I can’t actually describe my fabric shopping trip in Chiang Mai without first raving about my new friend Gaye of Notionally Better. She drove into Chiang Mai from nearby Lampang to spend the day taking me shopping. I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that two sewists could instantly become friends, because sewing people are great people, but, after only one day of hanging out, I adore this woman! I had a brilliantly fun day fabric shopping and much of it was due to Gaye’s wit, friendliness, energy, and enthusiasm! So many thanks to Gaye for taking the day to play with me!
All of the fabric stores that we went to were around the Warorot market, a daytime market that is centered around two multi-story buildings but extends out into the streets and lanes nearby. All of the fabric shops that we went to were on the small streets nearby. Unlike many other markets in Chiang Mai, the Warorot market isn’t just a tourist market, so it offers a very interesting glimpse into daily life, which I love to see when traveling.
I had grand intentions of putting together a little map pointing out the fabric stores we went to to make it easy for someone to follow in our footsteps, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be possible. All of the store names were in Thai (duh) and very few of them also had English translations. The street names were the same, if I could even see a street name. I’m also directionally challenged, and we doubled back a few times as we left our trajectory to get a drink or use the toilet. Even Gaye got turned around at times, and she speaks Thai and shops for fabric in Chiang Mai regularly! So, my words of direction to anyone that does want to fabric shop in Chiang Mai? Go to the Warorot market and start wandering around. You’ll stumble into the fabric stores, and that’s all that matters!
Most of the fabric in most of the stores was very similar to what I could buy in the States, with three major differences. 1) Unsurprisingly, it was significantly cheaper. 2) No name brands, although Gaye did tell me that she ran into a bolt of Robert Kaufman fabric recently. I did see some signs trying to claim that there were designer fabrics, but a little bit of savvy will refute the fact that the boucles are “Channel”. 3) There were almost no knit fabrics.
There are two major reasons that I didn’t see any knits. First, the weather is hot here almost all the time, and wovens are more comfortable in the heat. The other reason is that nobody sews their own clothing here. Ready-to-wear clothing is cheap and plentiful (everything is made in China and China isn’t very far away) and tailors aren’t that expensive. What about all those fabric stores you went to, you might ask? People buy fabric at the fabric stores to take to tailors.
I will admit that it was delightful to have someone that spoke Thai with me to ask questions and request fabric to be cut. However, most people speak a bit of English and pantomime and a calculator go a long way in communicating, so if you’re not lucky enough to have Gaye along with you, don’t be afraid. Interestingly, many of the fabric stores are owned by people of Indian heritage and they tend to speak flawless English.One oddity is that the fabric comes in different units of measure. Most go by the meter, although we found some by the yard, and occasionally they are in a historic unit of Thai measure. I mostly encountered the last unit in pre-cut lengths of fabric where 1 unit corresponded to 2 meters.
It is definitely possible to find Thai fabrics at the Warorot market that you won’t find back home. The stores with generic Western fabrics (with storefronts that look a lot like the L.A. fashion district) tended to have only that, or the Thai style fabrics that they carried were actually just designs printed onto cheap material. With a bit more exploration, you should be able to find at least a handful of stores that carry beautiful cottons woven locally, in northern Thailand.
This is the sign in front of my favorite store where I bought (and even made a second trip back to get more, patient husband in tow!) gorgeous mudmee (the Thai word for ikat) cotton. I highly recommend seeking them out however you are able if you too are fabric shopping in Chiang Mai!
The one store for which I did get an address carried Hmong (a northern hill tribe) embroidered trims and panels as well as some finished garments. Pan Dao Wa Nish Shop – 44/5 Chang Moy St. Lane 1. It’s definitely worth a stop to ooh and ahh over all the bright, gorgeous geometric designs!