My New Favorite Shirt and the Art of Burmese Lotus Weaving
By Dave Fox
Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar)
Tributaries slice outward from the banks of Inle Lake, running like aquatic backroads through nearby villages. Lotus leaves tangle along the shores, their roots anchored firmly in the mud below.Villagers around the lake have discovered these stoic and plentiful roots make for sturdy fibers — and they’ve concocted a remarkable process for weaving them into clothing.
Our boat cut southward through one of these offshoot channels, passing ancient stupas and busy settlements until we arrived at a lotus weaving center – a two-story wooden building on stilts, with a staircase leading up from the water.
First, she sliced the outer skin of the root with a sharp knife, taking care not to cut too deeply. As she pulled the two halves apart, micro-thin filaments remained intact. She then twisted the two pieces of root in opposite directions, intertwining the thin strands of fiber until they resembled string the width of dental floss. After many hours, there would be enough thread to set on a loom and begin weaving.
The looms were “homemade” contraptions of boards nailed together. A clattering system of pulleys made a rhythmic thwacking sound as women throughout the factory wove the strands into fabric. On the second floor were more looms, where silk and cotton were woven in the same process. And yes, if you are taken to a factory demonstration anywhere in the world, there will be things to buy. Shirts, pants, and scarves were available at bargain prices by Western standards.
Two days later, I would meet a a local man – a waiter in a restaurant – wearing the same mustard-colored style of shirt I bought. He would ask how much I paid for my shirt, and gasp when I told him. Twelve US dollars, he would laugh, was double what the price should have been.
But this so-called “tourist tax” is a reality I don’t mind. I’ve seen other tourists grow indignant when they discover they’ve been “ripped off,” charged a higher price than local residents.
I’m always baffled that someone who can afford to travel halfway around the world would rant that it’s unfair to pay a fraction of what they pay at home – to a person who is struggling just to feed their family. I’m happy with my 12-dollar shirt and the free demonstration that came with it.
I could ramble further about this issue, but I’ll save the rest of that outburst for another day.
We climbed back into our boat and puttered onward. Next stop: a cigar factory that puts Cuba to shame.
The Ko Than Hliang Silk and Lotus Weaving Factory (a different factory from the one we visited) has its own webpage with lots more photos and a short history of their family-owned business. Check it out at silkandlotusweaving.blogspot.sg.