Silk has become inextricably linked to Thailand in ways that make silk weaving seem like a practice that has flourished and persisted uninterrupted for hundreds of years, with knowledge passed down from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter, or ครู (teacher) to ลูกศิษย์ (student). In fact, the history of textile production in Thailand is filled with holes whose frayed, jagged edges challenge these narratives of continuity preferred in marketing schemes. Accounts of weaving histories from the past century vary regionally and even from village to village, but in Surin, specific moments and trends can be identified that have impacted silk making activities. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, household-based silk making was in decline for a multitude of reasons across Northeast Thailand. Rapid growth in the worldwide production of cheap cotton prints, combined with the reluctance of many Theravada Buddhists to take lives by killing silkworms, resulted in drops in production and price. In addition, Surin locals emphasize that the World War II era was filled with shortages and hardship; one older woman from Baan Tampoung recalls that the only clothes her family possessed during the war were garments woven from blackened plant fibers that also served as camouflage for air raids. While some women did continue to weave silk for ritual and ceremonial purposes, younger generations were not learning, and the gradual disappearance of the tradition seemed inevitable.
In the late 1940s, Jim Thompson, a former US intelligence officer, settled in Thailand and, dazzled by the beauty of Thai silks, set out to revive the Thai silk industry. Bypassing local markets, he brought samples of silk from Nakhon Ratchasima Province to New York City to present them to Broadway costume designers and to the editor of Vogue magazine. As overseas demand for his silks grew, Thompson standardized various parts of the silk making and weaving processes in order to improve technical quality and consistency. His modifications included the introduction of high quality, color-fast Swiss dyes to replace traditional natural dyes. Although Thompson created jobs and income for many Thai weavers and stimulated a new configuration of the weaving industry, the fabrics these weavers produced were never intended to be circulated as local commodities or to be viewed as cloths with local meanings and functions. Even today, silks bearing the Jim Thompson brand are regarded as luxury items accessible only to elite Thais and wealthy tourists.
Beginning in the 1970s, Queen Sirikit sought to increase the momentum of the “silk revival” with a project of her own. Perhaps her interest was sparked due to the attention her silk couture collection, featuring several of Jim Thompson’s silks, received on state visits abroad in the 1960s. Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara, Queen Sirikit’s deputy private secretary, remembers additional factors that influenced the Queen’s decision: “Before 1972 - the year Her Majesty sent Thanpuying Suprapada and myself to visit villages in the northeast - young rural people no longer wove fabrics. They all started to wear jeans and T-shirts. Before that, you didn't even have a silk shop. When you wanted to buy silk, you went to the rice shop since it was where weavers offered fabrics in exchange for rice.” Her Majesty’s goal of heritage safeguarding was intertwined with her desire to raise the standard of living in rural areas where weaving traditions already existed. Therefore, the Queen and her team encouraged locals to switch from their previous practice of weaving only a few pieces per household, for use on special occasions, to full-scale weaving as a supplementary occupation. To facilitate this process and provide weavers with markets for their silks, the SUPPORT Foundation was established in 1976. Today, weaving groups across Thailand sell mat mee, brocade, and plain silks, among others, directly to the SUPPORT Foundation, where the cloths are then turned into a variety of products.
This brief overview that highlights two figures who are credited for “reviving” silk making in Thailand during the past one hundred years raises many questions. The reforms, implemented by individuals who were and are members of the global elite, were launched with the aim of keeping silk making alive in Thailand, thereby safeguarding Thai cultural heritage and improving the lives of rural Thais. Nevertheless, the profile of the target market for the silk products closely resembles that of project initiators; items sold by the SUPPORT Foundation or the Jim Thompson House are generally consumed by wealthy Thais and foreigners in Bangkok only. Furthermore, the control that these “cottage industry” enterprises exert over color, pattern and technique, and their related emphasis on technical quality and standardization, serve to intensify the commodification of silk and erase the meanings, values, and diverse voices that are embedded in each piece of cloth. Whose heritage is being safeguarded? Where are the accounts and reactions of the weavers who have participated in these efforts? How are local silk functions, significances and patterns, such as those of Khmer communities in Surin, represented within and influenced by this hegemonic narrative?