rainfall so during the dry season growing mulberry is one thing the local farmers can do," explains Tidarat Tiyajarnorn, an
engaging local woman who works at a group called Silk Net. In her advisory role with Silk Net, Khun Tidarat acts as a link; she works with 30 villages in and around Chonnabot, each of which supplies small weavers or factories with silk yarn.
A day spent with Khun Tidarat only underscores the idea that silk is relevant to Thailand on many levels. For the farmers, dyers and weavers she works with, many of whom are female, the silk business is a way of life, a way of earning a living. Compared with raising animals or growing fruits or vegetables, silk is more economically viable. The often-costly process of transporting goods to market is eliminated partly with the help of organisations like Silk Net, but also because there's no pressing sell-by date, no urgency to get to market.
Around the country, silk is inextricably linked with religious and social life. Its cultivation is connected to the seasonal cycle of growing rice that sees women work in the fields during planting and harvesting, turning to silkworm rearing, spinning, weaving and dyeing during the rest of the year.
As we drive due south of Chonnabot, one thing is readily apparent. Khun Tidarat is quite passionate about Thai - silk, but she's even more passionate about people and the communities they live in, a fact that eventually betrays her background in social science.
Raising silkworms is a process that hasn't changed for centuries. The Thai silkworm can spin a filament that is up to 700 metres long, which sounds impressive until you realise that more than 500 cocoons are needed to weave a single necktie; 4,000 for a blouse. Three types of silk are obtained from reeling the filaments of the cocoon: mai ton or hua mai, large, coarse threads from the outside of the cocoon; mai klang or mai song, threads obtained from a cocoon once it is finished and then replaced by another cocoon; and mai not or yod mai, which is obtained from the innermost part of a cocoon and is very delicate. This last type of thread is the most expensive type of silk.
Yet the key to modern, top-quality Thai silk weaving today is using organic yarn, as is evident in the new system of four grades. Worldwide, the demand for silk is on a frame and is ready for reeling. Once this is done, bobbins are arranged in a particular order that will reproduce the pattern. In this part of Thailand, matmii patterns centre around flowers, plants and animals.
At the next level, this in a factory setting, is silk weaving for export. In Chonnabot itself, Silk Avenue is one such concern. Its 68 staff work in a clean, modern environment, many of the designers and weavers having been raised nearby in a silk-weaving household. While Silk Avenue's work is largely sent overseas, the company will soon feature in the national spotlight with a beautiful blue weave adorning furniture in Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Just down the road at the other end of town is a silk centre that highlights silk as a craft. The results on view here are often stunning, though sadly not always for sale.
Back in Khon Kaen is a small shop called Prae Pun (tel: [66-431 337-216), which is a return to the grassroots level of weaving. This is one instance where village women do venture to the city, running a store selling their work in cotton and silk. Unlike much of what's found in Bangkok or abroad, the weaving here is muted, coming in earthy colours largely centred around tan, brown and yellow. These are the shades of Isan, an often dry, dusty plain in the country's northeast where tradition continues to hold sway in the form of the beginnings of a bolt of Thai silk.