Thai Fisherman Pants
Loei Province, 1888. Tea workers wearing basic Thai fisherman pants. These early fisherman pants had a wrap and tuck  instead of the modern tied waist.

Thai fisherman pants have a history just like all apparel and fabrics do. Thai fisherman pants started appearing in Siam in the late 19th Century (circa 1880s). These first fisherman pants were very similar to the ones produced today: cut and sewn trouser legs with an over-sized waist that was wrapped to fit the individual.  Common laborers wore these first designs, including Thai fisherman where their name was derived.

Their design was rather revolutionary for Siam. (Thailand was called Siam until 1939.) Thai fisherman pants probably were the first apparel made domestically to cover the lower body that was made by cutting and sewing fabric. 

Thai fisherman pants
Bangkok 1887. The man on the right (under the white arrow) wears Thai fisherman pants.

Prior to the late 19th Century, nearly 100% (including Royals and wealthy families) of Siamese, both men and women, wore either a sarong or a chong kraben to cover the lower body. The chong kraben is a sarong that is wrapped and folded around and through the legs which mimics pantaloons.

Cut and sewn apparel for the lower body simply wasn’t worn in old Siam. For the centuries proceeding the 19th Century, the Siamese almost exclusively wore wrapped fabrics such as sarongs and shawls.

Sewn apparel for the lower body (trousers, skirts, etc.) wasn’t introduced into Siam until the mid-19th century by Europeans who would visit the Royal Court. (There were simple sewn Siamese shirts and robes that had been worn for centuries, but no sewn pants.)

Early Thai Fisherman Pants
Chiang Rai (circa 1935). Young Shan men wearing an early version of fisherman pants. (sewn leggings and wrap and tuck waist)

It took several decades for Western style sewn trousers to make their way to the average Siamese worker.

So just about the time that European sewing techniques and the sewing machine itself are introduced to Siam, we soon see fisherman pants arrive on the fashion scene. It’s not a coincidence.

Modern Thai fisherman pants. The biggest difference between fish pants today and 100 years ago is the addition of the tie and fold over waist. The first pants were wrap and tuck; Now it’s tie and wrap and fold over (the waist).

Fisherman pants are the melding of Siamese traditional wrapped apparel-sarongs and chong krabens– and the new sewn pant designs from Europe. Fish pants are a combination of sewing (the trouser legs) and traditional fabric wrapping (the waist).

Does One Size Really Fit All?

We all have different physiques to say the least. One-size-fits-all can only be taken so far. 

One size of fish pants can fit lots of human shapes, but certainly not every body.

My biggest challenge in designing fish pants was the concept of one-size-fits-all. That’s an impossible challenge seeing that humans come in assorted sizes that vary drastically.

So how can a 5 foot woman that weights 100 lbs. wear the same fish pant as a man who’s 6′ 4″ and weights 250 lbs. Answer: They can’t.

Properly sized fish pants should give you enough extra fabric to pull across at least half your tummy, but not quite all the way across, and still lay flat and neat.

The concept of one size fits all is a great selling point for this apparel, but buyer beware. If you’re a guy over 6′ 4″, or your waist is over 45″, I doubt that most fish pant patterns are cut big enough for you to fit properly.

Conversely, if you’re a petite woman and purchase a pair that fits a big guy, the pants won’t fit you properly as you’ll have too much fabric at the waist to wrap, leggings will be too long and the crotch will drop too low. You’ll look like a burrito with not enough filling and too much tortilla to around.

As a designer/seller of fish pants, I made a decision to limit the concept of one-size-fits-all. I began to only design fisherman pants for women. (The main product we sold was Thai pillows and 70% of our customers were women. Therefore it was an obvious decision to design and market to women.)

Thai silk fisherman pants. Left Photo: Mudmee silk. Right Photo: Plain woven silk. Before buying silk fish pants, I suggest you read my Thai silk tutorial first.

I’m much more comfortable with the concept of one-size-fits-most, than with one-size-fits-all.

