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Sangdao Thai Silk Fabrics & Yarn

There are many charming stories about the origin of silk. One popular myth has a tea-drinking Chinese Empress discovering silk when a cocoon unraveled during her morning cup. Entertaining as the story is, in reality there are many historical reports of non-Chinese tribes in the south and southwest of China weaving silk in the countryside before the nobles in the city had a chance to discover silk during their tea breaks.

One such tribe was the Tai, who migrated to the northeast Isan area of Thailand around 5,000 years ago. Tradition has it that the women of the Tai families have been have been weaving silk ever since. Archaeologists have found pieces of silk that are more than 4,000 years old at the Ban Chiang excavations not far from where I grew up.

What is certain is that the mulberry tree (Morus alba) grows very well in the Isan area of Thailand. Isaan does not have as much rainfall as the central rice farmlands of Thailand. Luckily mulberry trees do not require much water and as a consequence silk production has always been a very important source of dry season income in Isan.

The women of Isan - with some help from their husbands and children - cultivate the mulberry tree and feed the leaves to silk worms (Bombyx mori Linnaeus). Typically cuttings are taken from the mulberry and planted in the ground where they quickly grow into a small bush. These bushes produce lots of leaves.

After eating quite a bit of mulberry leaves the silkworm, (which is actually a caterpillar) spins a cocoon - the source of the silk. The cocoons are a golden yellow and make yarn with a bright sheen that gives Thai silk its unique appearance and texture. The women boil the cocoons and reel the yarn by hand. Hand-reeled silk is another important aspect of Thai silk's uniqueness.

Mudmee silk is made by tying and dyeing the silk yarn repeatedly so that the weaver ends up with silk yarn that looks like a multicolored bar code. The weft or horizontal yarn which has been tied and dyed creates the pattern. The pattern is the same on both sides of the silk.

The result is a fabric with a complex traditional pattern. In the past mudmee was worn primarily on festive occasions but nowadays mudmee is worn more frequently. Pupuun (two tone or shot silk) is made using two different colored silk yarns to produce an iridescent fabric. Both mudmee and pupuun are woven on the traditional Thai 12 foot long wooden loom, which is powered by hand.

Outside of Thailand various fibers are woven with techniques that are related to the weft mudmee weave of Thailand. Laotian and Cambodian weavers have silk that is closest to the mudmee woven in Isan. In Malaysia their variety of mudmee is called mengikat (commonly shortened to "ikat.") No weavers in Thailand or Laos use this term. Some people who are not very familiar with Thai silk mistakenly call Thai silk ikat. In the Isan language "mud" means tie and "mee" means silk, so mudmee translates as "to tie silk."

Sam Hober’s Sangdao mudmee and papuun silks are produced by our weavers in Isan. We also grow mulberry trees and raise the silk worms.

The women in my family have been making mudmee for thousands of years. It was a part of who I was when growing up. After David and I settled in Denver we noticed that mudmee is not readily available outside of Thailand. An occasional backpacker or curious weaver would visit Thailand and bring back some beautiful mudmee to sell at a craft show or local shop, but no one with in-depth knowledge was marketing mudmee on a consistent basis.

Our goal is to provide a convenient, reliable source of handwoven Thai silk. I handle most of the design work and crafting of our pocket squares and ties, while David does the importing and business side of things. Our website is something that we do together.

Our silk is generally an all purpose weight, of between 60 and 100 grams per 40 inch yard, which can be used for clothing, ties and pocket squares. Some of our mudmee silks use hand-reeled yarn that is a little thicker and rougher resulting in a fabric that is stronger but not as soft as our standard shot silk fabrics. Our rough silks and some of our mudmee silks are usually above 100 grams per 40 inch yard.

Thai silk is not usually woven into plys, although there are some exceptions. When you visit a silk shop in Thailand they will usually describe their silk as one, two or four ply. In Thai "sen" means yarn and "see" means four. So see sen actually translates to "four yarn."

Shopkeepers mistranslate this as four-ply. If you peel silk from the selvage you will see the yarns grouped together, but not plied. So when silk is woven with four yarns clumped together it is called in Thai "see sen" or "four yarn" in English.

All handwoven Thai silk has stubs and irregularities which are natural and part of the fabric's charm. We do not treat our silk with chemicals, but sometimes we steam treat it to make it more wrinkle resistant. When we do steam our silk we will note this in the silk's individual description.

Most of our solid colored silks are very shiny and we will let you know in the product description if the color has a matte look to it. Our mudmee silks usually are more subtle in their coloring, but they are also quite shiny. The way light reflects on Thai silk fabric is very special. Unfortunately we are unable to quite catch this effect in our photography.

Our silks are suitable for drapes, but we advise lining your drapes to prevent damage from the sun. If you want to commission a silk to be woven in an unusual color or weight we can often weave it for you, but special orders for mudmee can take several months from request to weaving as every project requires a lot of work to design the tying and dyeing of the fabric.

I love to hear from Thai silk lovers and will try to quickly answer all e-mails unless I am traveling, in which case time moves more slowly…

Noi Hober