A Brief History of Thai Pillows/Mats
Very little is known about the origins of Thai pillowry. 18th Century European explorers made a few brief notes about strange looking triangle pillows that they noticed as they explored ancient Siam. But other than these sparse diary notes, the historical record of Thai pillowry is shrouded in mystery and legend. Popular belief (what Thai folk say) is that Thai pillow making started in Northern Thailand in a region called the Lanna Kingdom. Today this region is the Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Chiang Rai area-the heart of Old Siam.
The temple painting to the left portrays a Siamese mythical Temple God leaning against a triangle pillow. This painting is located in the "Old Wat" (Wat Gao) in Chiang Rai and is centuries old.
There is no doubt that Thai pillowry was produced at least two centuries ago, and may date back as much as 800 years when the Lanna Kingdom of Siam was established. The first pillowry produced were simple triangle pillows and mats. It was obvious to early pillowmakers that triangle pillows and mats went together. Around the mid-19th Century, Thai artisans began sewing the triangle pillow to a series of folding mats-and so the first folding pillows came into existence.
The fabrics used in early era pillow-making were Mudmee fabrics. Mudmee weaving (also known as Ikat weaving outside of Thailand) has been around for thousands of years. It is the first style of pattern weaving to exist in Ancient Siam. The earliest pillowry was stuffed with kapok-a natural fiber from Kapok trees. These trees were as plentifull a millenium ago as they are today. Rice straw was used in the triangle pillows for structure.
Thai pillowry and mats have evolved from the ancient culture of Siam. They are not a product of 21st Century marketing. Thai pillow making has changed little from centuries ago. 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.
Today, Thai pillowry and massage mats are produced in a small village in a region of Thailand called Esaan. The pillows and mats are made the same way they have been for centuries. Kapok and Rice Straw are still used. All pillows are handmade. Thai Pillowry is produced nowhere else in Thailand. The villagers support themselves by not only making pillows, but also growing rice. During the rice harvest, pillow production comes to a halt.
Women are the pillowmakers. Women do all the skilled work in making a pillow or mat including the fabric making.
Meet Our Pillow Makers!
Modern Thai Pillows & Mats
At House of Thailand, we work closely with our Thai pillowmakers in the Pillowmaking Village.
Above is the biggest Thai pillow in the world. We employ the finest pillowmakers at House of Thailand. We know them personally. Above, is Muay and her daughter after finishing the giant pillow. Muay is the chief pillowmaker and her family has been making Thai pillows for generations.
Good Pillow or Bad Pillow?
A Guide to Quality
A good Thai pillow or mat is: 1. Well stuffed with new kapok. 2. Double-stitched at the seams for strength/durability. 3. The fabric is good quality and properly cut.
When looking for a Thai pillow or mat, always squeeze them. That's the single most important quality check you can do. (I squeeze pillows all day long!). You're checking to see if the pillow/mat is evenly and well-filled. Especially with triangle pillows you should squeeze the three edges. They should feel very firm-almost hard-and often slightly bumpy (because of the ricestraw inside.) You do not want a spongy feel.
New kapok is better than used kapok. New kapok is not only cleaner and much lighter, but has more loft and fluffiness. New kapok is especially important if you're buying a mat or mattress.
Pay attention to the stitching of the pillow/mat. Often a pillowmaker will elongate the stitching so that the barest minimum of stitches was used to sew the pieces of fabric together. This is what you don't want. You want the seams to be double stitched in a cross-hatched pattern so your pillow is well constructed.
The Heart & Soul of Thai Pillows and Mats
All Thai pillows and mats are filled with kapok. If your Thai pillow or mat is filled with something other than kapok, then it's not an authentic Thai pillow or mat.
Kapok is a cotton-like fibre that comes from the giant pods of the kapok tree. It's very soft and has a yellow luster. Kapok is hypo-allergenic, resistant to compressing, repells insects (keep the bedbugs away!), resistant to mold and mildew and it's 100% organic. Kapok is impervious to water (In fact life jackets were made of kapok). Kapok is considered a premium fill around the world. Thai pillowmakers have used Siamese kapok for centuries in producing their pillowry.
Kapok trees grow to over 200 feet tall and are abundant throughout Thailand. The pods are broken open by hand and the seeds are manually seperated from the soft kapok filling. The raw kapok fiber is then directly used for pillowry. There is no chemical treatment of the kapok and no chemical additives. The kapok used in Thai pillowry is organic.
At House of Thailand, we use only new kapok for our pillows and mats. Our mats and pillows are lighter, fluffier, and the kapok is free of any twigs, leaves and unsanitary debris that is always part of used kapok. We bring kapok into the Pillowmaking Village by the truckload and it's used exclusively for our pillowry. Using new kapok in our pillowry does increase the cost of the pillowry, but the increase in quality is well worth it!
If your retailer gets their mats/pillows from a wholesaler in Bangkok (and they will), I guarantee that the kapok is used and of poor quality, regardless of what they may claim.
The Backbone of Triangle Pillows
Rice straw is the traditional backbone of good quality Thai triangle pillows. These pillows are built to be hard and durable. (use your favorite soft sofa pillow(s) against a thai triangle for comfort) See foto above for examples of good triangle pillow work and rice straw. Cheap triangles sometimes are filled with old newspapers. Always squeeze your triangle for a quality check. It should be hard and bumpy.
Thai Kit Fabric
Thai pillowry is generally made from Thai kit fabric (see photo above). This fabric is a cotton/polyester blend that comes in many color combinations. Kit fabric is easily identified by its distinctive patterns. There are only a couple of textile manufacturers in Thailand that specialize in producing kit fabric.
Thai pillows and mats can be made from any fabric. We often go on "fabric safaris" throughout Thailand, looking at silk and mudmee fabrics for pillowmaking. We bring these special fabrics to our pillowmakers. Below is a photo of our great triangle made from handwoven Thai mudmee silk.
Thai Massage & Thai Pillows
A Match Made in Heaven Nirvana
Thai massage and Thai pillows and mats are inextricably linked. Thai mats and mattresses can be used for many reasons-sleeping, playing, relaxing. But the mats and mattresses (mats roll up and mattresses fold up-an important distinction) are commonly used by traditional Thai masseuses. Thai masseuses have used Thai mats/mattresses to practice the art of Thai massage for centuries.
Traditional roll-up mats are two inches thick and are portable. The same tubular construction that is used in triangle pillows is used for the roll-up mats to ensure that the kapok fill does not bunch up or create "hard spots" Mattress are three inches thick and fold-up. A Thai mattress is not as portable as a roll-up mat and is often used for both massage and sleeping in Thailand.
Roll-up mats become soft and floppy with use. This is normal and much desired. The more the roll-up mat is used, the more comfortable it becomes. The round tubes become flattened, the fabric stretches and the kapok will compact. The mat will quickly lose its new appearance, but it becomes softer and more pliable. It will last many years, sometimes a lifetime depending on use.
Thai pillowry, especially bone pillows, bolsters, papaya pillows, and triangles are expecially important to traditional Thai massage. Thai masseuses used these unusually shaped pillows during a massage to support the neck, legs or arms. Ideally, a "well-equiped" Thai masseuse will have an assortment of Thai pillowry for her needs, just like a carpenter will have many tools in his toolbox.
House of Thailand: A Tradition of Quality
At House of Thailand we produce the finest Siamese pillows and mats. We use only new kapok. We require the pillowmakers to use exact amounts (by weight) of kapok in each pillow/mat to ensure a proper fill. We inspect the stitching for strength. We are experts in Thai fabrics and use only the best. We challenge anyone to produce a finer pillow/mat than we do!