Thai Silk, a hand-woven fabric, is noted for its exceptional luster, texture and its striking complement of contrasting colors - such as emerald green and magenta, or deep blue and shocking pink - coexisting in perfect harmony.
Here we tell you the story of how thai silk got introduced to the world, by whom, and why. Text and most images credit Jim Thompson House.
Jim Thompson is the man who has been credited with giving thai silk to the world. But who was he? And why did he decide to embark on his silk journey?
Jim Thompson or James Harrison Wilson Thompson as his full name was, was born in Delaware in the United States in 1906. He attended public schools and then Princeton University from 1924 to 1928. Although Thompson had a keen interest in art, he chose to become an architect, and was a practicing architect in New York City until 1940.
With the escalation of the war in Europe in the early 1940s, Thompson volunteered for service in the United States Army, and during the Second World War, Thompson was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a move which offered him an opportunity to see more of the world.
Thompson as a member of an OSS group was assigned to work with French forces in North Africa, but his assignments also took him into Italy, France and Asia. Thompson undertook rigorous training in jungle survival but en route to Bangkok, the war ended abruptly. A few weeks later, he assumed the duties of OSS station chief. In late 1946, he received orders to return to the States to receive his military discharge.
Thompson was confident that with peace restored and the expansion of air travel, there would be a significant increase in leisure travel to the Far East. Upon their arrival in the Thai capital, these travelers would need acceptable accommodation. Few hotels in Bangkok back then could even be considered to be of international standard. Only one had an ideal location - the old Oriental, a former palace overlooking the Chao Phraya River that flowed through the capital.
It was a meeting place for travelers and a social center for the foreign community. Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham were just a few of its famous patrons. Excited by the prospects presented, Thompson became actively involved in the reorganization of the Oriental Hotel.
By this time, Thompson had developed a certain fondness for the country and its people. He began to seriously contemplate settling down and going into business in Thailand. He foresaw a promising future for the country and wanted to be a part of this process. He decided that upon leaving the military service, he would return and take up residence in Thailand permanently.
With his artistic inclination, Thompson instantly found the remarkable beauty and extraordinary qualities of Thai silk both fascinating and alluring. Traditionally the production of raw silk provided a supplemental source of income for many families in the northeast, most of whom were farmers. The raw silk was sent to Bangkok to supply weavers in the capital but by 1946, the hand weaving of Thai silk had become an ailing cottage industry. The use of silk was reserved for special or ceremonial occasions and so the demand for silk was small to start with.
Traditional silk weaving process is a slow and laborious process with the silk being used to make the traditional Thai style of dress. Despite its rich color, silk faded quickly with repeated washing as natural vegetable dyes were used. The advent of industrialization in the early twentieth century, and ever rising demand for cheaper machine-made textiles from factories in Europe and Japan dealt a devastating blow to traditional silk weaving.
Families continued to weave silk but it was predominantly for their own use and little attention was paid to its quality. Even fewer families engaged in silk weaving, and its further decline seemed inevitable and irreversible. Despite this:
Thompson was confident that the brilliance, and distinctive qualities of Thai silk would draw significant interest overseas
To assess this potential, he had several lengths of silk in a range of colors woven to his specifications and in 1947 he set off for New York to see if he could successfully market the silk and source sophisticated buyers.
The Vogue Opinion Counts
Frank Crowninshield, former editor of Vanity Fair, was an acquaintance during Thompson's years in New York and was his only connection to the fashion world. Crowninshield arranged a visit to Edna Woolman Chase, then the editor of Vogue and the authority on what was, and was not acceptable in the world of American high fashion.
Deeply impressed by the shimmering silk draped across her desk, Chase described the fabric as a 'magnificent new discovery'. As far as Vogue opinion was concerned, Thai silk had made its debut. Soon after, Valentina, a dress designer, was photographed for Vogue in a Thai silk dress. Thompson was credited in the caption.
The results were encouraging and Thompson returned to Bangkok feeling upbeat about the foreign market potential for Thai silk.
In early 1948, Thompson established a shop as a silk distributor. It was not a 'real' company as such but operated through an independent retail outlet, La One, which sold a range of souvenirs in addition to silk.
The following account clearly reflects the passion and the commitment he had for his craft. Paulette Goddard, the actress, was one of the guests at a dinner party that Thompson attended in Paris. This account has been recorded:
Ms. Goddard expressed great admiration for the Thai silk suit Thompson was wearing and expressed her wish to get one like it for a gentleman friend. Without hesitation, Thompson made her a gift of the suit and returned to his hotel wearing a raincoat belonging to his host.
The start of the Thai Silk Company
Thompson insisted on conserving many traditional elements of cottage industry silk weaving but also introduced several innovations that significantly raised the standard of silk production. This resulted in a substantial improvement in the quality of the silk woven as well as in the volume that could be produced.
