Inspiration ∣ The Queen of Thai Silk: a project about so much more

Nora Chen & Neal Tantisukrit

Inspiration

We are standing on the shoulders of giants

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This article is dedicated to Queen Sirikit of Thailand for her tireless work and endless love for Thai citizen.

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More than four decades ago, Queen Sirikit of Thailand stunned the world in her silk gowns during her state visit to Europe and USA. Since then, Queen Sirikit has brought Thai silk to the International stage of fashion. But even more importantly, her support for the hand weaving industry has brought development for the impoverished areas of Thailand.

The production of silk in Thailand initially developed under influence from China and India. Traditional Thai silks are completely hand made. The yarn are dyed before being woven into patterned fabrics. As a result, every piece is unique.

Up to the 1960s, Thailand didn’t have its own national costumes that are widely recognized like Kimono for Japan or Saree for India. Therefore, during her preparation for state visits in the 1960s, Queen Sirikit brought Thai silk to Pierre Balmain and asked him to design gowns for her using these materials. This act opened new doors for traditional Thai silk. The Queen's elegant and stunning silk gowns pushed her to the top of the International Best Dressed List in 1965. Back home, interest in traditional textile was revived.

Following this visit, Queen Sirikit has thought of how traditional Thai costumes have been replaced by western clothing as Thai garments are too complicated to be worn on a daily basis. Upon a revival of the interest in Thai Silk, the Queen has then developed 8 contemporary costumes that became the most wore designs during formal occasions in Thailand. 

Some examples:

However, the queen’s interest in traditional fabric was motivated by a much greater cause. In 1955, King Bhumibol made a decision to change the attitude of the monarch towards its people into a close caring one. Starting from then, He and Queen Sirikit made many trips to the most rural and backward parts of Thailand. Listening to the struggles of the local villagers, Queen Sirikit saw particular potential in handicrafts as development and empowerment projects.

During their first visit to the northeastern region of Thailand in 1965, The Queen suggested to the Kao Tao village women that they learn to weave cotton cloth for sale as a source of supplementary income. The queen arranged training for them and soon weaving loincloths and tube-skirts developed into a reasonably well local business. Later, in November 1970, during the royal couple's visit to the flood afflicted areas in Nakhon Phanom, villagers wished to pay their reverence. The colorful handwoven tube-skirts that almost all women and girls wore caught the Queen’s eye. Almost every household in the region weave a colorful and patterened silk called mudmee silk. The Queen encouraged villagers to produce a quantity larger than what they needed for themselves and purchased all of them.

 Picture from Thaiways magazine

Picture from Thaiways magazine

The mudmee silk was not of great quality back then - the pieces were narrow and short while the colors would fade. The queen continued purchasing these but passed down her suggestions to the villagers. Overtime, the quality of the mudmee silk gradually improved. Now, it is a sought-after fabric amongst the general public.

This project to promoted mudmee silk extended to other villages in the area, and covered all kinds of native silk in different colours and patterns. Villagers who did not weave were encouraged to plant mulberries and raise silkworms.

Besides silk, the queen also worked on other handicrafts projects. For example, shoes and handbags produced from handwoven hemp fabrics. As the work of promoting handicraft occupations broadened its scope and scale, Palace officials, royal attendants and people having faith in the cause joined the Queen in donating money. With their support, the Queen was able to set up The Foundation for the Promotion of Special Handicraft Occupations (SUPPORT) in 1976. The foundation not only aims to increase the income for those living in poverty, but also to preserve traditional artifacts and to build craftsman's skill for high quality products.

The foundation was able to carry out many more projects for the promotion of supplementary occupations. From cotton weaving to silver ornaments. In September 2003, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej issued the Royal Decree for the establishment of the SUPPORT Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand (SACICT). Currently, there are more than 200 SUPPORT projects running in various rural villages all over the country and SACICT works to market these projects both domestically and internationally. Till this date, silk weaving still remains the the largest job promotion project that generated income for the largest number of people under this SUPPORT.

With Bangkok International Fashion Week 2017 having just ended, we can now say that more and more Thai designers are turning themselves towards the use of traditional Thai fabrics. Atelier Pichita celebrated the fabric craft skills of Southern Thailand. The brand successfully demolished the stereotype that Thai silk can only be sewed into boring middle-aged women’s wear as the brand has its clothes featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Vick’s weekend, a sister brand of Vickteerut, is also focusing on the skills of North and Northeastern fabric and craftsmanship of people who produced them.

Queen Sirikit and her work on bringing Thai fabric to the world and alleviate poverty in local community has benefited underprivileged population greatly. Her granddaughter, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, has continued her work of bringing Thai silks and traditional craftsmanship to the world. Her latest fashion show of her own clothing line, Sirivannavari, received praise and attention from both domestic and international press alike. Princess Sirivannavari’s work has demonstrated the beauty of traditional fabric in a modern casual-wear, reminding us the millennials to never forget about our arts, culture and heritage.

Sirivannavari 2017 collection:

Pictures from Sirivannavari

Sustainability can bring us in two directions: we can look at technological advances that brings us innovative textiles and we can look at the revitalization of traditions. Hand-made things have a sort of attraction that mass-produced items can never replace. Handicraft development is also a relatively low-cost empowerment project that many NGOs favor, providing people living in poverty another source of income and another set of skills.

Besides our current collaboration with 9porpeang - a bag factory that promotes the development of craftsmanship for the impoverished local community in Roi Ed (Northeastern Thailand), more accessories featuring handicrafts all around Asia is also underway. Stay tuned for our upcoming line: NAM by The Nera Project.

Nora Chen