TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Silk Road: A History of Mystery, Riches and War, A Future For Fair Trade

Syrian Brocade by Arabian Nights

Adventures on the Silk Road
If the story of cotton is sung out in tears and lament, the story of silk makes for epic movies of conquest and desire. As a fiber, silk's resilience, strength, luminosity and sheen made it a coveted material in long times past and continues to hold us like a magnet in today's fashion industry, even with our short attention span. I don't think I knew what a time consuming and fragile operation it was to work with the silk worms until I read one of Pearl S. Buck's novels. I can't remember which one it was, but the care of the mulberry bushes, which feed the worms, was carefully described. As my passion for textiles increased, stories of the Silk Road, also captivated my interest.

The route between China and Europe first started through the desire to conquer the unknown territories lying west of the Han dynasty:

"In 138 BCE, Zhang Qian (pronounced JANG-CHYEN) set out through the tall stone gates of Chang’an, the capital of Han dynasty China. He rode at the head of a caravan of 100 Han soldiers, riding into the dusty, unknown lands to the west. Zhang Qian was an officer of the Han imperial guard and he had volunteered for a critical mission. ... In the end, Zhang Qian’s adventures led to the start of a long march of merchants across great stretches of land and through wide spans of history. The trade links which resulted from his first trek and later expeditions opened regular trade between China, India, the Roman empire and all the areas in between." Monkey Tree

That route became traveled by rugged, determined merchants for centuries. The merchants carried many treasures, but of these, silk was the most prized, thus naming the route as "The Silk Road". One of my favorite books, Textiles of Central Asia by Janet Harvey devotes a section to the importance of silk to the trade:

"So great was the value of the knowledge of sericulture that legend has it China kept the secret for over two thousand years, until the day came when silkworm eggs were smuggled out of the country. We learn of a Chinese princess who was betrothed to the King of far-off Khotan. Apparently he was a king with knowledge and forethought, for the envoy sent to escort his bride was told to advise 'the Royal Princess of the East' that 'her new country possesses no silk or quilting, and has neither mulberry nor silkworm. These will be needed if she is to have clothes made'. The princess supposedly left China with eggs of Bombyx mori and seeds of the white mulberry hidden in her headdress. Once established in Khotan in Eastern Turkestan, and doubtless elsewhere beyond China, sericulture spread westwards along the trade routes to become a lucrative home-industry for town and village households throughout Central Asia." (page 57)

Turkman robe in ikat silk pictured on Turkotek

Turkotek is a wonderful online resource for anyone interested in Asian textiles. Members show each other photos and help determine origin, technique and history around the pieces. They are extremely knowledgeable and make for a fascinating read.

Mystery and Intrigue Around Silk
Even as silk made its way to other countries, it was often horded by the royalty and nobility. Commoners were relegated to cotton or cotton/silk blends. In time, it became established as a cottage industry throughout Asia. Although factories have standardized cultivation of the silk worm and mulberry trees, it continues as a mainstay industry in many of the areas where silk has been grown for centuries. This video shows a Bengladeshi group working with silk:

Jim Thompson
, an American who came from a family of textile producers, saw this kind of production in Thailand and became very interested in marketing Thai silk to interior designers and high end decor outlets. At that time, Thai silk had been dying out and his efforts revitalized the industry making Thailand one of the centers of the most beautiful silks found today. Jim Thompson founded the Thai Silk Company, still thriving today, built a beautiful compound and established a large collection of Asian art. There is a catch. Jim Thompson had also been a CIA agent during the war. Speculation leads some people to believe that his work with silk and his interest in art was actually a cover for his continued CIA work. His story ends as one of the biggest mysteries of the 20th Century:

William Warren writes about
Jim Thompson's mysterious disappearance.

The Unsolved Mystery: "On Easter Day, 1967, American businessman and founder of the modern Thai silk industry James H. W. Thompson disappeared while supposedly on a stroll in the jungle-clad Cameron Highlands in Central Malaysia. The circumstances were unusual, and led to a massive search and investigation. Neither Jim Thompson nor his remains has ever been found…

After he vanished, Jim Thompson became the subject of a second legend, a mystery that has never been solved. The facts were first recounted by William Warren in 1970 in his book The Legendary American. Today, many people in Thompson’s circle are no longer living. Now the author, who knew Thompson well, is able to write more freely. This revised edition contains new material on Thompson’s private life and his alleged role as a CIA agent, drawn from interviews with people close to the events. The result is this definitive account of a true-life mystery of international proportions." Description from The Jim Thompson House Museum Shop

Other books have been written about his disappearance, but nobody knows what really happened...