In late 1948, Thompson established the Thai Silk Company Limited. It was important to him that the controlling interest in the company was held by Thai nationals. When the company was incorporated, out of the shares sold, 51% were owned by Thai citizens and the remaining 49% owned by foreigners. By 1967, the company's turnover was approximately $ 1.5 million.
In 1949, Charles Baskerville, a friend of Thompson's brother and a famous painter from New York was among Thompson's guests when visiting in Bangkok. Baskerville had a wide circle of prominent friends and clients many of whom were international celebrities including Diana Vreeland, a fashion editor. When he left Thailand, Baskerville carried a large supply of silk.
Thai Silk Hits Broadway
Thai silk soon made its way to the theatrical world. Its first appearance on Broadway was in Mike Todd's "Peepshow". Todd had learnt that His Majesty the King of Thailand was an accomplished jazz composer and saxophonist and in Todd's show one of His Majesty's jazz compositions was featured. Costumes made in blue-and-green plaid Thai silk were chosen to complement the theme.
The costume designer Irene Sharaff was also instrumental to the success of silk internationally. She used the fabric for Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical comedy, "The King and I", a dramatic interpretation of Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, who in turn drew inspiration from the original Victorian memoir of Anna Leonowens entitled The English Governess at the Court of Siam recounting her experience teaching the future King Chulalongkorn as a child.
Jim Thompson House
Thai silk was being introduced to an ever-increasing number of people. The widespread publicity generated by the discovery of silk fuelled a flood of orders and by the early 1950s, Thompson had opened a small shop of his own on Surawongse Road.
Thompson officially moved into the Jim Thompson Thai house on April 3, 1959. This historic move was in many ways symbolic of his success and it heralded the most active and most successful period of his life in Thailand.
By this time, Thai silk had won international acclaim:
- In the motion picture epic, Ben Hur, the producers used Thai silk for all the principal costumes.
- In the movie, Kind Sir, paintings elegantly mounted in silk had such an air of elegance about them, it immediately caught the attention of movie-goers.
- In London, Savoy Hotel suites sported a silky finish.
- Silk was also used to refurbish the Canaletto Room in Windsor Castle.
- Heiress Barbara Hutton used silk throughout her residence in Mexico, and in all her other homes.
- Reynolds Metal Company in America decorated its executive offices in silk interwoven with aluminium thread.
- The Hong Kong Hilton used Thai silk in its ballroom and its suites.
In the early 1960s, while on a state visit to the United States, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit dazzled America with her exquisite fashion collection in Thai silk designed by Pierre Balmain, and which featured several of Thompson's silks.
Thompson also produced a number of fine gold brocades in Thai silk for exclusive use of Her Majesty the Queen.
Since then, Her Majesty has played an instrumental role in the revival of silk. To the left, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in one of the pieces from the exclusive Pierre Balmain "Haute Couture" Collection in Thai Silk.
To generate international demand for Thai Silk, Thompson mobilized the interest and support of his friends and contacts in the United States and in Europe. The Thai Silk Company developed a network of representatives in 35 countries worldwide.
By the late 1960's, Thompson's small shop on Surawongse Road could no longer cope with the rate of growth. In early 1967, Thompson built a new shop, a physical embodiment of the significant progress made by the Thai silk industry in the space of 21 years.
Throughout his endeavor, Thompson stood by one guiding principle:
Whatever Thompson was to accomplish in Thailand must benefit the people of Thailand
In Thompson's view, the real measure of the success of the Thai silk industry was not in the profits generated by the Thai Silk Company he established, but rather by the number of rival companies established. In 1967, there were over one hundred companies competing for a share of the Thai silk business. Today, the Thai silk industry provides employment for approximately 20,000 weaving families.
In 1962, in recognition of his contribution to Thailand, the Royal Thai government awarded Thompson The Order of the White Elephant.
In 1967, Jim Thompson went on holiday with friends to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. There he set out for a walk in the surrounding jungle but never returned. He disappeared without a trace, and thus began the Jim Thompson legend...
Since his disappearance in 1967, little has changed in the home of Thompson, that was the 'talk of the town' and the 'city's most celebrated social center'. Even today, the charming Thai style house continues to be a key stop for visitors to Bangkok.
Text and most images credit Jim Thompson House, read more here www.jimthompsonhouse.com
Getting to the Jim Thompson House : Located in the center of Bangkok, opposite the National Stadium on Rama I Rd, it is conveniently reached by car, taxi, Tuk tuk, or the BTS Sky Train (Bangkok Transit System).
Opening Hours : 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. everyday with the last Guided Tour at 6:00 p.m.*
Admission : Adult 150 baht; Students (under 22 years old) 100 baht
* Compulsory guided tours around the house.
Jim Thompson House
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, Bangkok
Tel: (662) 216-7368 Fax: (662) 612-3744