Cottage Colour and the Cultural Heritage of Thai Silk 8

Two months ago, while I was driving through Corona del Mar, a new store with a different and innovative style caught my eye. I was certainly intrigued, so I decided to pull over and visit the store. I was about to meet the most refreshing and inspirational fashion designer in Orange County.

Gift Sripoowong and Ellis Wongsearaya, owners of Cottage Colour, enthusiastically told me about their brand and the story behind it. The friendly and happily-married couple run the business together. Ellis acts as a principal and managing partner alongside his talented wife and fashion designer, Gift.

Gift, originally from Isaan, Thailand, had a passion for design from a very early age. She grew up immersed in the commerce and trade of artisan woven silk in the northeastern region of Thailand, famous for the production of handwoven silk. This complicated industry not only requires the expert to have been breastfed on the Thai culture and traditions, but to impeccably master the laws of commerce and finance. For this reason, Gift’s father persuaded her to graduate with a college degree before getting involved in the world of fashion design and the silk trade. Once she finished her Bachelor of Arts in finance, Gift became a stockbroker for five years, a risk-management agent for another five years and, finally, she spent two years as a financial advisor for the Thai Military Bank.

In 2009, while working in the wealth management division of the Thai Military Bank, she was assigned to a new account, Ellis Wongsearaya. The couple had a business relationship, which evolved into a friendship, and ultimately, into a sweet love story that resulted in a 2013 marriage.

During 2013, Ellis, who holds a master’s degree in zoology, a JD, or graduate law degree, from the University of Vermont and a second master’s degree in public policy, was exploring the Thai market in search of new ventures. After realizing that he could not find anything in Thailand at that time, he decided to explore the U.S. market. It was at this time that Gift suggested the idea of a new venture in fashion design. The original idea lacked definition, but had the firm intention of forming and consolidating a U.S. silk network to represent and introduce the cultural heritage of the Thai handwoven silk communities. Gift, possessing a strong knowledge and training in the business of handwoven silk, in addition to her extraordinary passion for fashion design and financial training, was the perfect complement to this initiative. Their initial idea has transformed into what we know today as Cottage Colour.

The History of Thai Silk

Empress Si Ling Chi of China is credited with discovering silk. History tells us that while the empress was sitting under a mulberry tree in a palace garden having tea, a silkworm’s cocoon reportedly fell out of the tree into her cup. While removing it from her tea, she discovered the fine silk filament of the cocoon beginning to unravel.

This secret was guarded by the Chinese for millennia by putting to death anyone found guilty of smuggling silkworm eggs, cocoons, or mulberry seeds. Silk became the cloth of emperors and royalty and a great source of wealth. However, about 1900 years ago, a Chinese princess, who married an Indian prince, is reported to have successfully smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in her headdress and then fed them the leaves of the Indian mulberry tree. Since then, silk production has spread to other Asian countries and the world.

Thai silk is produced by Thai caterpillars raised on Thai mulberry leaves by Thai weavers in the northeastern region of Thailand. Once the cocoon is pulled from the mulberry bush, it is placed in a tank of boiling water, which separates the silk thread of the cocoon from the caterpillar inside. The silk from Thailand’s caterpillars varies in color from light gold to very light green. A cocoon is comprised of one thread that is 500-1,500 meters long. A single filament is too thin to use alone, so many threads are combined to make a thicker, more practical fiber. Thai silk is usually soft, but has a relatively coarse texture with uneven, slightly knotty threads. These traits make it extremely suitable for weaving by hand. The weavers wash the raw silk threads, bleach them and soak them in hot water. Finally, the threads are washed again, stretched, and put through a final dying process. When that is completed, the threads are wound onto spools or drums in preparation for weaving.

The silk is created by individual, independent women weavers at their homes, using traditional methods and their own looms. Thai silk is made with one color for the warp and another color for the weft. This produces the sheen and luster of Cottage Colour silk and creates the unique blends, which change depending on the angle of light. In contrast, imitation polyester silk shines white, regardless of the angle of the light.

The process to obtain the fabric is tedious and time consuming, and its short supply justifies its high economic market value. Cottage Colour pieces show the magnificently rich, exotic beauty of Thai silk. These pieces, with proper care, can last a century or more. This is why each Cottage Colour piece is a unique work of art.

In addition, each Cottage Colour piece has been designed incorporating the influences of its creator. Gift, as a designer, is a passionate follower of the works of the Italian-born French fashion designer, Pierre Cardin, and Italian fashion designer, Valentino.

Pierre Cardin, famous for his geometric shapes and motifs that frequently ignore the female form, is also the father of “the bubble dress,” introduced in 1954. He is responsible for the fashion concepts of timeless, fresh, and simplistic designs. On the other hand, Valentino is synonymous with extravagance and is responsible for the femininity and detail-oriented couture of Gift’s designs.

Each Cottage Colour design is a timeless and unique piece of art, which implicitly displays the cultural heritage and values of the Thai silk communities. The intention is to introduce these pieces to the Orange County market, so that the local community can embrace these cultural traditions. Visit the Cottage Colour boutique and experience an exhibition of extraordinary hand-woven 100 percent silk couture, custom linen and cotton pieces.

Cottage Colour, 2836 East Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, CA 92625, 949.656.6015 Store hours: Monday–Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, by appointment only