade. Silk is often woven in with wool, cashmere and other fabric types to produce a lovely soft feel. A 100 per cent silk scarf at a market should cost from about 500 baht.
Wholesale buyers should head to Chiang Mai where silk is much cheaper.