My point is that while almost all fisherman pant sellers will claim one-size-fits-all, it’s not really true. If you’re a petite woman or a big guy, you’ll need to get the exact dimensions of the cut to see if the pant will actually fit you properly.

The last thing you want is either a pair of fish pants that’s tight anywhere. Pay attention to the actual size of the cut. They do indeed vary.

Who Wears Fish Pants and Why?

Thai fish pant couture. Right Photo: Batik fabric; Left Photo: Tie-dye fabric. I love designing coordinated tops for our fisherman pants. While fish pants are worn by both sexes, women’s designs use a wide assortment of fabrics.

In Thailand, women generally wear fisherman pants. Thai men-not so much. While I’ve seen Thai fisherman still wearing the pants, general laborers no longer wear them as they opt for modern trouser designs that are cut to size with zippers and buttons.

Not only do Thai women constitute the main domestic market for fish pants, they wear them for many occasions. Yes, they may wear them as a work pant around the house, but commonly they’ll also buy fish pants made from higher end fabrics and wear them to social occasions such as dinner with friends, shopping and even to Buddhist temple events.

Mudmee Thai Fisherman Pants
Cotton mudmee fabric Thai fisherman pants. I sourced this fabric near Chonobot. To learn more about mudmee fabric read my tutorial here.

In the United States, it’s almost the opposite. It seems men are the main consumer of these pants and they’re often bought as excercise/yoga or martial arts wear. And in the U.S., whether it’s men or woman, Thai fisherman pants are seen as “knock-around” wear.

Thai fish pants can adapt to such a wide variety of purposes that trying to restrict their fashion possibilities is silly. A woman can wear expensive Thai silk fishies for a dinner date at an elegant French restaurant or a guy can wear 100% cotton fishies to practice muay Thai in.

The Butt-The Most Important Fit!

With Thai fisherman pants, as with any other pant, how it fits your butt is the most important consideration.

Fish pants are designed to be loose and comfortable all over, especially the derrier. Anyone in the apparel business will tell you that how a your butt looks and feels in a pair of pants will determine if you make the purchase.

When you bend over, sit, walk or raise your legs, properly fitted fish pants should not pull on your butt.

The “J” Seam vs. The Straight Seam

Fish pant patterns can be broken down into two camps: Those that use a “J” seam for the butt, and those that use a straight seam. The photos below will make the difference quite obvious.

A “J” seam pattern. The white arrows show the “J” seam for the rear of fisherman pants. I call it a “J” seam because that fabric panel looks like a letter “J” after being cut.

This is a straight seam for the butt. It’s simple, but often not as comfortable as the “J” seam.

The “J” seam is by far superior. It allows more room for the butt, but still creates a pleasing rear shape. The “straight seam” often lends itself to pulling on the butt during movement.

I’ve made thousands of pairs of fish pants with both seams and customers overwhelmingly preferred pants with the “J” seam over the “straight seam”.

“J” seams patterns are commonly used in Northern Thailand and are considered the traditional pattern. Straight seams are often used by larger manufacturers, especially in Bangkok. “J” seam fish pants are also slightly more complicated to cut and sew and so cost more to manufacture.

The Waist

Thai Fisherman Pants
The wrap and folded waist. No bunching or bulges. This fabric is high quality, ribbed 100% cotton. Remember: If you have so much extra fabric that it wraps past your tummy and around your opposite side, your fishies are too big. If you have little or no extra fabric at the waist, it’s too small.

I generally designed my women’s fisherman pants to have a 48″ waist. (If I were designing for men, I’d make the waist around 53″.)  That gives the average woman enough fabric to fold over to fit her exact measurements, but not too much fabric that can cause bulging or double folding at the waist.

Now when I say a 48″ waist, I mean exactly that. If you measured the circumference of the waist, it would be 48″. Don’t confuse that with a size 48.

Fish pants made from 100% Chomtong handwoven cotton. Fish pants that are a proper fit should look neat and proportional to your body. Find a vendor that uses a pattern/cut that fits you and not necessarily a 250 lb. guy.

