A Colorful Story

Jim Thompson Fabric's Spring 2015 line includes the Anatolia Collection designed by Richard Smith.

The story of Jim Thompson, the CIA-agent-turned-textile-designer, who disappeared without a trace in Malaysia, is a mystery that provokes a lot of conspiracy theories. Was he whisked away in the witness protection program? Did Aborigines take him out? Was he the victim of a deadly, venomous cobra bite?

Scout @ Quarters D in Point Loma’s Liberty Station held a special event honoring the legendary textile mogul and showcasing his company’s newest collections. We learned that he started Jim Thompson Thai Silk Co. in 1948 in Bangkok after retiring from the Office of Strategic Services. The business grew from there until he went missing in 1967.

“He was on holiday in Malaysia during Easter weekend with friends,” recounted Tim Johnson, director of sales and marketing for Jim Thompson Fabrics. “They had a picnic on the grounds, then went back to take a nap in the house. The friends heard Jim walking on the gravel path behind the house, and nobody has ever seen or heard from him since.”

Today the company is thriving despite the founder’s disappearance. Amid all the speculation, it has become one of the largest employers in Thailand and the largest hand-weaving company in the world, raising thousands of people out of poverty.

“We weave all of our own fabrics in-house,” Tim said. “We are one of the few companies in the world that’s completely vertical. We grow the mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms. We spin our own yarns. We dye our own yarns. We weave our own fabrics. And we do all of our own printing. We are very busy in Bangkok.”

Although they offer a broad selection of fabrics, high-quality, hand-woven, colorful silks are still their signature specialty.

“Silk is very much like wine,” Tim continued. “The quality of the silk is dependent on the soil where the mulberry leaves, which is the only thing that silkworms eat, are grown. The better the quality of mulberry leaves, the higher the quality of silk. You can take Thai silkworms to another country and it will completely change the characteristic of the silk. Silk from Thailand has more surface area — ‘more humps and bumps,’ as Jim Thompson used to say — so it reflects light differently. You can get great color from Thai silk that you can’t get in silk from any other country.”

Jim Thompson is one of four mills left in the world that makes a true warp print, an intricate weaving process that creates a distinctly patterned fabric. “It’s expensive because it’s beautifully created and crafted by hand by people who love what they do and are very proud of their work,” Tim said.  

As yard upon yard of beautiful fabrics were displayed in different prints, textures and styles under a torch-lit night in the picturesque back yard of Scout, one couldn’t help but think how proud Jim Thompson would be.