Looming changes for warp and weft of silk

The leading maker of Thai silk would like to bring the industry into the 19th century.

Tops in quality and a legend for nearly 30 years, the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company decided this year to improve on the centuries-old design of Thailand's silk-weaving loom.

Oddly enough, despite over $250 million in sales last year and a 10 to 20 percent growth, the Bangkok firm still relies mainly on village-contract weavers. And amazingly, the weavers ply the weft and warp of the delicate silk threads into cloth priced at $25 to $30 a yard -- all on a crude wooden loom worth less than $100.

''We heard of loom improvements made in the 18th century,'' says Thai Silk managing director William Booth. ''If we can, we thought we would move into the 19th century.''

''Lots of knowledge about the old looms has been lost,'' says Mr. Booth in his Bangkok office with walls lined in silk. ''With more production, we want the weavers to make more money and to make fewer mistakes.''

Thai silk, made from native orange and gold cocoons, has a rougher feel than the smooth silk of Japan and China. It was made famous by a now-legendary American, Jim Thompson, who mysteriously disappeared in 1967. ''In its inferiority there is a beauty to Thai silk,'' Mr. Booth says.

The Thompson store in Bangkok is a regular stop for tourists. Upcountry, thousands of Thais nurture the silk worms on backyard mulberry bushes, for an average $40 a year.

''Jim never really wanted the business to go beyond a cottage industry,'' notes Mr. Booth. But the demand took off, encouraged by Mr. Thompson himself, who provided the silk fabric for the original Broadway production of ''The King and I.''

Besides a new loom design, Jim Thompson Thai Silk also is trying factory weaving. About 100 home weavers were brought into a plant last year in hopes of ensuring regular production and standard quality. The firm expects production to increase 20 to 40 percent. ''Our greatest competitor is ourselves -- our weavers and our looms,'' says Mr. Booth.

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