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The College of Arts Sciences

Dalferro Seeks to Understand Silk Production in Thailand

October 31, 2017

Alexandra Dalferro, PhD candidate in Anthropology, was one of 91 students nationwide who was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship.  

Dalferro is currently conducting fieldwork in Thailand for her proposed dissertation titled "Shimmering Surfaces and Stray Threads: Weaving State Politics into Silk in Contemporary Thailand."

Alexandra describes her project below:

Deep red silks from Surin, Thailand have the capacity to conceal and reveal the physical bodies and knowledge of Khmer weavers. This tension between concealing and revealing, which pervades discourses on cultural heritage in Thailand, is activated in specific ways by the Thai state’s demand for shimmering surfaces. For Khmer weavers, this official interest and demand is welcome, but it also threatens to erase local meanings, histories and knowledge.

Seeking to understand the implications of the incorporation of silk production into the official Thai heritage regime, I explore the tensions that play out in the arena of silk making and the ways in which efforts to democratize heritage production simultaneously serve to control, domesticate, and recuperate it for a monoethnic nation-state.

Woven in the region for over 1,000 years, silks were traditionally key tributary gifts exchanged among kingdoms, bestowing rank and status and embodying political and social hierarchies. Although silk producers from different ethnic groups can be found across Thailand, ethnically Khmer weavers in Surin Province are renowned for their sericulture, weaving and natural dyeing skills. They consider their methods, patterns and associated rituals to be distinctly “Khmer,” and they work both within and outside of state frameworks to safeguard and transmit their knowledge about weaving and to earn a viable income from textile sales. In the process, they draw historical narratives and discourses of authenticity around the silks. 

The encompassment of Khmer people and Khmer concepts and forms into the Thai national imaginary has been particularly fraught; this ongoing anxiety is due the simultaneous danger and power of interwoven Khmer and Thai history and heritage in relation to the construction of national “Thai” identity. Khmer weavers in Surin create patterned silks with names such as “to crawl on one’s knees to Siam” that likely refer to moments when Khmer people made gestures of obeisance to Siamese rulers. Collective historical memories embedded in patterns and other practices demonstrate the ways ethnic identification shapes and is shaped by silk production, and I seek to attend to how silk's textures, colors, and fluid folds participate in the creation of social worlds.

For the past month, I've been working and observing at a weaving business in Surin town, owned by a Sino-Thai and Khmer family who have been involved with making, buying and selling silk for four generations.

I've been learning how to sort silkworm cocoons and how to thread the warp of the loom, and I've been thinking about how ethnic identifications are asserted and enacted in the space of the shop both to market silk products and to contribute to self-fashioning.  

I'm excited for the opportunity to do my research through by Fulbright-Hays, and extremely grateful to my committee for their constant support.


Alexandra Dalferro is a PhD student in Socio-Cultural Anthropology.  Her research focuses on the politics and practices of silk production in Thailand.

Before coming to Cornell, Alexandra lived in Thailand for over 4 years, working as a Research Assistant at the Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre and as an intern at UNESCO-Bangkok. She also completed one year of research as a
Fulbright Student Researcher on the legal lottery system in Thailand and the precarious positions of migrant ticket sellers. Alexandra holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Culture from Columbia University.


Fulbright-Hays--Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowships support research overseas in modern foreign languages and area studies. These awards are sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.  The Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies assists Cornell graduate students in applying for DDRA fellowships and administers the awards for successful applicants. 

Fellow Cornell Anthropology Graduate Student Rebekah Ciribassi also received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship.  Rebekah will travel to Tanzania in January 2018 to work on a project titled "Sickle cell disease amid intersecting ideologies of kinship in Northwest Tanzania."