Fabric Sourcing and Supplier Research: A Journey in Thai Silk
One of the first stages of product development is fabric sourcing.
Although I'm originally from Canada, I've spent the past several years living and working abroad, and I wanted LIYA's products to reflect that.
So when I moved to Thailand in January 2019, I made it my mission to learn allll about traditional Thai crafts, especially silk. I went in knowing basically nothing about this ancient industry, so I definitely got a major crash course during the 6 months I lived there.
I met with countless weavers, factory managers, shop owners, and production heads to try and find the perfect (sustainable) fabric.
If you’ve been following along with the brand, you’ll know it took MONTHS to get to this point. Below I've recapped the steps I took to find my fabric, and thus my suppliers, for LIYA's first collection.
SPUN VS. REELED SILK
One of the first silk suppliers I visited in Thailand was a company making spun silk yarn. What I didn't know at the time was that there's a huge difference between spun silk and reeled silk.
Reeling is the traditional method of producing silk that uses long, unbroken filaments from the cocoon to make yarn, whereas spun silk uses short, broken pieces of fibre that are then twisted together in order to stay in place.
Reeled silk is much higher quality than spun silk, and creates a stronger, more lustrous fabric. So after consulting a number of local silk experts, I decided that if I wanted to use Thai silk in my products, I had to find a good quality, sustainable, reeled silk, and not a spun silk.
Thus, the search went on...
JIM THOMPSON HOUSE
A little while later, I visited the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. Jim Thompson was an American businessman who settled in Thailand shortly after WWII. He built relationships with silk weavers in and around the capital, and in 1948, co-founded the Thai Silk Company.
Jim spent the next two decades growing the company and introducing Thai silk to the Western world. In 1967, he was on vacation in Malaysia when he decided to go for a walk... and never returned. Despite multiple searches and investigations, he was never found, and his disappearance is now almost as legendary as his work in silk.
I learned so much about the history of the silk industry in Thailand through this visit, and although I came no closer to finding LIYA's partners, it was an integral part of my research.
In June, I went to the mid-year OTOP Fair just outside of Bangkok.
OTOP is a nationwide sustainable development initiative started by the Department of Community Development, and stands for One Tambon One Product (similar to Japan's One Village One Product initiative).
And while I didn't find my dream supplier at the OTOP fair, it was amazing to see producers and makers from all over Thailand come together to showcase their signature products—my favourite obviously being the traditional Thai silk!
THE SILK ZONE
The Silk Zone is without a doubt the largest concentration of independent silk shops and makers in Bangkok.
If you go to a market in Thailand and see a vendor selling "silk" scarves for ฿100 (approximately US$3), you can bet it's not actually real silk—most likely it's a cheap polyester. But at The Silk Zone, you're going to be getting the real deal.
So of course, this was my next stop on my fabric sourcing journey. I first sought out a shop that was recommended to me by someone else in the industry.
I had a few meetings with the owner, but soon realized that they don't really make what I was looking for (her network of artisans weave 2-ply and 4-ply silk on handlooms, which is beautiful, but would be much too heavy and stiff for a small scarf). Plus, they didn't seem keen on taking time away from their domestic orders to expand to international markets.
We also had a language barrier, and as much as I'm used to living in places where I'm not a native speaker, trying to do business when you can't properly express yourself is a whole other thing.
Fortunately, there was one girl who worked at a nearby shop in The Silk Zone who spoke English, and graciously acted as my translator at all of these meetings. After striking up a friendship with her, and learning more about her work, I eventually realized that this might be the company I had been looking for all along...
MILL & SEW SHOP
After connecting with Sine, the English-speaking employee at a small shop in The Silk Zone, I started to learn more about the company she worked for.
Best known for their silk neckties, the small, family-owned business has been operating in Bangkok and the surrounding area since 1960. They source high-quality Thai silk yarn to mill the fabric and make products for both their own brand and other designers, and sell their finished goods both domestically and internationally.
Next, I went to their head office to meet with Pracha, the son of the company's founders, to see if they could make the kind of minimalist silk scarves I was looking for. The first meeting went well, and we agreed to start working on some samples.
But I still wanted to see where the silk yarn they used was made, so I had to head north to rural Thailand...
FACTORY & FARMS
In July, I traveled to Phetchabun to see where the silk yarn was reeled.
Having already found LIYA’s main production partner (the family-owned mill and sew shop that would be making the scarves), I wanted to go one step further in the supply chain to ensure I knew where the silk came from.
In Phetchabun, I visited the family-owned factory that turns silkworm cocoons into silk yarn and thread. I spent my day with Saikwan, the granddaughter of the factory founder, and toured their facilities so I could see the entire process from start to finish.
I saw their organic mulberry fields, the silkworms, and the cocoons purchased from a network of 4000 small-scale farmers from across the country.
I saw the workers checking each cocoon by hand and the machines that unwind the fibres to be spun into yarn. I was treated to mulberry ice cream from the farm and saw all the other types of products that are sold in the community as an extension of the business.
It was an amazing visit, and really helped me understand the full picture from farm to factory to finished product.
Sourcing is a long, difficult process, especially for someone who’s new to the industry. But the lessons I learned throughout this journey and the experience of meeting the partners and workers firsthand have made it all worth it... and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.