We have had lots of requests to share a little of our silk making and natural dye techniques. So even though we want to keep our grandmothers’ secrets I will give you some general ideas of what is involved to successfully create high quality handmade silk and how we use natural dyes.
It’s important to understand that we only use the very highest quality raw silk and some of it comes from our own silk worms. Unfortunately, we do not have the time or capacity to farm all our raw silk requirments so we constantly need to purchase high quality silk – and this is a huge additional cost.
Already this year costs of raw silk in the quality we want, have sky-rocketed by more than 130%. The last purchase we made in June 2011, cost over $83/kilo and if you realise that 1 kilogram of raw silk will only create, for example, about 6 meters of 3 ply fabric, then you have some idea of the impact of these costs. But at Thai Silk Magic we have not increased our prices – well not yet anyway!
Our silk is mulberry silk and our region of Si Sa Ket in Thailand is the home of Thai silkworm industry. The farming of silk worms is called Sericulture and as an important part of Thai history and trade, the sericulture industry is fully supported by the Thai royal Family.
In fact, I was very proud recently to be invited to demonstrate some natural dye processes at a Silk Symposium held at the Queen Sirikit Sericulture Center in Si Sa Ket.
After extracting the threads from the silk cocoons the natural dyeing process begins. Some of the dye colour materials, like the “klarm” wild flowers we use for indigo, must be collected during the monsoon season, after heavy rains, just as the flowers are emerging and before the sun rises. The reason for these requirements is to ensure the flowers are fresh and still moist otherwise the dye colours will not bind properly with the silk threads.
In fact, the seasons as well as the weather and time of day, determine what is available to us at any time. As rainfall and temperatures vary from season to season and year to year, it is often impossible to match perfectly a previous seasons colour – but this just makes it all the more exclusive and special. Sometimes the men of our village help us to collect dye materials as well as mixing them and this can be a very long process (more on this later).
Materials used for our natural dyes apart from wild flowers are special types of mountain grasses (from near the Cambodian border about 30 kms away but these days that is a dangerous place to go with the current political tensions between Thailand and Cambodia); young tree saplings (like the “khea” tree we use for our gold colours or the Siamese Cassia or Jackfruit); tree barks and leaves, selected tree roots (from the Rosella and Siamese Wattle) and wild fruits (like Carambola, Rambutan and Pomegranates).
For colour-fastness we never use chemical mordants like most other silk suppliers. Instead we use a special combination of Lemon Grass, Carambola fruit, Tamarind bark, Eucalyptus bark and leaves and ants! Yes ants but the actual combinations and processes we use are a secret we want to keep and pass on to our next generation. The most important thing is that it really works and we have never had a problem with colour bleaching even after many, many washes.
The dye materials are usually boiled in pure rain water for various periods – up to 5 hours. Quite often this has to be repeated many times, depending on the materials being used and the colours being sought. The temperatures must be keep constant throughout the process. We use specially designed clay pots for our dyeing processes.
Once the dye colours are achieved we then place the silk threads into the mix for 30 minutes to an hour. Then the threads are removed, cleaned in pure cool rain water and hung up to dry in a shady location. Then they are placed back into the dye solution – this can be as many as 6 or 7 times. When the colour required is achieved the dyed threads are then placed into our natural mordants solution for 30 minutes and then rinsed 2 or 3 more times in rain water to double check the dye colours have fully attached to the silk threads.
The next step is to untangle the dried, naturally dyed silk and this takes a lot of care and time. Even though our thai silk has a tensile strength greater than steel for the same size filament, we must take special care in untangling so as we do not damage the threads in any way. A team of 4 people may take a full day to do this task.
Then the silk is stretched out over about 100 meters to straighten the threads before rolling it up on large spindles ready for spinning. We use PVC piping in the shape of hurldes, to stretch out the silk. However, we cannot do this step of the process if there is any wind at all otherwise the threads will become tangled again. Usually this is done very early in the morning (after sunrise but before breakfast).
The next step is to attach the selected threads (yarn) to the frame of the loom. These threads are called “warp” and run lengthwise under tension. Then the long process of attaching the weft threads to the loom – these are the threads that are woven through the warp threads to create the fabric. It will usually take our weavers 2 days to set up their loom ready for weaving but this can be longer, depending on the width, pattern and type of ply being used.
A master hand weaver will be able to create about 2 meters of silk fabric in a 10 hour day. We do not encourage our weavers to rush as we want to maintain high quality rather than high quantity. Of course, all these handmade processes take a lot more time and effort than the large factory produced silk.
However, we do not compete against mass-produced silk suppliers. Our customers love our unique creations. our logo says it all – “Woven By Hand, with love for YOU” We pride ourselves on the quality and exclusive nature of our fabric patterns and colours that more than likely, we will never be able to replicate.
This is an overview of our handmade Thai silk process and you can easily see it is very time consuming and labour intensive. It is also a “labour of love” as we really do love what we do and are we very proud to be able to carry on the traditions passed down to us by generations of skilled artisans.
What Do You Think?
Have you ever tried using natural dyes? What were your experiences? Did you enjoy it? What natural materials did you use and with what types of fabric?
If there is anything more you would like to know about our natural dye processes then please ask us. Just leave a comment below and I just might let a secret or two out! We enjoy your feedback and so will our readers so please leave a comment and we will definitely talk back with you.
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