Inle Lake

Quietly canoeing into the floating village of In Paw Khon, the rhythmic clacking sounds of handlooms resonate from the bamboo and wooden workshops and homes perched on stilts above the water. In this serene enclave on Burma’s Inle Lake, a community of highly skilled textile artisans produce one of the rarest fabrics in the world made from lotus, a divine symbol of their Buddhist faith.

The birth of a tradition

Lotus weaving was conceived nearly a century ago when a woman named Daw Sa U picked a lotus flower from Inle Lake to offer at a Buddhist temple. A variety of lotus called Padonma Kyar grows wild in the shallows of the lake and produces a large, fragrant pink flower. Daw Sa U saw thin fibers trailing from the end of the lotus stem and was inspired to create a thread from the fibers, and from those threads she wove the first lotus robe (Padonma Kyathingan), which she offered to a venerable Buddhist monk from Golden Peacock Hill. In return, the monk renamed her Daw Kyar U (Madam Lotus Egg) and she continued to create lotus robes throughout her life, including small robes for the Buddha statues at Hpaung Daw U Pagoda, the most sacred shrine on the lake.

Over time, lotus weaving caught on around Inle Lake, and the creation and offering of lotus robes to eminent Buddhist monks and pagoda statues became an act of Buddhist devotion and merit-making. Every step of the process is infused with spiritual significance. The Guardian Spirit of the Lotus is given ritual offerings before the stems are plucked. The handloom is consecrated as a sacred space. The women weaving the robes follow the five precepts of Buddhism. The robes are offered to the monks during Buddhist Lent, which coincides with the rainy season when the lotus are at their peak. And when worn, the Burmese believe the lotus robes have the power to calm the mind and aid in meditation.

No mud, no lotus

A sacred image in Asian cultures since ancient times, the lotus is a fitting metaphor for the Buddha’s teachings. Rooted in mud, the lotus grows upwards through murky waters (suffering) and its pristine flower blooms high above the water’s surface (purity, enlightenment).

In Buddhist cosmology the lotus flower contains all of creation and represents divine birth. According to the legend, Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha was born with the ability to walk and lotus flowers bloomed where he took seven steps in each of the four cardinal directions. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on top of a lotus, and the pink colored lotus flower — like the one produced by the Padonma Kyar — is the supreme lotus associated with the Buddha’s life story.

4,000 to 40,000 lotus to make a single scarf

Each year the monsoon brings an abundance of fresh water to Inle Lake, and it is then when lotus thrive and are harvested. Ideally, the lotus flower should be in full bloom when the stems are picked, and the deep pink flowers contain the best lotus fibers. Once a stem is picked, its fibers are extracted within three days while still fresh. On a small wooden table, a handful of about five stems are simultaneously cut, and their spongey fibers are pulled out, twisted and hand rolled together with water. Then, the fibers are spun, washed and woven. Raw lotus threads are a neutral creamy color, and natural dyes are often used to color the fabric. The whole process is extremely labor intensive, making lotus one of the most expensive textiles in the world. A small neck scarf requires about 4,000 lotus stems, a large scarf requires about 40,000 stems, and a full set of monk’s robes (30 meters) requires about 220,000 lotus stems and 60 weavers to complete over a 10-day period.

Cool in summer and warm in winter, lotus fabric is highly breathable and wearable year-round. With a texture similar to raw silk and linen, lotus fabric is soft, lightweight and naturally waterproof. Besides its supposed calming powers, the Burmese claim that it helps relieve headaches, neck aches, and health issues related to the throat, lungs and heart.

A rich culture of handwoven textiles

Handloom weaving is done in homes all around Inle Lake, but it’s concentrated in two main villages: Kyaing Khan (Kyaingkhan) and In Paw Khon (Inpawkhon). Kyaing Khan is where lotus robes were first created by Daw Kyar U, and her work is carried on today by the grandchildren of her friends who operate Aung Sakkyar Lotus Robe Cooperative Ltd. Along with monastic robes, Aung Sakkyar produces a variety of pure lotus scarves for both local and foreign customers. Using dyes made from jackfruit, bark, seeds, lotus leaves and other natural materials, their luxurious scarves in understated hues are of the finest craftsmanship.

The village of In Paw Khon is a stop on most sightseeing tours and home to a vibrant weaving community. Among the five handloom factories in the village, Ko Than Hlaing Silk and Lotus Weaving stands out for its wide range of quality products. Among its specialties are lotus and silk blend scarves, silk ikat fabrics in various colors and patterns, and traditional Shan clothing, including longyis (the Burmese skirt) and fisherman pants worn by the distinctive “leg-rowing” fishermen of Inle Lake.

Daw Yin Yin Nu, who now runs Ko Than Hlaing with her brother and always wears a pure lotus scarf to protect her throat, said this year has seen an increase in both foreign visitors and Burmese who are feeling uplifted by their country’s recent political changes. “Aung San Suu Kyi has renewed our interest in traditional clothing and inspired us to take pride in the textile designs from our country’s different peoples,” said Ms. Nu. “Our silk longyi fabrics in Shan designs are more popular this year.”

Presently, the only online retailer devoted to lotus weaving is Kyar Chi Lotus Threads run by Samadhi Marr, an Australian who has lived and worked in Myanmar since 2008. Kyar Chi (pronounced “char chee” meaning “lotus threads” in Burmese) buys directly from family businesses that produce high-quality silk and lotus scarves and meet fair labor standards. Over 10% of its profits are donated to self-help groups and charity causes around the country.

“I love this work because it supports women in Burma and encourages them to continue this unique form of weaving. The lotus and silk products are so beautiful and rare. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, and it’s a pleasure to be able to give part of the proceeds to groups that need it. One of the groups we donate to works to support and educate orphans and vulnerable children, most of whom are living with HIV. For me, Kyar Chi is a creative way to support both the people of Myanmar and a traditional weaving practice in these rapidly changing times,” said Ms. Marr.

The future of lotus weaving

As Myanmar opens its doors and shares its cultural treasures with the world, lotus weaving stands out as a unique cultural heritage that won’t remain “undiscovered” for long. Recently, Italian fashion designer Loro Piana developed a line of lotus clothing and introduced it at the Parisian design fair Maison et Objet 2012. His 100% lotus double-breasted sport jacket valued at around €4,000 ($5,600) made waves in the luxury fashion world (and the waters of Inle Lake). Japanese buyers have also shown great interest in the lotus fabric. Ko Than Hlaing recently completed a large bolt of lotus fabric for a Buddhist temple in Japan.

Due to the limited number of lotus plants on Inle Lake and the thousands of lotus required for a single garment, lotus stalks are now being brought in from elsewhere in Myanmar to meet the growing demand. For long-term development of this micro-industry, sustainable lotus growing and harvesting practices are needed, as well as respect for the lake’s fragile ecology, the Intha (“sons of the lake”) people and culture, and the Guardian Spirit of the Lotus.

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