There’s just one village in the world where ‘silk’ thread is extracted from the fibres of the lotus plant stem and then woven into the finest, soft scarves and shawls. That village is In Paw Khon on Inle Lake in Burma. Here, they also weave silk and cotton, but their speciality is ‘lotus silk’.
As we travelled towards In Paw Khon, we passed several traditional wooden lake boats carrying lotus stems to the weaver’s workshops. There are a few different workshops but all are in the same village.
Although some of the village families do grow lotus plants, many more than these are needed to support this growing business. And as tourism increases and opportunities grow to sell to other countries, this specialised business will surely expand to meet the demand.
The part of the plant that is used to make the ‘silk’ is the stem. The deeper the water, the longer the stem, the stronger the fibres, and of course, the more fibre available to use. Compared to the well known water lily leaves which lie flat on the surface of the water, lotus leaves rise well above the water – and make for good reflection photos!
The workshop we visited is housed in these wooden buildings with rusting tin roofs. The prospect of anything beautiful emerging from here seemed rather remote… but never judge a book by its cover!
Leaving our long-tail boats moored beside the rather rickety boardwalk, we made our way towards a large, three story building.
I looked below and was surprised to see that there was still bark on the supporting poles of a newer boardwalk.
This was the largest of the village workshops and the noise of the click- clacking of many looms greeted us through the open windows. About 100 people work here, mostly women. They work here in the weavers workshop whilst their husbands are mostly fishermen or boatmen, ferrying goods and people to and from these villages of watery ‘roads’. Other men are builders, expert in working by hand to build the pole houses of these water villages.
Just inside the door, we met a woman whose job it is to extract the very fine fibres from the lotus stalks. That’s the very first task in the ‘lotus silk’ making process. Taking four or five stalks at a time in a bunch, the lady carefully cuts the outer edges of the stalks about three cms from the end. She then gently twists and pulls the two bundles apart to tease the fibres from the stalks. From each small cut bundle, she extracts about a half meter of the raw fibres.
The fibres are rolled together on a damp board. The process is repeated three or four times, each time adding more fibres to the thread. When thick enough, she lifts the thread and adds most of it to the white bowl leaving about ten cms on the end of the table. The next bunch of fibres is rolled into that end piece so joining one piece to another and gradually making a continuous length of thread.
When there’s enough thread in the bowl, it’s wound onto spools – seen here on the floor in front of her. The thread is then ready for washing, dyeing and weaving. It’s a time consuming process and I really felt for that woman, sitting on the floor day in, day out, extracting the fibres from lotus stalks. I think of her every time I wear the beautiful scarf I bought from these ladies.
There’s a good blog site written by one of the weavers of this village with many photos that show the process in more detail.
We didn’t see the washing and dyeing process which is done in another building where they need a fire to boil the water. The weaving loom rooms are far too valuable to have fire near to them! But I do know that the lotus silk thread in my precious red scarf was died from pots of dye like these. Its coloured threads are blended while weaving along the length of the scarf from fuchsia pink at one end to red at the other. It’s very soft wearing against the skin and drapes well.
In another section of the workroom some older women were spinning large skeins of pure silkworm silk onto spools. They were sitting on the floor in what seemed to me to be a very uncomfortable position. This is a very traditional Burmese way of sitting, with the souls of their feet facing away from anyone who might be in front of them. Feet facing forward is considered to be very rude.
This lady was so warm hearted and friendly. She asked me to sit beside her. How I wished that I’d had the ability to sit on the floor like that – and the time (with no tour group timetable pressure) to be able to sit with her and talk about her life and work. She just smiled acknowledgement and went on to show me what she was doing. These older women have been expert weavers throughout their lives but can now no longer sit at the looms all day. Their weaving was originally done using cotton and later, silk. Then, one old village lady, just before she died, had passed on her special skill of extracting the ‘lotus silk’ from the stalks to some other village women – and so began this village tradition of ‘lotus silk’ weaving.
