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This blog post is intended as an info resource about traditional Thai pillows. Before you buy a Thai pillow, learn about quality and become a better shopper.
I have been involved in Thai pillow making for years. Over time, many pillow makers and their families have become friends of my family. This short tutorial is my attempt to introduce this wonderful, old Siamese handicraft to those interested in the culture and tradition of Thai pillows.
This tutorial will introduce you to the many shapes and sizes of Thai pillows, mats and mattresses. I’ll show you how they’re made and the difference between a quality Thai pillow and a bad one.
A Brief History of Thai Pillows
The origins of Thai pillows reaches back far into the past of Thailand and its culture. While the historical record is not precise, we do know that Thai pillow making dates back centuries if not a millenium.
The basic “ingredients” of Thai pillows and mats are fabric, kapok (the fill) and rice straw for triangle pillows. These ingredients have been available to Siamese culture for thousands of years.
The most reliable historical records are painted murals in the old wats (temples) scattered about Northern Thailand. Some of these old wats contain murals from the mid-19th Century (1850-1875) which clearly depict the use of Thai pillows.
Popular belief (what Thai folk say) is that Thai pillow making started in Northern Thailand in a region called the Lanna Kingdom. The old mural paintings of Northern Thailand validate this belief.
The above painting is located in the “Old Wat” (Wat Gao) in Chiang Rai. While this temple painting is not old (maybe 50-60 years) by historical standards, it’s importance lies in the fact that a Thai pillow is included in a sacred Buddhist temple painting.
There is no doubt that Thai pillowry was produced at least two centuries ago, and there is a strong probability that they date back as much as 800 years. Thai pillow making originated in what is today northern Thailand. (A century ago, this region was known as the Lanna Kingdom.)
The first pillows produced were simple triangle pillows and sleeping mats. It was much later in the development of Siamese pillow making that folding pillows (Pillows that have a triangle head sewn to one or more small mats) were made.
Probably, the most important temple mural (above) depicting Thai pillows and mats is located in Wat Phumin in Nan. The mural depicts a Nan prince entertaining a couple of young women while reclining on a Thai mat with a rectangle and triangle pillow behind him. This mural is between 150-175 years old and is the earliest representation of Thai pillowry known. What’s important is that 175 years ago, Thai pillows and mats were already so much a part of Thai culture and life that they were included in sacred mural paintings.
Thai Pillows = Thai Culture
Thai pillowry and mats have evolved from the ancient culture of Siam. They are not a product of 21st Century marketing. It’s interesting to note that the Thai mat the Nan Prince is reclining on in the temple mural at Wat Phumin (photo above) has the same tubular construction that Thais use in making their mats today.
To posess a Thai pillow or mat is to posess a part of Thai culture that is as old and traditional as the ancient walls of Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Nan or Chiang Rai.
The art of Thai pillow-making is alive and well in Thailand. Thai pillows and mats (referred to as Thai Pillowry) are no longer produced in Northern Thailand, and are now made almost exclusively in small villages in the Issan region (Northeast) of Thailand.
Thai pillowry is mostly made by rice farmers, who produce the pillows to supplement their income. There is a steady domestic need and an ever growing export demand for the traditional pillows and especially the mats and mattresses. The rice farmers turn to pillow making in the winter months when most of their rice fields lay fallow.
Modern pillow production is organized around the rural Thai village. There are no centralized “pillow factories” like those of the apparel industry. At most, a small group of mostly women may gather at a privately-run, pillow-making business and make pillows in an open air environment. The pillowry business will be owned and run by rice farmers whose families have been making traditional pillowry for generations. Pillow work can also be taken home and the finished product placed on the porch for pick-up the next day.
The work flow starts with cutting and sewing of the fabric to be used in the “pillow shells”; then preparing, wrapping and stuffing rice straw into triangle pillows; filling the pillows with kapok; sewing closed the mats/pillows; and lastly, the cleaning and preparing the pillows for shipment.
Women supply the bulk of labor for pillow-making, including the skilled positions of fabric cutting and sewing. Women produce and choose the design of the fabrics used for the pillows. Men supply the logistical labor of finding and hauling kapok to the villages; hauling fabrics (a very heavy commodity); working the power blowers used to stuff kapok into the pillows and lastly loading and hauling the finished pillowry. (Thai pillows are big and heavy!)
Thai pillow making is not a static endeavor. Although the pillow-making traditions of the past play a central role in modern pillow-making, new pillow and fabric designs are continually being introduced.
A significant choke point in modern pillow-making has developed in the last few years concerning the sourcing of quality, new kapok. (Kapok is discussed in much more detail later on.) Kapok is the traditional fill of Thai pillows. If the pillow is not stuffed 100% with kapok, it’s simply not a Thai pillow. The increased demand for Thai pillows has made sourcing new kapok difficult and expensive. Used kapok is used exclusively in the domestic market and frequently in the export market. All kapok used in Thai pillowry is domestically grown throughout the country.
The future outlook for Thai pillowry is very good. With increasing demand comes increasing revenue and the ability to raise prices. While domestically the price of Thai pillowry is undervalued, the import demand is growing significantly and the pillow-makers can potentially earn significantly more for producing high quality pillowry for the export market. The tradition of Thai pillow-making is alive and well and growing larger every year.