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. Enjoy.
A Brief History of Thai Pillows
Very little is known about the origins of Thai pillowry. In fact, the historical record of Thai pillowry is shrouded in mystery and legend.
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 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 temple painting (photo above) portrays a Siamese mythical Temple God leaning against a triangle pillow. This painting is located in the “Old Wat” (Wat Gao) in Chiang Rai. While this temple painting is not too old (maybe 50-60 years), it’s importance is to show the inexorable link between Thai pillows and Thai culture.
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 sleeping mats. It was much later in the development of Siamese pillowmaking 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 which dates back 1000 years in Northern Thailand. They are not a product of 21st Century marketing. Thai pillows and mats are essentially made the same way today as they were two hundred years 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, Lamphun, Nan or Chiang Rai. Contemporary Thai pillow makers are proud of their work and understand their link to the past.
Modern Thai Pillow Making
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.
Good Pillow/Bad Pillow: A Guide to Quality
A good quality Thai pillow or mat is: 1 Filled with new, quality kapok; 2. Well stitched at the seams; 3 The fabric is a quality weave that will last with years of use. And if you’re purchasing a Thai triangle pillow, whether an individual triangle or a folding pillow triangle, then rice straw must be used in its interior construction.
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.
Kapok: The Soul of Thai Pillows & Mats
Kapok is the heart and 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 fiber 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, repels 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 pillow makers have used Siamese kapok for centuries.
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.
New kapok is far superior to used kapok because new kapok has less moisture content (and is therefore lighter) and has more fluff. Used kapok is also very unsanitary. Thai pillowry is made on village farms with all the usual barnyard animals freely walking about. Used kapok, in the form of old mattresses and pillows, is piled high and sit for months before being recycled. The piles of old mattresses and pillows make a great home for mice and chickens. The humid environment also makes mold and mildew a problem with old kapok.
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.
New kapok, of course, is more expensive than used kapok. It is also difficult to source. In my Thai pillow business, I’ve sourced new kapok for years and it’s very time-consuming.
Rice Straw = The Backbone of Thai 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. Always squeeze your triangle for a quality check. It should be hard and bumpy.
As mentioned above, rice straw is the backbone for any Thai triangle pillow, including the attached triangle head on Thai folding pillows. Many manufacturers produce triangles without rice straw because it’s cheaper to do so. This will result in a poor quality pillow that will sag and lose it’s form after even moderate use.
Squeeze the tubular construction of a triangle pillow. (They’re called “chongs” in Thai.) If they’re smooth and soft, it’s likely the triangle you’re holding was made without rice straw. Simply asking the store owner if the triangle pillow has rice straw won’t do you much good as that person won’t know, and besides they will tell you whatever they believe you want to hear to buy their pillow.
Thai Kit Fabric
Thai pillowry is most commonly 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. Many retail sellers of Thai pillows, especially on the internet, will advertise Thai pillows made with 100% cotton Kit fabric. This claim is always untrue. The Thai Kit fabric used for Thai pillows is exclusively either a cotton/polyester blend or 100% polyester.
But, 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.