Guys, if you’re average size, a 48″ waist will probably fit you fine. But if you’re big, then you’ll find a 48″ waist too small. Remember, the waist should at a minimum have 6-10 inches of loose fabric after you put it on.

The waist is too small if after putting them on you don’t have enough fabric to fold back across at least 1/3 your waist and you’re left with just tying the waist. Conversely, you know they’re too big if after putting them on you have so much extra fabric that the fold crosses your entire stomach and wraps around your other side.

The Length

Traditionally, fish pants are worn above the ankle as depicted in the photo on the left. But farangs (Westerners) prefer to wear them over the ankle as in the right-hand photo.

Length = culture. I’m not joking.

Traditional Thai fisherman pants are worn above the ankle-capri style-for men or women. That’s how they’re generally worn in Thailand and always have been.

In the United States and other Western countries, everyone-male and female-wants to wear their fishies down over their ankles just like most other pants.

I’ve pleaded with my farang customers to wear their fisherman pants above the ankle in the traditional manner. I candidly tell them that the pant looks better on them above the ankle. I even designed and marketed capri fisherman pants (a slow seller). To no avail. Western women want to wear their fish pants down around the ankles.

In Thailand, it’s just the opposite. If the fishies go to the ankle, the women will roll or cuff them up to above the ankle.

The length is your choice. But your choice alone will tell me if your Thai or farang.

Fit to be Tied

Five color mudmee fish pants. With the right fit, fisherman pants should wrap and tie just like this. No bulges or pulling of the pants.

You put on fisherman pants with the ties to the back, not the front. You’d be shocked at how many people want to put them on backwards and then are stumped as to how to tie them.

The easiest way to understand how to wrap and fold the waist, just watch this simple video I made years ago. (Remember, if you don’t have enough fabric to wrap and fold as in the video, you have a pair of fisherman pants that don’t fit you.)

One last point. I designed ALL my fishies with a tie that was double width (about 1 1/2 inches) and triple sewn onto the pant for strength. Most fisherman pants will have a very narrow tie. A broader tie prevents uncomfortable cutting into the stomach.

Odds & Ends

Linen Thai Fisherman Pants
Linen Fisherman Pants. If you purchase linen fish pants, always be sure it’s flax linen. These pants are made from Italian flax linen.

Pockets. I always put nice big pockets on my fishies. It’s easy to do and doesn’t really add to the cost. I positioned the pocket so that after folding and wrapping it would be on the front of the thigh which is a good secure place to put money and I.D. I never liked back pockets on fish pants because it’s not as secure as a front pocket.

Shrinkage: 100% cotton is always the best seller of any fabric. But remember! 100% cotton will shrink substantially. The leggings that came below your ankle when you tried them on may shrink an inch or two after a couple of washings.

I always put a two inch hem on the leggings so that if they shrank my customer could easily let out the hem.

Double Stitching: Double stitching is a must for quality. If your pants are single stitched they are cheaply made.

Polyester Fabrics: Buyer beware. Scads of fish pants are made from very lightweight polyester fabrics. Sellers will falsely claim it’s rayon (an eco-fabric made from cellulose). Rayon is actually an expensive fabric that must be purchased in bulk quantities from a textile manufactuter to be assured of authenticity. Trust me, if your fish pants are shiny, smooth and lightweight, they are made from polyester, not rayon.

Fish Pants = A State of Mind

Thai fisherman pant couture. I designed an entire fish pant outfit and background using a cotton fabric sourced in the Chiang Mai fabric district.

Relax. Chill out. Be open to new ideas, new kinds of food, new cultures. Practice your yoga. Fire up a doobie. Have a shot of Mekong (Thai whiskey), Stop judging people. Be comfortable. Life is a beach.  Yada, yada, yada…. That’s being in a “fish pant state of mind.”

The world would be a far better place if more people wore Thai fisherman pants.