Francine Matthews is one of the speculators who embraces the CIA theory in her book The Secret Agent. She says, "Thompson is believed to have quit espionage entirely around 1948 in order to become a silk trader. But when I looked at the map of Thailand—and later visited Khorat myself—I guessed that he'd journeyed into the hinterland so often in those early Thai years in order to run agents for U.S. intelligence. By 1949, the communist Mao Zedong was triumphing to the north and the colonial wars of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were just heating up. Revolt was everywhere, and revolt was of concern to Washington. To shroud his covert activities from scrutiny in Bangkok, particularly after the authoritarian coup of 1947, Thompson needed a plausible cover job. One of the few things the dust of Khorat will grow is mulberry trees. Mulberry trees feed silk worms. And to Jim Thompson's delight, silk was a product he could promote the world over."

As she investigated the book, Francine Matthews tells one of Thompson's peers what she thought about his death, "I told her that I thought Thompson had never ceased working as a spy, and that when he journeyed to Malaysia on that final weekend of his life, he intended to meet someone—an agent, a contact, perhaps his killer—in the jungle of the Cameron Highlands. I said I believed that he possessed a vital piece of information the Thai government wanted suppressed: the identity of the regicide who had shot the young king of Thailand, Rama the Eighth, on June 9, 1946—paving the way for an authoritarian coup. I added that I thought Thompson had threatened to reveal the details of that old tragedy, and had been silenced as a result."

Thompson's story does not end with his disappearance. Six months after his death, his sister also meets with an untimely end. She is murdered during a burglary, which many think was an attempt to locate Thompson's will. After her death, the Thai government seized his art collection in Thailand, but his house was made into a museum, the second most visited tourist destination in Thailand.

Silk Sweatshops
Given the labor involved in silk production, how is it that we can today get a silk shirt at Walmart for under $20? Seems to me that a low price like this is a certain indication that its provenance is not a good, happy place under a mulberry bush. Instead, it most likely comes from a sweat shop, forced or child labor, located somewhere where real costs are not being counted in to the final price. Yes, China has had a terrible history concerning sweatshop and forced labor. But, the United States also continues to harbor horrible scenarios where workers are chained to their sewing machines, locked into rooms and not allowed access to the outside world, and forced to give their labor for nothing. Stories about these atrocities periodically make the news and most are within the garment industry using either Mexican or Chinese immigrants as virtual slaves.

The Historical Development of the Sweatshop is a great article showing how this problem has come down to us through centuries of abuse.

Silk and Fair Trade

Fair trade Cambodian silk scarf from The Rainforest Site

Google "fair trade silk" and you will come up with hundreds of links to silk products made by fair trade groups around the world. One of the most interesting efforts I had heard of several years ago was a group working in Colombia. They were trying to find an alternative to the cocaine industry that would bring in as much revenue for the small farmer. I couldn't find the original group I had known about, but I saw that other groups have continued the effort.

Silk production comes with internal problems concerning its harvest which bother vegetarians, vegans and animal rights activitists. TreeHugger ran an interesting article entitled : Is Silk Green? which looked at these issues to determine the value of silk within the green movement. If you look at it, make sure to read the comments as well. In order to harvest a coccoon with one long continuous thread, the moth inside must not be allowed to exit the coccoon, so it is killed by exposing the coccoon to a heat source. Some fair trade groups allow the coccoon to exit and thus need to spin the fibers, raising the cost of the thread. But, to many small groups in remote areas, silk production is a viable industry that allows families to make a living on their native land while maintaining family structures and cultural traditions. Certain breeds of moths also no longer survive in the wild as development encroaches on their terrain. Thus, in my opinion, cottage industries working with silk provide us all with both a wonderful material and a connection to an interesting past.

The lesson here is, if you buy silk, buy fair trade. And, watch your back. Don't go around giving away any local secrets to men in black...



  1. Good post! Several comments:

    Having worked for a menswear company in the early 90's designing those Chinese made silk shirts - not for WalMart, but for Macy's and Barneys, at high prices, before silk turned into a cheap commodity - I agree that we should stick to fair trade silk. Silk production is very labor intensive, so cheap silk products are indeed a sign of bad labor practices, in my experience.

    Love the Jim Thompson story - I now have to return to Bangkok. How did I miss seeing his house/museum?

    Finally, about 200 miles north of us is the city of Bursa, the last stop on the Silk Road. The Koza Han (literally "cocoon inn") there remains a marketplace for all sort of silks, and silk kilims and carpets are quite popular souvenirs too.

    Appreciating the large, messy mulberry tree outside my shop...

  2. I remembered seeing this post re: Jim Thompson on La Vie Est Belle's blog:

  3. I went over to La Vie Est Belle and Wow! Jim Thompson's house really is gorgeous! Anybody reading these comments should skirt over there and take a peek!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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