Whilst in Bangkok we visited the former home of Jim Thompson, an American who was a practicing architect prior to World War II. He volunteered for service and was later sent to Asia where he fell head over heels in love with Thailand. He later moved here permanently and his neighbours introduced him to their profession; the long neglected rural art of hand silk weaving. Something that caught his imagination instantly.
He took examples of raw Thai silk back to the US for a meeting with American Vogue, they loved it which resulted in him contributing hugely to the Thai silk industry world wide.
He also became renowned for his house which is a combination of six teak buildings, some of the best in traditional Thai architecture. The buildings were easily dismantled and brought in from previous sites and rebuilt. Some were brought from as far away as Ayudhya – the old capital city and the majority are at least two centuries old.
It is believed that when building on Thai land you should be aware of disturbing spirits already inhabiting the land so Jim built this mini house which he filled with incense, flowers and food offerings to keep the spirits at bay. Within the houses, all doors between rooms had large steps built in, this stems from the belief that spirits can only travel in straight lines.
He described his garden as a jungle to relatives, filled with exotic plants and small pools of water.
Another ritual followed in Thailand, as well as in many other Asian countries is to visit an Astrologer before, during or after a significant event in your life such as building a house, getting married or having a baby. Jim decided to follow this tradition and his astrologer deemed the year of 1959 auspicious so this is the year he moved into his new home.
The astrologer also warned him to be cautious in 1967. This was the year Jim went missing aged 61 in the Cameron highlands, Malaysia. He hasn’t been seen since.
Production of silk itself is fascinating. It all starts with a moth laying hundreds of eggs. These hatch after 10 days into what is called larva. All that larva do is eat mulberry leaves and sleep, which helps them gain strength and evolve into silk worms. When the silkworm larvae are fully grown (which takes 20-25 days) they have increased 9000 times in weight and shed four layers of skin. At this point they are ready to pupate so they stop feeding, look for a suitable location and start to spin a hammock of silk in which to form the cocoon (this takes around 3 days). This cocoon consists of one continuous line of silk (approximately 1 mile long) and if for any reason the thread snaps, they start all over again.
When the cocoon is fully formed the silk worm has evolved into a moth and so the cycle starts again – this is where humans get involved. Cocoons are added to boiling water, softening the natural gum that holds the silk strand together. Then the cocoons are delicately unraveled using this machine and twisted together to make one thread of raw silk. A thread can be made up of between 3-10 strands of silk. This is called the reeling process.
Cocoons can vary from white to yellow to grey. Yellow is Thai native silk. It’s rich colour and irregular knobs makes it unique amongst other silk.
White cocoons are generally Japanese, Chinese or Indian.
‘Through the thread of time’ by Jane Puranananda is a good book if you are interested in textiles – raw silk in particular. http://www.amazon.com/Through-Thread-Time-Jane-Puranananda/dp/9748225763
If you want anymore information about Jim Thompson or the silk industry check out