Uncertain future looms for ancient Thai silk

The last of Thailand's muslim handweavers produce fabric for jet-set fashion.

Deep in the steamy thicket of low-rise wooden houses of this city's Ban Khrua Muslim quarter, the din of teak hand looms thudding and clacking fills the air. Here in the canal-side workshop of Nipon Manuthas, three women surrounded by the kaleidoscope of vibrantly dyed silk spools pump the pedals of the looms with bare feet. The weavers manage to carry on an animated conversation over the racket as they pass spools back and forth across the looms.

It's a scene straight out of another century, but the lustrous swaths of fabric that Mr. Nipon's little workshop produces in this humble old neighborhood are in demand from bespoke tailors for a jet-setting clientele of European diplomats and dignitaries.

Though Mr. Nipon flicks through a slick European fashion magazine to explain where he gets the inspiration for the stacked rainbow of folded silk fabrics in a glass case behind him, he's clear that creative control rests right here in a family whose ancestors have been weaving silk as far back as anyone can remember. "We choose all the dye to get the right color, he says over the shop clatter, holding out a spool of bottle green thread as an example.

This was a typical household scene in this Muslim neighborhood of Nipon's 1950s boyhood. Silk weaving was the lifeblood of the community, located along the banks of a canal that provided fresh water for rinsing and dyeing silks. It was a successful cottage industry in Bangkok, a city that was starting to find its economic feet after a post-World War II lull.

Today, sullied by unchecked urban expansion that has ringed Ban Khrua with office blocks and shopping malls, the canal waters no longer run clear, and Thailand's silk trade has shifted toward factory-made fabrics. Most of Ban Khrua's old looms were sold off when demand dropped in the 1970s.

Nipon's is one of the last of the original Muslim weaving families. As the city has changed around him, he has stuck it out in a modest house behind his two small workshops, while most of his nine siblings have moved out of the old neighborhood. "I want to stay here in the community. Silk is my life," he says, a smile creasing his face.

Nipon inherited the business from his mother. In 1947, she was one of the weavers whose checkered sarongs caught the attention of James Thompson, the storied American spy-turned-entrepreneur. At the time, Ban Khrua was the only place in Bangkok where silk was still woven by hand.

"Jim saw the silk in the market and said, 'where does this come from?' I told him, and off he went," recalls William Warren, a friend of Mr. Thompson and his biographer. At the time, Thailand's silk industry was in decline due to changing tastes and competition from imported man-made textiles. Many silk weavers had given up the practice.

But in Ban Khrua, Thompson found a community where most families had a loom or two. The secret to Ban Khrua's enduring tradition was its unusual history. Its founders were Cham Muslims from Cambodia and Vietnam who fought for the Thai monarchy in the late 18th century. In return, they were given a plot of land east of the new capital, Bangkok, where they built a mosque and dug a canal to the river.

As Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, residents held fast to their traditions, including silk weaving. Thrilled at his discovery, Thompson set off for New York with some Ban Khrua samples. The revival of Thailand's silk trade had begun. But when Thompson disappeared mysteriously in 1967, while on vacationing in Malaysia, the thread between Ban Khrua and his company was broken. Over the next decade, new management switched production to other locations and eventually opened a factory in northeast Thailand that now produces 1.5 million meters of silk, much of it for home furnishings. The company is no longer the bridge between the humble homespun of Ban Khrua and the catwalks of Paris and New York.

* * *

As a child, Nipon watched Thompson on his daily trips to check on the dyeing and weaving of his silks. When the soft-spoken American bought land beside the canal in the 1950s, Nipon's family donated their teak house to him. Dismantled and floated across by boat, it was incorporated into Thompson's grand Thai-style house that today draws hundreds of tourists. Across a footbridge from the Thompson estate lies Ban Khrua: a jumble of two- and three-story houses under a blistering sun. Some have seen better days: Tin roofs are flaking rust, and walls are missing wooden slats. The walkways are so narrow that you can reach out and touch the houses on both sides.

Nipon left to study at a university in Germany. When he returned in 1976, the silk trade was in decline, and its survival was uncertain. Weavers blamed the crash on Thompson's company for cutting orders, saying that if the "big boss" were still around, it never would have happened. That's partly true, admits Surindr Supasavasdebhandu, a Thompson company director: "When he disappeared, the confidence was lost. Nobody else could build this kind of faith."

But many weavers were already looking for new buyers, or selling out and investing in land and other trades. Nipon bears no grudge against Thompson's company. He and other original weaving families are shareholders. Thompson believed in sharing profits with his workforce, and gave shares to his weavers. Last year, Nipon and his siblings shared around $30,000 in dividends (the average annual household income is $4,500, according to government data).

Having survived the slump, the next challenge came from the city government. In 1988, a construction firm was contracted to build a new highway with an exit road through Ban Khrua to a nearby luxury mall. Up to 5,000 households were to be cleared for the road. Infuriated, Nipon and others in the community used every trick in the book – public rallies, legal appeals, civil disobedience – to stop the road. Muslim residents insisted that their land was royally bestowed and that their ancestors' graves there couldn't be disturbed. Finally, in 2001, after a 13-year fight, the planners conceded defeat.

These days, Nipon is looking to the future. He plans to retire in five years and hand over the business to his British-educated daughter. He hopes she can find a way to stay competitive in a changing marketplace.

It's 100 degrees outside as he leaves the workshop, a bundle of silks tucked under his arm. He crosses the muddy graveyard where his grandparents are buried and climbs into his silver Toyota pickup truck.

Crawling in stop-start afternoon traffic, Nipon takes a cellphone call from an Italian customer who wants a sample for a range of ladies shoes. Today's sales call, though, is to a tailor in a shopping plaza by the venerable Oriental Hotel, where Thompson lived and ran his business in the early years.

Inside the air-conditioned plaza, Nipon ducks into the tailor shop of Wilaiwan Anusapa and hands over his bundle. He doesn't linger long, but pauses to point out the shelves where his latest silks are displayed.

Asked why she buys from weavers like Nipon, Ms. Anusapa's eyes widen as she reaches for a length of crimson-red silk that shimmers richly under the shop lights. Its tiny, bobbly imperfections and the fine lines of the weave show that it's a genuine handicraft, not a mass-market factory fabric, she explains. That's what she needs to reel in her customers, who include European diplomats and senior Thai bureaucrats.

Many of her other suppliers – tiny, family-run companies – also trace their roots to the old Muslim weaving clans. Ban Khrua weavers have the best silk, she says. While other weavers supply lengths of single colors or subtle weaves, the final product is as distinct as the weavers themselves, she says, and Nipon's silks stand out on the shelves because of their bold designs.

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