At times the fine silk thread gets into a tangle and its an awful job to sort it out – not easy! This silkworm silk thread is brought in from China and Thailand. Buddhists don’t believe in killing by boiling, so they won’t boil the silk moth larvae in the cocoons to extract the silk. But they will weave the silk thread they buy in from other countries into beautiful scarves, shawls and longyis.
The threads need to be made ready for the looms by tensioning the threads on this hand wound roller, a younger women’s job.
Some of the other ladies showed me how their looms were set up and how they worked them manually. The first lady was weaving purely in ‘lotus silk’ thread. All of these threads have been painstakingly extracted from lotus stalks! When finished, this scarf will be six times more expensive than the ones woven from regular pure silk – lotus silk is such a rare product and so time consuming to make. Many of these very special ‘lotus silk’ scarves and wraps are made from thread dyed a golden colour. They are then used to drape onto Buddha statues for very special occasions.
The other three ladies in the video were using a mix of silkworm silk and lotus silk. That gives a different textural feel to the material. The photo below is my other scarf. Three types of thread were used resulting in a stiffer material than the pure lotus silk scarf.
Many of the weavers took a break while we were there because, with the noise of so many looms all clacking away together, we wouldn’t have been able to hear any explanations! And also, it was getting later in the day and some of the women had gone home to do their family chores and collect their children from school. We’d see some of them later as we motored along the village waterways.
The only man I saw working here was painstakingly tying the silk threads with off cuts of cotton threads ready for the ikat dying process. If we’d had longer time, I would love to have watched this whole process through to the making of the intricate materials as seen in his pattern piece.
This is an example of threads ready to be dyed using the ikat method. (I think it would make a beautiful wall hanging just as it is!) In this method, the patterns are created by binding the threads of silk with cotton before the weaving process. In the more commonly known tie dying process, the fabric is woven first, then the resist bindings are applied (or wax is used) before the dying process.
After dying, the ikat patterns will be clearly visible in the warp threads as the loom is set up for weaving. The weaver will then introduce plain coloured weft threads as the fabric is woven ( weft – weft to wight! the left to right threads.) This is an extremely time consuming process as you can imagine.
Of course there is a shop! And having seen these beautiful pieces in the making, I could so easily have bought many of them as gifts. Two things were against that hope. One was time. We were being called back to the boats – I had spent too much time with the ladies in the workrooms; not that I regretted that for a moment. And secondly, Burma still doesn’t have any way of using credit cards. We had to take any money we were likely to need into the country as cash in crisp new US Dollars. As this was still early in our journey, I had to be careful. But I do have two lovely scarves as my special memory of these ladies and their painstaking work. I’ll just have to go back – I think I’ve said that before!
There were several buildings in this weavers complex and I believe it is growing in scope. I understand that some of the village women have had the benefit of United Nations Development Programme micro – finance loans to help them develop their small businesses.
I am a great advocate of micro loans. They have been very successful in many countries, helping the poor to help themselves. These are loans – not handouts or donations. The philosophy behind such loans is one of ‘teaching people to fish rather than just giving a fish”. Helping them to help themselves. First loans may be rather small, about $80; however, that’s enough in these poor countries to make a real difference to people who, although they are struggling, are prepared to work to get themselves out of poverty. Most loans have been given to women or a group of women and well over 90% of such loans are repaid in full. After repaying the first loan, as the the business grows, a larger loan may be granted.
I also understand that, gradually, NGO’s are being permitted to set up micro-loan programs in Burma. This is a much needed. According to some reports, only 10% of Burmese who would benefit from such small loans have access to them. It will be interesting to watch future developments. It was good to see so many women in this village gaining the skills they need and working in a business that will surely increase as Burma has more opportunities to sell to other countries – and satisfy a growing tourist trade.
I would love to learn so much more from women such as these – learning more about their work, their lives and their hopes and aspirations for the future – for themselves and for their children. Perhaps we could chat over a cappuccino! I was fascinated to see this small cafe in the weavers workshop area. But we had no time to stop and chat. We had to move on. It was getting late and our hotel was right at the other end of the lake. So, it was back to the noisy, long-tail boats. At least the sun was shining again and there was still so much to see and enjoy!
Jennie and David
Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels