Silks of Southeast Asia: An Exploration

by Geoffrey McGinley

If you've ever traveled through Southeast Asia, you've seen them: Those richly colored, intricately patterned, seriously luscious fabrics. Whether you caught your first glimpse of a stunning hoi or ikat on a busy street in Phnom Penh, a shimmering dupioni saree at a wedding in Bangalore, or a gorgeous ao dai made from the softest Vietnamese silk in Ho Chi Minh City, these textiles draw the eye with their blend of rich hues, unique patterns, and flowing movement.

Two Indian women on the way to Mehrangarh Fort, India

Two Indian women on the way to Mehrangarh Fort, India

For the fashion-conscious, garments crafted from these textiles represent a dramatic departure from mass-produced and — let’s just be honest — tacky styles so often found in shopping centers and department stores. If you don't want to look like everyone else in the office, adding a beautiful handwoven piece created by local artisans is a sure way to make your look special.


A timeless light-weight summer dress made from hand-printed and natural-dyed Indian kalamkiri cotton fabric.

But for the environmentally and ethically conscious consumer, these culturally unique textiles represent a bit of a dilemma: how do you ensure that the silks you wear are produced sustainably and under ethical conditions? Headlines about the terrible conditions in sweatshops across regions of Asia highlight the need to support textiles that are produced sustainably, by workers who make a fair living wage. (1)

Fortunately, it’s possible to enhance your wardrobe with garments made from these gorgeous fabrics and still get a good night’s sleep. In fact, by supporting local and regional artisans, instead of wearing mass-produced “fast-fashion,” you’re actually supporting a tradition of hand-woven silk and cotton textiles that stretches back through millennia and helping women to support themselves and their communities.

Read on to learn more about the long tradition of hand-crafted fabrics in Southeast Asia — and how you can ethically incorporate these gorgeous textiles into your wardrobe.

A Rich and Colorful History

Dissused Cambodian Temple

A Disused Cambodian Temple

For centuries, textiles have played an important role across Southeast Asia, and each region has its own unique signature. For instance, in the mountainous tribal regions of Laos, the tradition of silk-weaving has been deeply intertwined with both Buddhist and animist religious traditions for centuries; in these societies, the practice of making textiles is both a spiritual and an economic foundation for communities. (2) For the Mong peoples of northern Vietnam, weaving is a way of life. Mong weavers are known for their patterned brocades, decorated with intricate embroidery. (3)

Vietnamese Brocade Silk Dress sewn from handmade fabrics from Hoi An

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In Cambodia, the tradition of silk production and weaving stretches back more than 1,000 years to the Khmer Empire. For centuries, women have woven lustrous silk thread into stunning ikat designs. (4) In nearby northeast Thailand, women have also been weaving on hand-looms for hundreds of years. Here, certain patterns take on great cultural significance and are associated with life events such as courtship and marriage, birth and death, and Buddhist religious rites. (5) In most weaving cultures, techniques, tools and patterns are passed down from mother to daughter over generations. 

Hmong woman making silk threads

Ha Gian, Vietnam - Hmong woman making preparing the silk threads

How are these fabrics created? Though each region has its own specific traditions and methods, they all start in the same place: silkworm spit. Yep, you read that right. These little worms secrete a special protein, forming a strong, protective cocoon made from filaments. These filaments are picked apart and "reeled" into strands of thread. Several of these strands can then be wound together to form a long continuous strand. This process is known as reeling, and it's pretty time-consuming. (6

Weaving by hand is time-consuming, as well. In fact, single garments can take months to create. Given hand-woven fabric's long history and complex production process, it's not difficult to see why these textiles are so spectacular, and why they have such an impact on your wardrobe. 

Woman weaves fabric


Chiang Rai, Thailand - A woman weaves fabric in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Environmental and Ethical Considerations

To describe silk worms as picky eaters would be an understatement. These particular insects eat exactly one thing — mulberry leaves. Together, the practice of cultivating mulberries and silkworms is known as sericulture. Unfortunately, a combination of wars and environmental degradation in many regions of Southeast Asia have led to a decline in sericulture, making sustainable and ethical buying practices even more important. (7)

Sericultural industry

Silk Worms - Laos

For example, in Laos, significant amounts of mulberry groves were destroyed by U.S. bombing during the 1960s and 1970s and many areas were left littered with unexploded bombs, making sericulture impossible. (8) However, in recent years, cooperatives and women's groups across the region have been clearing areas and planting mulberry trees in an attempt to bring the industry back to life. Not only do these efforts keep ancient traditions alive, but they also provide jobs for farmers and income for weavers. Purchasing fabrics from artisans, rather than in mass-produced form, helps ensure that you're not giving your money to sweatshops. 

Sericultural industry. Laos

Silk Worms - Laos

In other good news, small-scale mulberry growing is an inherently eco-friendly practice. (9)  In most regions, mulberry trees are grown organically to support healthy silkworms. Many traditional weaving communities also continue to use natural dyes and avoid chemical processing, creating a product that's safe for the artisan, the consumer, and the environment.

Preparing Natural Silk DyesChiang Rai, Thailand - Preparing Natural Silk Dyes

Incorporating Beautiful Hand-Woven Fabric Into Your Wardrobe

Now that you know all about the long history of silk textile in Southeast Asia, how they're produced, and why it's good to support artisans, you're probably wondering where to find clothing made from these amazing fabrics. Hands down, the best way to get your hands on one-of-a-kind pieces that'll stand out is to buy local. When you're abroad, venture off the beaten (tourist) path, get out of the mega-mall, and seek out small locally owned shops and cooperatives.

Cambodian Fabrics for Sale

Cambodian Silk for Sale

And if you're not abroad, you can still find unique items that are ethically and sustainably sourced. Buying from small business owners and local artisans, whether in person or online is key — exploring the wilds of Etsy and Facebook is a great way to get started. When you support the artisan in the tiny shop on the back street, you're also supporting years of tradition, eco-friendly practices, and ethical treatment of workers... all while improving your own wardrobe.


Monsoon Rags Cambodian Crumple Dress - Emerald

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Geoffrey McGinley
Geoffrey McGinley


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